On a wall in my house, hanging in a place where I pretty much have to see it two or three times a day for about twenty seconds, and sometimes even in the middle of the night, is a framed copy of a poem that every well-bred English-speaking schoolboy memorized a century ago, and maybe some do even today. It struck me last evening, as I was standing and waiting for nature to take its course, that this poem captures everything sad and beautiful about our modern world.
The poem is “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and if you haven’t committed it to memory, you can click here and get started, although I do not recommend it. The framed copy was given to me years ago by a good and long-lost friend, a well-meaning gift. The poem is a brief talk from a father to a son about how to be a man, with all sorts of stiff-upper-lip advice about manliness. (Look at the firm jaw, the beady gaze, the prominent eyebrows in that picture of Kipling!):
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; . . .
The only verb in the entire poem, effectively, is can. If you can do this and do that and do the other thing, then [final line] you’ll be a Man, my son. Two things strike me: (1) there is no mention of God, or His help, anywhere in the poem; and (2) instead of God, Kipling capitalizes Man.
By contrast, this morning I was struck by some lines in Psalm 51 as part of the Office of Readings:
I flourish like an olive tree in the palace of God.