The poem is a paean to British stoicism and masculine rectitude; almost every line in each stanza begins with "If". It is subtitled "'Brother Square-Toes' – Rewards and Fairies".
The poem's speaker says that if you can keep your head while those around you lose theirs; if you can trust yourself when others doubt you; if you can be patient and not lose your temper; if you can handle being lied about but not lie yourself, and being hated but not hating yourself; if you do not look too good or talk too wise:
If you can dream but not let those dreams cloud your reason; if you can think but still take action; if you can deal with both triumph and disaster; if you can handle it when others twist your truths into lies, or take the things you devoted your life to and turn them from broken into alive again:
If you can take all of your winnings and bet them in one fell swoop and lose them all and then keep it a secret; if you can use your heart and muscles and nerves to hold on even when there is only Will left:
If you can remain virtuous among people and talk with Kings without becoming pretentious; if you can handle foes and friends with ease; if you see that men count on you but not too much; if you can fill every minute with meaning:
Then you have all the Earth and everything upon it, and, as the speaker exultantly ends, "you'll be a Man, my son!"
This is, without a doubt, Kipling's most beloved poem, and, along with "The White Man's Burden", his most famous. Although T.S. Eliot would deem it only "great verse" and others "jingoistic nonsense," it is consistently ranked among the highest, if not the highest itself, of Britons' favorite poems. It was first published in the "Brother Square-Toes" chapter of Rewards and Fairies, a 1910 collection of verse and short stories.
While the poem is addressed to Kipling's son John, it was inspired by a great friend of his, Leander Starr Jameson, the Scots-born colonial politician and adventurer responsible for what has been deemed the Jameson raid that led to the Second Boer War. The raid was intended to start an uprising among the British expatriate workers in the South African Republic, but there were complications and it was a failure. Jameson was arrested and tried, but he was already being hailed a hero by London, which was filled with anti-Boer sentiment. He served only fifteen months in prison and later became Prime Minister of Cape Colony back in South Africa. It appears that Kipling had met Jameson and befriended him through Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of Cape Colony at the time of the raid.
In his autobiography Something of Myself, Kipling wrote of Jameson and "If-": "Among the verses in Rewards was one set called `If-', which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world. They were drawn from Jameson's character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give. Once started, the mechanization of the age made them snowball themselves in a way that startled me. Schools, and places where they teach, took them for the suffering Young - which did me no good with the Young when I met them later. (`Why did you write that stuff? I've had to write it out twice as an impot.').They were printed as cards to hang up in offices and bedrooms; illuminated text-wise and anthologized to weariness. Twenty-seven of the Nations of the Earth translated them into their seven-and-twenty tongues, and printed them on every sort of fabric."
"If-" contains a multitude of characteristics deemed essential to the ideal man. They almost all express stoicism and reserve – the classic British "stiff upper lip." In particular, a man must be humble, patient, rational, truthful, dependable, and persevering. His behavior in response to deleterious events and cruel men is important; he must continue to have faith in himself when others doubt him, he must understand that his words might be twisted and used for evil, he must be able to deal with the highest and lowest echelons of society, and he must be able to withstand the lies and hatred emanating from others. This group of ideal characteristics is similar to those expressed in "The Thousandth Man", another poem dealing with manhood.
The virtues expressed in "If-" are devoid of showiness or glamour; it is notable that Kipling says nothing of heroic deeds or great wealth or fame. For him the true measure of a man is his humility and his stoicism. Kipling's biographer, Andrew Lycett, considers the poem one of the writer's finest and notes in 2009 that "If-" is absolutely valuable even in the complicated postmodern world: "In these straitened times, the old-fashioned virtues of fortitude, responsibilities and resolution, as articulated in 'If-', become ever more important."