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The full-length poem is here.

I love this poem and know it by heart, but I don't fully understand the following verse:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

I've looked up unforgiving in the dictionary, but I still don't understand how the word relates to "minute."

And what does "worth of distance run" mean?

  • Thank you every body! O dear, how should I fill my life's seconds full with effort worth? It's hard to find something really worth to live for... but this is an other quest. – NECIP Jan 9 '16 at 10:20
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    I would like a penny's worth of candy, please. "worth" there refers to an amount of something, and the modifier specifies how large the amount is. Penny's worth... 60 seconds' worth... – TRomano Jan 9 '16 at 13:43
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    I'd rather we didn't interpret the meaning for you but instead describe the process of thought that would let you interpret the words for yourself. That which is unforgiving offers no allowances; its demands are its demands; one either meets those demands or one does not. Thus, we say things like "Winter in the Arctic is unforgiving" and mean by that that you either survive the arctic weather or you do not. The Arctic offers no leniency. You would have to apply the literal meaning to "minute" figuratively. What is it about a slice of time that would allow it to be called "unforgiving"? – TRomano Jan 9 '16 at 14:03
  • In the same way that we use 'difficult time'. It's not really the time / minute that are difficult or unforgiving, it's all the circumstances / events associated with them. This 'transferred' usage is known as a transferred epithet. Very obvious examples are 'a quiet drink'; 'a proud day'. // In time, dictionaries add additional definitions so that there is an argument over whether a usage is a transferred one or not (eg 'quiet adj 59c: occurring, quaffed etc in a peaceful ambience') – Edwin Ashworth Sep 3 at 18:54
  • The current answers are all interesting interpretations, but this all should probably be on literature.stackexchange.com – Mitch Oct 11 at 14:32

13 Answers 13

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My take is as follows:

A person has one life to live. In the poem, "the unforgiving minute" is a metaphor for the amount of time people have to live. That minute, the total time people have to live, is unforgiving because time doesn't give anyone a second chance. Once a second (60 seconds in a minute) passes, it is gone forever.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute (fill up the precious time one has to live)

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. (with a life-time's worth of hard effort)

In the second line, the author is telling readers to "fill" their lives with efforts that they would be proud of, in the way a runner would "fill" their sixty seconds (minute) of running time in a race with as much distance run (the amount of distance run) as possible.

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    Stating the obvious here would help matters a little, I think, because it may not be obvious to others. A minute consists of exactly sixty seconds, and the author exhorts the reader to make each one of those seconds count. – Ricky Jan 9 '16 at 9:29
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The other answers correctly highlight, I think, the fact that time is unforgiving in that time passed is gone forever. But why the 'minute' instead of some other measure of time? Here are two interpretations that seem plausible:

(1) The minute is unforgiving in a way that the hour or the day is not because of how fast it passes – a moment of distraction and a minute is gone. Hence the exhortation to occupy every second of every minute with whatever task is at hand ('distance run'), because even if 60 seconds doesn't seem like much time when trying to complete most tasks (including running), you'd take much longer to accomplish anything if you're not focused on the task for all 60 seconds in each minute.

(2) The minute might be unforgiving in another way if the task at hand is arduous or painful – 60 seconds is a long time to endure if you're having a terrible time, but at the same time a minute is such a short period of time in the context of most arduous or painful tasks (imagine running a marathon or doing a repetitive menial task). But the only way to get closer to your goal is to fill all 60 seconds of every minute with your fullest effort.

Of course, in both cases this image resonates more clearly with some things in life than others.

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    There's another possible reason that Kipling used minute. Namely, that it rhymes with in it. – Peter Shor Jan 9 '16 at 12:49
  • You may be overthinking this. Minute, a unit of the measure of time, is a metonymic metaphor for the passage of time. Time is unforgiving because it passes (in your frame of reference, of course) at the rate of 60 seconds per minute no matter what you do, how much you have to do, or how difficult your task is. As @PeterShor points out, the selection of minute over any other unit is likely dictated by rhyme and meter: the next line is "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it." – deadrat Jan 9 '16 at 14:59
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The whole (beautiful) poem is about perseverance, striving, patience, and hope, particularly in the face of the cruelties that may beset one on one's adventure through life.

If you review each of the stanzas and verses, the poet (Kipling), is encouraging the listener (the author's "son," in this case) to just keep trying, no matter what; don't let the haters get to you, and stay true to yourself.

The unforgiving minute alludes to the relentless nature of time: it just keeps going, and we just keep getting older. As other answers have pointed out, time flows in only one direction, so you have to live with the consequences of your actions in the past, even if they're not "your fault" — time can be considered unforgiving in that sense.

In that minute, Kipling implores the reader to be mindful of this fact and pass every second meaningfully. Don't just goof off or pass your time in pursuit of idle pleasure, but run as hard and as far as you can. The "distance run" is a metaphorical distance and a metaphorical running, in reference to the exertion (running) and progress (distance) on personal goals. Kipling is calling upon the reader to devote every moment of their life to betterment and progress; in 1 minute, spend 60 seconds (that is, all of it) trying to be and do your best.

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Unforgiving= unrepeatable
60 seconds in a minute with distance run= live life to the fullest
Great poem for realization that a man can not do that by himself , but only with the Presence of God in his/ her life
Then you will be a Man- My Son

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    Oddly, I didn't see a single reference to God in the poem (explicit or implied). – KillingTime Oct 11 at 10:13
  • Hello, Bianka. Your first two statements make excellent sense, but ELU expects answers that are supported by some level of supporting evidence (recognised authorities agreeing with what is said, attributed links). And while I fully agree with your more obviously subjective statements, when on ELU conform to ELU regs. Not a preaching platform; pi terminology (even the better modern approaches, apparently far more transparent / accessible) is unsuitable. A small 'p' at least. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 11 at 10:41
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"Sixty second's worth of distance run" is a reference to the Christian (and to a certain extent particularly Protestant) image of a human life being like long-distance race requiring commitment and great effort. This is exemplified by the first line of the second verse of the hymn Fight the good fight which is

Run the straight race through God’s good grace,

The image comes mainly from the writings of St Paul many of which are presented here and it fitted the Victorian view of life with which Kipling and his target audience would have been raised.

What Kipling is saying is that, if his readers can concentrate, keep the faith and commit themselves so completely to living whatever Kipling thought of as a "good life" that they make as much progress as they possibly can in every minute that will, with the other things he says they should do, give them all the great prizes he lists at the end.

I am something of a fan of Kipling but I do, personally, consider "If" to be one of his less good pieces of work. It's never resonated with me, it seems to be asking too much and, to some extent, offering too little. Perhaps that says more about me than Rudyard.

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In a non poetic manner, it may give:

 If you make a good use of the inexorable passage of time,
 From sixty seconds of achievements, 
 Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

Last line is the original text

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Although I've been aware of it for a long time, this is the first time I've consciously thought about this poem. I think point (1) of hjh's answer comes closest to my immediate reaction to these two lines: even though wasting such a small time as a minute might seem of no importance, if you fill (or strive to fill) every minute (especially the tiresome and "unforgiving" ones) with worthwhile activity ("sixty seconds [..] of distance run") then it's that drive and determination that qualifies you to "be a Man". Of course, "distance run" doesn't necessarily refer to physical distance; more often it will be the conceptual distance towards a specific goal.

My guess is that minute was chosen first and "that's in it" was chosen to rhyme with it... a second wouldn't do, it has no [day-to-day] sub-divisions; an hour [with "sixty minutes of..."] wouldn't convey the same attention to detail in not wasting time.

In a loose sense, it might be seen as the temporal equivalent of "If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves": if you make sure every minute is worthwhile then your whole life will be worthwhile (and you can justifiably call yourself a man1).


1 Or woman.

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I've always thought that line to mean excelling under hardship. In a brutal situation, where perseverance is required, Kipling's "Man" will actually move ahead, not just stand and endure.

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    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!

Life can be tough but it is important to make every second of that "difficult and unforgiving" minute count. Give the best of yourself to that second.

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Time and tide never waits for you(unforgiving)... It's you want to run after the time and complete your tasks(fill the time). Life is compared to a race, the limited time is already predicted .You should not wait but continue to act...It is a metaphor.

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The unforgiving minute is really the fullness of every uncompromising and unyielding second put together and hence compactly integrated and invincible.The metaphorical use of the phrase "unforgiving minute" is in fact the coup de grace from the part of the poet who purposefully ends the poem with his intended master sroke of conveying his advice in a nutshell. One minute and sixty seconds are equal.If your piece of life is a competition of one minute which means sixty seconds ,then every single second is counting and not a single second be let go astray. Your life is made up of thousands of seconds and what is expected of you is devoted ,infallible and uncompromising acts that could take you to the level of perfection.

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The bit about the unforgiving minute is a reiteration of 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!’

There is a point in every endurance contest that could be called "the unforgiving minute". Coincidentally (or more likely not) a minute is about how long it takes to flood your body with lactic acid during high intensity exertion. Lactic acid is a by product of anaerobic exercise, and it burns in your muscles if you keep pushing them at a high intensity.

So that line refers to your ability to meet the moment where you have to physically suffer for success. The point where the hard fought race (or game or battle) is determined - the unforgiving minute - demands something of you.

If you want to succeed you need to meet its demands. In a distance race that 60 seconds worth of distance run happens when you push yourself thru the pain and suffering to match or beat your opponents. When you keep going even tho it hurts. If you can't do it you drop off from the leading group. Doing it doesn't necessarily mean you'll win the distance race but you will match it with the best runners and be able to hold your head high.

It takes courage and determination to resist your bodies cries to stop running and let it deliver excess oxygen to your system. You don't have to stop either, you just have to lower the intensity enough to allow your body to provide oxygen to the muscles that are crying out in pain. Usually that happens to be just enough loss of intensity to lose touch with the race.

The reality is only you will ever really know if it was truly sixty seconds worth of distance run or just sixty seconds worth of pained jogging. So its also a call to judge yourself harshly but fairly. To know yourself whether you gave all you had to give or not and base your own internal assessments on an accurate look at how you perform.

The poem is advice on how to live well. But its not wishy washy. Its specific on the details that can help us live with integrity in a world full of compromise.

The courage and fortitude that filling the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run require will serve you well in the rest of your life.

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  • 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!

While this question may be more suitable for the Literature SE, I couldn't resist, due to my natural affinity for poetry. This poem is very popular with men, although most women should also find it enjoyable. I'm usually distracted by sonnets, etc., so this is my first serious look at it. But I like it very much, especially the couplet in question. These are my thoughts:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run...

I see that the unforgiving minute is in contrast with sixty seconds' worth of distance run, in that --

  • a minute = sixty seconds' worth = times
  • unforgiving is in contrast with of distance run
  • unforgiving minute = difficult times or challenges
  • of distance run = of past experience
  • sixty seconds' worth of distance run = wisdom gained from past experience of comparably difficult times or challenges (whether your own or that of your elders or teachers) = lessons learned
  • to fill with = to apply or utilize resourcefully

In conclusion, to rephrase for meaning: If you can wisely apply lessons learned from past experiences to the daily, ongoing trials of life -- you will be successful.

After doing my own analysis, I made a quick check to see if I could find any corroboration, but found none exactly like mine. Most of the poetry analysis I saw at the top of the Google list interpret this particular couplet as meaning something like, "make the most of every moment of your life." But I just happen to think it may be a little deeper than that.

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