White Man Burden Imperialism Meaning

How does the poem "The White Man's Burden" relate to imperialism?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem relates to imperialism because it is a warning to the United States about what it should expect when it sets out to become an imperial power.  Kipling felt that the US was embarking on its first real imperial action when it took control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.  As a British person, Kipling felt that he knew what having an empire entailed.  He was warning the Americans of the problems involved with having an empire.

According to Kipling, an imperial power is in for a very hard time.  It is going to have to work very hard to try to bring civilization to the people it conquers.  The imperial power is told to

Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness…

What all of this means is that the work of civilizing the imperialized peoples will be very difficult.  In addition, it will be a very thankless task.  The imperial power will have to work hard to

Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;

Even as it works hard, it will not see the benefit of what it does.  Instead, Kipling warns that

And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

In short, what this poem is doing is warning the United States about what Kipling sees as the perils and difficulties of imperialism.  For this reason, it is very closely connected to imperialism.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "White Man's Burden" is related to imperialism in a number of ways.

Firstly, through the title of the poem, Kipling makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the the white man (the Americans) to establish hegemony over foreign nations. To emphasize this point, Kipling uses the word "burden" to describe this unwanted, though necessary, responsibility.

Secondly, this poem is related to imperialism through its characterization of people from foreign lands. They are described as savages, as not Christian, and as people who do not know how to make the most of their natural resources and labor. By characterizing them in this way, Kipling argues that it is necessary to teach these people Western ways and, as a result, make them more civilized.

Finally, Kipling alludes to the controversial nature of imperialism in this poem. In the final line, for example, he notes that imperialists are often judged by their "peers" for such activities and that the subjugated people often act ungrateful towards the white man. Historically, imperialism has been a very controversial policy because it is exploitative by nature.

For Kipling, however, imperialism is a necessary evil. Through this poem, he provides a call to action, encouraging the next generation of imperialists to go forth and conquer as many lands as possible.

pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" is a plea to English people to spread their civilization all over the world.  Even the name of the poem is paternalistic in that he views spreading white culture as a "burden."  He views native people of the developing world as being incapable of civilization and in need of British help.  While these people may not want to become civilized according to British values, they must accept them anyway.  He does not view imperialism as the exploitation of other people; rather, he views it as a price that the English have to bear because of their "superior" culture and morals.  

The poem was also meant for Americans.  By 1890, America had already subjugated its natives and was in the process of trying to assimilate them into mainstream society.  Kipling wanted Americans to spread across the oceans and have their own colonies.  In 1898, America would do this through the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii.