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Last Updated on September 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

Rudyard Kipling was one of the most beloved writers of the Victorian era in the United Kingdom, and many of his writings remain classics to this day. However, Kipling also espoused an imperialist ideology which is now extremely troubling and is the central theme of “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling...

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Rudyard Kipling was one of the most beloved writers of the Victorian era in the United Kingdom, and many of his writings remain classics to this day. However, Kipling also espoused an imperialist ideology which is now extremely troubling and is the central theme of “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling originally wrote this poem in 1897 with the British in mind but reworked it in 1899, when he was inspired by the American wars in the Philippines. For British audiences of the time, the poem was a continued reinforcement of the ideologies they had heard for many years about the necessity to send their sons out to defend the empire; for American audiences, the poem reads as an entreaty, suggesting that they, too, share this burden and form colonies.

The title alone has become a byword for a particular kind of paternalistic imperialist ideology in which the indigenous people of colonies—African countries in particular—were viewed as “savages” in need of saving by the colonizers. As such, while this poem is problematic today, it is also an interesting study of how imperialism was promoted.

Kipling’s message in the poem is clear: the white man owes it to his God, his fellow countrymen, and the non-Western world to send his sons out into “exile” in the far-flung corners of the globe. According to Kipling, the white man must struggle for the “profit” of those who “hate” their colonizers in order to prove his manhood. He will face opposition, but eventually, Kipling implies, the “burden” will be transformed into a “reward”: the people for whom he has been laboring will accept his ways and thank him for having brought them to the light. 

Kipling’s rhyme and metrical schemes are fairly typical of his poetic output, as is the dictatorial tone the speaker assumes. The poem comprises seven stanzas of eight lines each, with a rhyme scheme in which the even-numbered lines of each stanza rhyme with each other in an ABCBDEFE format. The poem’s lines are short: the meter is largely iambic trimeter, with odd-numbered lines including an extra unstressed syllable at the end. The rhyme and meter together produce a simplistic, nursery-rhyme sound. Each stanza takes as its first line the same exhortation to the poet’s intended audience: “Take up the White Man’s burden.” The rhyme scheme, meter, and repetition—as well as the incorporation of the antiquated pronoun “ye” and the reference to the story of the Israelites in the book of Exodus—make this poem reminiscent of hymns. This is fitting due to Kipling’s implication that “civilizing” efforts are the duty of white Christian nations. 

Kipling’s speaker casts himself as an authority, reiterating his key exhortation at the beginning of each stanza so that there can be no doubt as to his message. This repeated refrain suggests that Kipling’s call to “Take up the White Man’s burden” is not directed at the US only, but is intended to be heard by white men everywhere. The capitalization—"the White Man”—even seems to imply that all white peoples belong to a single group all bound to a similar duty. At the end of the poem, he asserts that it is only by taking up the burden that falls upon all white men that Western nations can be done with their “childish days.” Kipling thus strongly equates white imperialism with manhood, strength, and what was termed “muscular Christianity.”

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

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 poor poetry, but good sense for the expansionist standpoint.”

In the first stanza, white men are advised to send their best sons to serve the “new-caught, sullen peoples,/ Half devil and half child.” The entire emphasis in the stanza is on service to others: “To wait in heavy harness.” The second stanza expands on this theme and advises the servants of Empire how to behave to those they serve, with “patience” and open, simple speech. White men are also advised to “veil the threat of terror,” that is, to make it clear that they have many dangerous weapons to enforce their will. Nevertheless, it is not polite to insist in a bullying manner on power; Theodore Roosevelt’s famous version of this advice was “to speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

In the third stanza, the theme changes slightly. The task is again defined as curing famine and disease, but Kipling makes it clear that those who benefit from the Empire will ultimately ruin anything that is done for them. The fourth stanza continues the theme of service, the humble serving of others: “No tawdry rule of kings,/ But toil of serf and sweeper.” Kipling asserts that the accomplishments of the white builders of ports and roads in the hot lands will not provide benefit to the white men who oversee the building: “Go make them with your living,/ And mark them with your dead!” He strikes a note curiously like self-pity in the fifth stanza. The Bible is also evoked: the behavior of the Hebrews in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt, the complaining of the freed but hungry hordes as they reproach their leader, Moses: “Why brought ye us from bondage,/ Our loved Egyptian night?”

It is in the sixth and seventh stanzas that Kipling finally declares what the real purposes of Empire are: the honor of God, self-testing, rites of passage, and the ordeals of manhood. The white man’s acts will be weighed by the “silent, sullen peoples,” he states, as will everything the white man cries or whispers. In the seventh and final stanza, Kipling exhorts his audience to “Have done with childish ways”—“search your manhood,” he says, and the poem’s final line declares what the result of taking up the “White Man’s burden” will be: “The judgment of your peers!”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

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.

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