The Poem

The poem’s full title is “The White Man’s Burden: 1899, The United States and the Philippine Islands.” Written at the end of 1898, it contains an exhortation to Americans to pick up the burden of Imperialism and to take over from Spain the rule of the Philippine Islands, which the United States had just captured in the Spanish-American War. Many Americans intensely disliked the idea of an American empire. Imperialism was associated in many American minds with the corrupt politics of European nations such as Great Britain, France, and Spain; to such minds the United States represented a new start in human history—“the last, best hope of man,” as Lincoln had said—and therefore the United States should not make the same mistakes that other nations had made. Mark Twain, for example, declared that if the United States took over the Philippines and suppressed native independence movements there, the American flag’s colors should be changed from red, white, and blue to black and white, and the field of stars should bear instead a skull and crossbones.

There were, however, a number of Americans, Theodore Roosevelt most prominent among them, who believed that it was America’s obvious fate, its “manifest destiny,” to take up responsibility for less technologically advanced peoples, to help them progress to a higher stage of civilization. Rudyard Kipling, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, wrote for these Americans “The White Man’s Burden.” Roosevelt received an advance copy of the poem and sent it on to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge with a note calling the poem “rather...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Forms and Devices

The rhythm throughout “The White Man’s Burden” is what is called in hymn writing “short measure”—that is, iambic trimeter. All the odd lines have feminine endings; all the even lines end with strong stresses. There is no enjambment in the poem; all the lines are heavily end-stopped. In fact, as many critics have insisted about most of Kipling’s poetry, the rhythm is “jingly.” Although this charge is not entirely fair—Kipling is sometimes a master poet capable of producing haunting lines and subtle rhythms—Kipling quite frequently tried consciously to write “jingly” poems. He once said that when he started to write a poem he would sing a lively hymn tune or a music-hall song to himself and then try to fit words to the melody and the catchy rhythm.

In the poem, the reader finds the constant use of biblical diction, especially the archaic personal pronoun “ye” throughout, nine times in all. The use of “ye” also makes it clear that the speaker of the poem is addressing an audience or, at any rate, more than one person, since “ye” is the archaic second person plural. For modern tastes there is too much use of exclamation points, which in contemporary English are kept usually for screams of surprise or terror. It is employed in hymns quite frequently, which may indicate Kipling’s source for the use of this device.

There is an artful use of inverted syntax in the last stanza:

Comes now, to search your manhood  Through all the thankless years,Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,   The judgment of your peers!

It is almost as if the postulant for manhood honors sees something approaching, strains his eyes to determine what it might be, and finally perceives it looming up, in sentence-final position, as “the judgment of your peers!” This use of syntax is effective both as a dramatic postponement of an important element and as a forceful ending for the poem.