Sunday, June 17, 2007


I felt the tears well up, and for a brief second didn't know why. We were at a concert of an Old Country Language literary studio where friends' older kid was performing. Three kids read "If" by Kipling, first in English, and then in the translation they chose (there are several). I have known this poem for a long time, although not by heart. When I was younger, I thought it glorious and romantic. Today, as I felt the tears come up, I first thought it was because I recognized immediately that I would never be able to live up to its standards as we take the next step on our journey. How could I even think of pulling this off, for example:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting...


Are you kidding me? I can't even think of how I will do through the first two week wait, not to mention all the others after it, whether it works or not.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Right, that'll happen.
And I am clearly not up to doing this:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

at least not that last part. But I certainly feel as if what we are about to do (and to a certain extent what we are doing now) is this:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

But then who could live up to these standards? And who would want to, when the standards are these:

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;


All these things are true. And real. But as I cycled through them, once for each language in which the words rang out, it occurred to me that none of them, by their lonesome, would make me crumble and fight, and loose, twice, the battle to keep the tears from coming.

What would is this-- we are free to like or dislike, to argue over whether this picture is realistic, or a product of 19th century idealism, part and parcel of the white man's burden, and whether we should be introducing our kids to these powerful words and the standards they bring with. We are free to try to live up to them, if we so choose, and to fail, as we are sure to do, at least part of the time. We are. But not A.

He'll never fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run.
It's not for him, the Earth and what's within it,
He'll never grow up to be a Man, my son.


Aite said...

I always thought Kipling was full of it. But I know that's not what you are writing about here. It's about A. never getting to say, "Kipling was cool!" or "Kipling was full of it!"


niobe said...

Sometimes it seems as if every experience is filtered through the eyes of the child who will never see it, never feel it.

Sara said...

Niobe is too right.

So many things seemed glorious and romantic in the past.

Aurelia said...

The things our children will never see, never learn, never know, never teach...could fill a universe....

Sarah said...

I read everything differently now.... It's always surprising when something suddenly has a new meaning. I feel like i look around wondering if everyone can see it.

Lori said...

Julia- I just learned today that Rudyard Kipling's only son was killed in the First World War in 1915. It gives this poem a different feel don't you think? It made me sad to read that.

Kipling himself didn't die until 1936 I believe, and so he lived for over 20 years without his son.