The White Man's Burden

by Rudyard Kipling

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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, must 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 United States 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.”

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