If and Poem at 39 – comparison of parental relationships

Recently I set this question on a Socrative quiz for Year 11. It caused some discussion. The students were asked for 4 bullets… I will try to deliver more.

  • Whilst there are no marks awarded for exploration of context, I think an answer must contain some clarification of your understanding of the 2 contexts – Kipling from the higher social strata of Edwardian England -a time of acceptance of a Patriarchy and the idea of the British Empire showing all races the ‘way’ to behave, and Walker from poverty in Georgia, escaping a childhood of struggle and brutality to become one of the great Black writers of the 20th century. This then introduces the exploration of the advice given with due awareness of the reasons for the differences seen.
  • There is a nice symmetry between the poems. Kipling is giving advice to a putative son whereas Walker is recalling advice -often practical and rarely delivered as a spoken lesson.
  • Walker learned to tell the truth despite beatings – ‘did not always mean a beating’ stressing the idea that it often did. For Kipling there is no question of beatings – to not live to the ideals laid out in his 32 line conditional sentence will result in failure to be a Man. The capital M is vital -this is not a gender thing, even with the gendered language, but rather a member of mankind or the human race – what the Germans might term a ‘Mensch’ – to fail is simply to fail in a spiritual sphere. A beating is simply irrelevant.
  • Walker is clear that her father ‘taught me how’. This is the key link surely. Kipling and Mr Walker share the wish to see their children prosper. For Kipling this is the focus of much of the poem which is related to mental strength and development of character. For Walker the advice is so much more practical.  She was taught the ‘form’ (a nice double entendre for the paper paying in sheet and the correct behaviour)  and learned to save what little she had. Kipling can spend time discussing ‘pitch and toss’ not in the strict sense of gambling, but a more metaphorical  sense of risking in life in order to progress. His key idea is that  one does not moan if one loses.
  • Walker is able to shift the emphasis from line 25 at the repetition of ‘how I miss my father!’ (with added emotional power indicated by the exclamation mark) and sow us her father’s character – the simile of cooking like a person ‘dancing in a yoga meditation’ is complex and double headed: he cooks like a dancer – with joy and exuberance, yet also with the calm intensity and focus of someone deep in yoga-peace and tranquility. She is aware that she is becoming her father in many ways – she shares his passion for entertaining and for experimentation – the cooking becoming a metaphor for her entire lifestyle as she too welcomes interraction and revels in change and opportunity
  • This 3rd person perspective is missing in If. Kipling’s speaker s the father. He is didactic and serious – Polonius-like. He is portentous in tone. Yet he cares. He would not be holding forth if he did not. He is also wise: the idea of Triumph and Disaster – the ‘impostors’ is interesting. This sense of deceit implicit in both of them suggests an awareness of the dangers of over investment in outcomes over processes. His advice is to ‘fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’, neatly filling the pattern of the extra syllable in the first line of pentameter in each  antithetical pair in the manner of a well organised but full life.  It feels close to Walker’s ‘seasoning of her life’ to ensure endless variety.
  • For Walker the outcome is a peaceful and domestic life, and possibly feminine. For Kipling it is about being trained to rule the world in a patriarchal empire. For both it is a father who wishes the best for their offspring.