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I came across Rudyard Kipling's poem If, quoted below:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
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,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

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;
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!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

I pretty much like it and I am trying to translate it. But I found some of the sentences difficult to understand. Maybe because English is not my native language or because I am not used to poetry. Anyway, here are my questions:

  1. How to understand "losing theirs and blaming it on you" in the first stanza? In particular, what do the pronouns "theirs" and "it" respectively stand for?

  2. Why do the first and the second stanzas end with colons?

  3. How to understand "Yours is the Earth" in the last stanza? What does "yours" stands for?

  4. In the third stanza, what does "To serve your turn long after they are gone" mean? Particularly what do "turn" and "they" respectively refer to? The "turn" in "pitch-and-toss" and "winnings"?

Any help will be appreciated.

EDIT:

  • Added Question 4
  • I'm half-tempted to suggest this should have an Indian-english tag. – user867 Sep 13 '13 at 2:29
  • I doubt the colons are correct. There are plenty of websites that quote the poem using semicolons not colons. For example: poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15241 A year ago wikipedia has the colons and semicolons reversed compared to where they are now: en.wikipedia.org/w/… – dcaswell Sep 13 '13 at 3:46
  • @user867: Thanks, I have added the indian-english tag. – day Sep 13 '13 at 22:20
  • @user814064: Thanks. That is interesting to know. – day Sep 13 '13 at 22:22
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    The 1910 edition of Rewards and Fairies has semicolons. The 1915 edition of Rewards and Fairies has colons. Since semicolons make much more sense, I would guess the colons are a typo. – Peter Shor Mar 29 '14 at 0:13
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How to understand "losing theirs and blaming it on you" in the first stanza? In particular, what do the pronouns "theirs" and "it" respectively stand for?

To "keep your head" means to remain calm, which is sometimes hard to do when the people around you ("about you") are in "panic mode." To remain calm in spite of their panic is therefore a virtue.

The word theirs, then, means their heads, and the pronoun it is a substitute for the phrase "having lost their heads." Kipling is saying it is good to remain calm even when people are blaming their panic (i.e., it) on you. His psychological insight into human behavior is quite perceptive.

Imagine a scenario in which only one person among many is calm while everyone else is in panic mode. Not comprehending why this lone person could possibly be calm, they attempt to get him to join them in their panic by saying, "Don't just stand there; do something!" When he fails to comply, they become suspicious of him and start blaming him for their panic.

Why do the first and the second stanzas end with colons?

One purpose of colons is to get the reader to stop, to pause for a moment and to anticipate what comes next. This is what Kipling is doing in part, I think. Additionally, the two colons serve to unite the first three stanzas in a continuous flow, as it were. When you read the last line of the first two stanzas, each line leads naturally into the first lines of the second and third stanzas.

Instead of the feeling of finality that comes after an average, typical declarative sentence, there is a feeling of continuity that connects stanza one to two, and two to three. Stanza three, on the other hand, has a feeling of finality and therefore does not need a colon.

Not having access to Kipling's original manuscript, which I assume would have been written by hand (Kipling described himself as "irretrievably committed to the ink-pot"), I do not know for certain if Kipling used colons in stanzas one and two or not. To me, their inclusion makes sense.

How to understand "Yours is the Earth" in the last stanza? What does "yours" stands for?

"Yours" means simply "belonging to you." Another saying which means essentially the same thing is, "The world is your oyster!" In other words, the world opens up for you, or to you, much as an oyster would, IF you exemplify the virtues the poem praises.

How many virtues do you find in the poem? There are quite a few, to be sure. Kipling is saying simply, if you embody these virtues, the world will be more accepting of you and what you have to offer. Put differently, the world ("the Earth") is yours! Generally, this is true, too, since the world generally prefers virtuous people.

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    Great explanation, especially point 2 and 3. Thanks a lot! – day Sep 12 '13 at 22:55
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    Huh, I've never seen colons used like this. Is it simple poetic license or is it common? – terdon Sep 12 '13 at 23:01
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    I'm pretty sure this is poetic license, @terdon. I've never seen this usage before, not that I'm a literary guru or anything. – Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 23:04
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    I like the colon explanation. I think it's intended to say, "But wait, there's more!" as if the following stanza should be regarded as a continuation of the previous one. – J.R. Sep 13 '13 at 0:26
  • It just came into my mind this morning that we still maintain a similar usage of quotation marks. To quote Wikipedia: "Quotation marks are used for multiple-paragraph quotations in some cases, especially in narratives. The convention in English is to give opening quotation marks to the first and each subsequent paragraph, using closing quotation marks only for the final paragraph of the quotation ..." The difference is that we put it in the beginning of the next block instead of the end of the current block. – day Sep 13 '13 at 7:48
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Awesome. What language are you translating it to, and have you checked if it hasn't already been translated to that language? It's a well-known and famous poem, after all.

That being said...

  1. "losing theirs" harks back to the first line, where you are keeping your head (i.e. "staying calm") and others are losing their heads (i.e. "panicking"). "Theirs" is a pronoun for "their heads", or in other words, they are losing their heads while you are keeping yours. "It" is the act of their losing their heads that they are blaming on you, or at least, the situation that they are losing their heads over.

  2. I have no idea. Ask Kipling. Oh, wait, he's dead. Sorry!

  3. "Yours is the earth" is the same thing as saying "The earth is yours", but the latter doesn't fit the scansion, or Kipling wanted to use an uncommon (but still correct) word order for emphasis. Means that if you can do all that the poem says that you will be very successful in whatever you endeavor, be that in obtaining riches, power, or whatever it is might be your cherished goal. And, as Kipling said, you'd be a Man. Or Woman. A fully-actualized human being, in any event.

Edited to Add:

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,"

could be rendered non-poetically as

If you can remain calm when everyone else around you
are panicking and blaming the situation on you,"

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    +1 But I think yours is the earth is a broader concept than just wealth. It suggests that you will have tremendous power over all things because of this skill and effort. – bib Sep 12 '13 at 22:49
  • Thanks for the explanation. I am trying to translate it into Chinese. I have seen several translations but found them not satisfactory. So I try to cook mine, :). About point 1, your explanation sounds reasonable, but then how does it connect to the subject "all about you"? It seems to me "all" stands for things not persons. – day Sep 12 '13 at 22:52
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    Sorry, Cyber - your #3 is in no way what this poem is about. – Kristina Lopez Sep 12 '13 at 22:54
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    Can things lose their heads or panic? Don't think so. "All about you" means "All of those people who share the same space as you". The people near you, or in your same situation. See my addendum in my answer. – Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 22:55
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    Thankyou for not downvoting me, @KristinaLopez! It hurts when it happens. :-) – Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 23:27

protected by tchrist Apr 5 '14 at 20:34

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