This is England’s favourite poem. ‘A good bad poem’ Orwell called it.
Two of its most resonant verses, ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same’, stand above the players’ entrance at the Centre Court at Wimbledon.
What is not in doubt is that Kipling’s four eight-line stanzas of advice to his son, written in 1909, have inspired the nation for a century, even if his only son died in the trenches in France during WW1. Lieutenant John Kipling disappeared at the Battle of Loos in 1915, few years after his father’s most famous poem dedicated to him had appeared. His body was never found.
Few know that those verses were actually politically inspired to Kipling by the action of the British Government led by Lord Salisbury, and the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain for covertly supporting Dr Jameson’s raid first – he was Kipling’s friend – against the Boers in South Africa’s Transvaal in 1896 and then condemn him when the raid failed.
In Kipling’s autobiography, ‘Something Of Myself’ published in 1937, the year after his death at the age of 70, he acknowledged the inspiration for ‘If’ in a single reference: ‘Among the verses in Rewards was one set called If – they were drawn from Jameson’s character, and contained counsels of perfection most easy to give.’
What was to become South Africa was divided into two British colonies: Cape Colony and Natal and two Boer republics: the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Transvaal had 30,000 white male voters of Dutch descent, and 60,000 white male ‘Uitlanders’, British expatriates, whom the Boers had disenfranchised and could not vote.
Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, wanted the disgruntled Uitlanders to rebel against the Transvaal government. He believed that by sending a force of armed men to overrun Johannesburg, an uprising would follow. By Christmas 1895, a force of 600 armed men was placed under the command of Rhodes’s old friend, Dr Jameson.
Back in Britain, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, secretly encouraged Rhodes’s plan.
But when he heard the raid was to be launched, he changed his mind, remarking: ‘If this succeeds, it will ruin me. I’m going up to London to crush it.’
On the Transvaal border, the impetuous Jameson was growing frustrated by the politicking between London and Cape Town, and decided to go ahead regardless of the consequences. On December 29, 1895, he led his men across the Transvaal border, planning to race to Johannesburg in three days – but the raid failed. It was a disaster.
The Boer government’s troops tracked Jameson’s force from the moment it crossed the border and attacked it in a series of minor skirmishes that cost the raiders vital supplies, horses and indeed the lives of a handful of men, until on the morning of January 2, Jameson was confronted by a major Boer force. After seeing the Boers kill 30 of his men, Jameson surrendered, and he and the surviving raiders were jailed in Pretoria.
Kipling became the first English-speaking recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, but he refused a knighthood and the Order of Merit from the King, just as he had refused the posts of Poet Laureate and Companion of Honour.
The death of his only son, and the innuendoes of some intellectuals – you got what you asked for – who were against what they perceived as excessive nationalism , broke his spirit. He was and he remains a great writer and a great poet.
Its title is a clear reminiscence of the classics. Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, by 356 BC had most of the Greek under submission. He turned then to Sparta sending this message: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartans famously sent to him one of their laconic reply, using one word: “If”. Perhaps was this that convinced both Philip II and Alexander to leave Sparta alone, in spite of the fact that, after having been defeated at Leuttra in 371 BC, their spirit was broken.