Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The phrase “the White Man’s burden” is more often on the lips of people who have not read the poem than on the lips of those who have. More damage has been done by the careless invocation of Kipling as an example of vulgar racialism than by the careful examination of what the poet really said. The notion that the Empire-builders are supposed to think only of the service they may render to the “silent, sullen peoples” is not an ignoble one, and indeed many useful projects were created by these empire-builders, very often at the cost of their health, as Kipling insists. Many older residents of former colonies assert that the British did provide better political guidance and more lasting material assistance to their countries than their own rulers have succeeded in providing since freedom came after World War II.

Yet even with all this said in defense of imperial endeavor, there is something radically wrong with Kipling’s view of Empire. For one thing, it has often been said that people would rather be ruled badly by themselves than well by others. In this light, Empire is really little more than an impertinence, and when the British realized that, after World War II, they quietly dropped their imperial pretensions. After all, even stronger than the British desire for a sense of gratification at the extent of British power in the world has been the British horror of bad manners—and after the war, imperialism suddenly seemed like the height of bad...

(The entire section is 604 words.)