Friday, October 11, 2013
The Biggest Small Word in the English Language: If
E.E. Cummings' "if up's the word" opens with this upbeat stanza:
if up's the word;and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more-
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
-let's touch the sky:
with a to and a fro
(and a here there where)and away we go
Those carefree words exhort the reader to believe that "up's the word," that the world is growing greener (becoming rich with life) and that all of us can "touch the sky" (reach our own personal heaven, either in a spiritual sense or by achieving our secular goals) regardless of our financial status.
Rudyard Kipling's "If" challenges the reader to brace himself against the harshness of a cold, unforgiving world; the first stanza sets the tone:
Two lines from Kipling's poem resonate so deeply that they are posted prominently above the players' entrance to Wimbledon's hallowed Centre Court:
Cummings' poem seems to articulate a generalized life philosophy but, though that may also appear to be true of Kipling's "If," a specific incident inspired Kipling's verse. Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, with the full but covert support of the British government, led an 1896 raid into Dutch-controlled Transvaal with the goal of inspiring the British citizens there to overthrow the Boer regime. The raid failed and the British government abandoned Jameson, who was sentenced to 15 months in jail by the British authorities for supposedly acting against the country's wishes (Jameson was pardoned a few months after the trial and thus did not serve the full term). Jameson never publicly discussed how the British government betrayed him, earning Kipling's praise in these memorable lines:
That is exactly what Jameson did; after being released from jail, he became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa, serving in that role from 1904-1908. He later acted as the leader of the Unionist Party in South Africa from 1910-12.
Kipling's poem concludes with this coda:
Life is filled with challenges and each of our lives are populated by people who disappoint us in word and deed, so it is important to remember that Only Thoughts and Actions Can be Controlled, Not Outcomes: Triumph and Disaster are indeed imposters and all that matters is to follow Kipling's advice to not waste one second of each "unforgiving minute."
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