In trying to choose a Victorian poem that I would illustrate for the creative assignment option in this class, I kept going back to the advice my mother would offer me in the prime of my adolescence, most notably when I came home upset about another one of my failed attempts to fit into the in-crowd at school. In these times, my mother would quote the fourth stanza of the poem If saying:
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! (lines 24-32)
In the ignorance of my adolescent youth, I never quite understood what my mother was trying to impart to me when she would suddenly break into the lyrical verse of her favourite poet, Rudyard Kipling. But how could I? Having been rejected by the Preppy girls in my grade; with the bane of my existence and what I then believed to be my happiness at stake, how could I find solace in Kipling’s poetry? In my dejected condition how was I to know that “if all men counted with me, but none too much” that I would be a better person for it, that I would be a better woman if I learned to regard all friendships as equally valuable instead of privileging some over others? (27). Fortunately, adolescence does not last forever. I graduated from high school, went on to cégep, entered university, and now find myself pursuing graduate studies. Having grown up, I now find myself in the position to revisit Kipling’s poem with an understanding of its fourth stanza.
Although the motherly advice I grew up hearing drew its inspiration from a single stanza of Kipling’s If I have decided to illustrate all of the verses in this work. The poem lends itself to a holistic presentation precisely because its speaker is imparting advice to his son in a steady stream of conscious thought. The father figure in Kipling’s If speaks to his child in free verse in the manner of weaving a story whose thread is not meant to be broken. For this reason, I have used the medium of a brochure, highlighting the continuous working of the needle and allowing me to stitch the verses of Kipling’s poem into a folded leaflet.
My threadwork weaves together four rectangular patches of fabric — all of which are real photographed images — as it charts the narrative chronology of Kipling’s poem. Interestingly, in his autobiographical work entitled Something of Myself, Kipling has noted: “the verses … called If were printed as cards to hang up in offices and bedrooms; illuminated text-wise and anthologized to weariness” (191). Having only consulted Kipling’s autobiography during the course of writing this paper, I realize that my strategy for illustrating If is very much in line with the poem’s print history in the nineteenth century or, as Kipling himself surmises: “Twenty-seven Nations of the Earth translated [the verses of If] into their seven-and-twenty tongues and printed them on every fabric” (Something of Myself 191).
Each illustration in my brochure seizes upon a distinct word or phrase in the stanza with which it is paired. The foreground image that I use to visualize the first verse of Kipling’s poem addresses the audience directly, thus breaking the “Fourth Wall” convention of literary fiction. Coined in the eighteenth century by Denis Diderot, the term “breaking the fourth wall” has evolved in the language of theatrical realism to refer to the imaginary boundary between any fictional setting and its audience. Once this boundary is crossed, the onlooker is invited into the imaginary world that he or she is viewing, which, in turn, takes the shape of a real life event (Stevenson 4-5).
I therefore use the image of a pointed finger to break the “wall” that separates the speaking voice in Kipling’s If from the intended audience whom the narrator of the poem addresses as ‘you’. I further negotiate the fictionality of If’s poetic lines in the three remaining images of my brochure. Respectively, these illustrations call attention to the life mottos in Kipling’s poem; they give visual representation to the ideas of “not mak[ing] dreams your master” of “mak[ing] one heap of all your winnings/And risking it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss” and of “filling the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ of worth of distance run” (9; 17-18; 29-30). I picture this set of recommendations with a photograph of a blue sky filled with clouds. This iconography is followed by an image of cubic dice visualized against a bright yellow background whose neighbouring image shows a grey stopwatch that supports a white backdrop. Moreover, my illustration for the last stanza of Kipling’s If serves a dual purpose: the image of the stopwatch in my brochure captures the poem’s suggestion to make the most of every minute. At the same time, this photograph speaks to the timelessness of Kipling’s work. Ifoffers the reader advice on how to live a life of integrity that is as relevant today as when it was written in 1899 (Something of Myself 190).
As far as the typography of my illustrated poem is concerned, I use Times New Roman font to visualize the words of Kipling’s If in my brochure. This typeface strikes me as being most appropriate for the printing of a pamphlet precisely because Times New Roman is a standard font in literary scholarship, which is, furthermore, easy to read. Because it does not comprise legibility, Times New Roman is equally my choice of font for presenting Kipling’s poem in a brochure whose multicoloured pages contrast nicely with its black typeface writing. Most notably, I play with the shading of my font design in the last leafed section of my pamphlet. Here, I employ black and white typescript simultaneously to illustrate Kipling’s text. My reason for striking this colour balance relates to the fleeting sensation of time passing by; this feeling is created thanks to the metaphor of the “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” in Kipling’s If. (30). For me, this poetic language calls to mind the image of a sprinter running at lightning speed. Because of the high velocity at which this athlete is moving everything in his or her field of vision becomes filtered through fast-exposure black and white snapshots. In other words, “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” is comparable to the flash function on a camera, which produces a quick burst of transparent light allowing fast-moving subjects to be captured (If 30).
It has only now dawned on me that I have placed Kipling’s poetic verses on the photographed page in such a way that they form a zigzag pattern, analogous to the trajectory of life. Unconsciously, I have mapped an undulating mountainous landscape onto the four sheets of my brochure by positioning the words of Kipling’s poem on the top and bottom ends of these pages. The ensuing topographical impression anticipates the advice that Kipling’s speaker tries to impart to his son insofar as the father figure in If tells his child that life is full of high points and low points. In spite of this, the speaking voice in Kipling’s poem reasons that should his son be able to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat [these] imposters just the same” he will graduate to manhood (11-12).
To conclude, my aim in illustrating Rudyard Kipling’s If has been to capture the poem’s central message. Throughout the four stanzas of this work, Kipling’s speaker converses with his son as he offers him advice on how to navigate the road of life. The strength of the father’s suggestions relies on the presentation of his ideas as a whole. To this end, the brochure design of my illustrated poem weaves together the verses of Kipling’s If to create a unified layout. This format, moreover, amalgamates four digital photographs shot in the studio at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec. I then mounted these images on a canvas spread in PhotoShop to make one large image, whose side edges were scored and subsequently folded after I printed the new illustration. The stitched pages of my brochure are, in fact, ideal for weaving the story of life in Kipling’s If, with its joy and its challenges, its triumphs and its disasters, its winnings and its losses.
Kipling, Rudyard. “If.” The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling. Intro. R. T. Jones. London: Wordsworth Editions Limited: 1994. 635.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Working Tools.” Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown. London: J. Jetley: 1937. 190-191.
Stevenson, John. “The Fourth Wall And The Third Space.” Centre for Playback Theatre. (Spring 1995): 1-10. Google Portable Document. 22 Mar. 2010 <http:www.playbackcentre.org>.