Friday, March 13, 2009


On his seventh birthday, Prince Leopold of Belgium received a copy of Kipling's If as a present from his father, Albert. Leopold later related the scene to his friend, the French writer and director Marcel Jullian. I found Jullian's retelling of the story on the website of the Cercle Leopold III.

3. novembre 1908. 

La mer du Nord, ourlée d'écume blanche, roule ses vagues sous un ciel gris. Sur la plage, de dos, une haute silhouette. C'est Albert, le futur Albert 1er de Belgique. 

Du bout de sa canne, il trace sur le sable le contour de la Belgique devant un enfant de sept ans, en costume marin blanc, culotte courte. C'est Léopold, son fils ainé.

"Tu vois, Léopold, c'est ça la Belgique! Deux langues: le français et le flamand!"

Albert inscrit l'emplacement des neuf provinces.

"La Belgique, vois-tu, s'est déclarée indépendante le 4 octobre 1830 et c'est ton arrière-grand-père, Léopold, comme toi, prince de Saxe-Cobourg qui l'année d'après, le 21 juillet 1831, en est devenu le Roi.

Aujourd'hui, c'est son fils, ton grand-oncle Léopold II qui est Roi des Belges."

L'homme et l'enfant se regardent. Albert sourit, attendri par l'immense émotion qu'il lit sur le visage du petit prince.

"Maintenant que tu es grand et que tu t'intéresses aux choses sérieuses et qu'aujourd'hui tu as sept ans, je vais te faire un cadeau que je te demande de ne jamais égarer ou oublier. C'est important pour toi, pour la Belgique aussi."

De la poche de son grand manteau, Albert sort un petit cadre qui contient un court poème et le tend à l'enfant.

"Lis-le, souvent. Apprends-le par coeur. Il t'aidera dans les circonstances graves de ta vie. Quel que soit ton destin, tu auras recours à lui."

L'enfant se saisit du petit cadre et, d'abord muettement, puis à voix haute commence à lire.

"Si tu peux voir détruire l'ouvrage de ta vie et, sans dire un seul mot, te mettre à rebâtir ... tu seras un homme, mon fils...' 

Il reste fasciné.

November 3, 1908. 

The waves of the North Sea, swirling with white foam, toss under the grey sky. On the beach, seen from behind, a tall figure. It is Albert, the future Albert I of Belgium.

With the end of his walking stick, he traces, on the sand, the outline of Belgium, in front of a seven-year-old child, dressed in a white sailor's suit, in shorts. It is Leopold, his eldest son.

"You see, Leopold, that's Belgium! Two languages: French and Flemish."

Albert outlines the nine provinces.

"Belgium, you see, declared independence on October 4, 1830, and it was your great-grandfather, Leopold, like you, Prince of Saxe-Coburg, who, the next year, on July 21, 1831, became its King. 

Today, it is his son, your great-uncle Leopold II who is King of the Belgians."

The man and the child gaze at each other. Albert smiles, touched by the immense emotion he sees on the little prince's face.

"Now that you are big and interested in serious things, and that, today, you are seven years old, I will give you a present which I ask you never to lose or forget. It is important for you, and for Belgium." 

From the pocket of his big coat, Albert gets out a little frame which contains a short poem, and gives it to the child. 

"Read it, often. Learn it by heart. It will aid you in the grave circumstances of your life. Whatever your destiny, you will have recourse to it." 

The child seizes the little frame, and, at first, silently, then aloud, begins to read: 

"If you can see your life's work destroyed, and, without a word, begin to rebuild... you will be a man, my son..."

He remains fascinated. 

If  is a poignant call to personal integrity, prudence and perseverance in the face of calumny, hatred, and reversals of fortune. Given Leopold's destiny, Albert's recommendation of the poem to his son seems almost prophetic! Here is the entire poem: 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise: 

If you can dream- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think- and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

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,
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

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!

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