What metaphors are used in "The White Man's Burden"?

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Metaphors are comparisons that do not use the words "like" or "as." In a poem that has become famous for expressing some of the worst ideas about colonization, Kipling uses the following metaphors:

The poem compares native people in colonized territories to "half devil[s]" and "half-child[ren]." The speaker also compares the work of colonizing to the "toil" of "serf" and "sweeper," as if the white colonial overlords are waiting hand and foot on the natives.

At the end of the poem, the narrator compares the complaints of the natives to the complaints the Israelites made to God after they were liberated from captivity in Egypt and led to the Promised Land. This metaphor, which is also a Biblical allusion, compares the white colonizers to no less than God almighty and the natives to ingrates who don't want the "liberation" the white man offers.

Unquestionably, the poem's metaphors reinforce the idea that the colonizers suffered nobly for the benefit of 'half humans' who had no appreciation of the invaders' sacrifices.

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"The White Man's Burden" has been criticized since its publication both for its condescending and ultimately dehumanizing view of seemingly all non-white peoples, and for its supposed lack of sophistication. The poem values realism and clarity, but there are several examples of metaphors in the text.

In the first stanza of the poem, Kipling uses the harness as a metaphor for service:

Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--

Later in the poem he uses "light" as a metaphor for civilization and "night" and "bondage" as metaphors for "savagery."

The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Perhaps the most important metaphor in the poem, however, is not as obvious as these. Throughout the poem, imperialism is cast as a "burden," as in the title, but also in terms of "struggle" and "toil." It is an ordeal that will benefit them even if the recipients of western imperial "benevolence" do not appreciate it.

 


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