The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling

In this controversial poem, Rudyard Kipling taps into the imperialist mindset and what he, and others, saw as the “white man’s burden.”

Read in a contemporary context, it’s important to consider the motivations behind Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’ while at the same time, try to understand why this particular mindset of white superiority was put forth. Kipling presents the reader with inherently racist images of dominance, cast as “help” provided to the native peoples of the Philippines. At no point in the poem does the speaker consider whether or not these people want that help nor does he stop to validate this mindset or explore its origin.

The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling

 

Summary of The White Man’s Burden 

The White Man’s Burden’ by Rudyard Kipling demonstrates the imperialist mindset popular in the poet’s time.

The poem is addressed to white men, who the speaker describes as superior. The speaker tells them that it’s their responsibility to travel to the Philippines (although the location is never stated explicitly). There, they can take control away from the “devil-like”, irresponsible, and flighty natives. This will, the speaker states, be helpful to them. The white men will be doing them a favor. The following stanzas outline the hard work that has to be done, the lack of thanks the men will get for controlling this other group, and the pride they should feel when the job is complete. 

Discover more Rudyard Kipling poems here.

 

Structure of The White Man’s Burden 

The White Man’s Burden’ by Rudyard Kipling is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines. The rhyme scheme and metrical pattern are extremely regulated. This feature makes the poem feel very tensely structured and creates the feeling that these lines should be read out loud, perhaps chanted. The lines rhyme in the straightforward pattern of ABCBDEFE while the meter is a little more complex. 

In regards to the meter, Kipling structures the odd-numbered lines (1,3,5 and so on) with two iambs and one amphibrach. An iamb is a pair of two syllables the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed. The much less familiar amphibrach is a three-syllable grouping in which the first and last syllables are unstressed and the middle is stressed.

The even-numbered lines (2,4,6, and so on) are less complex. They are written in iambic trimeter. This means that there are three sets of two syllables with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed in each pair. 

 

Poetic Techniques in The White Man’s Burden 

Kipling makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The White Man’s Burden’. These include enjambment, alliteration, and allusion. The first, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and five and six of the first stanza. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “best ye breed” in the first stanza and “silent, sullen” in the sixth. 

An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. Within this poem, Kipling alludes to the Philippine-American War, colonialism, and a racially superior attitude that ruled foreign policy. 

 

Analysis of The White Man’s Burden

Stanza One 

Lines 1-4 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

In the first stanza of ‘The White man’s Burden,’ the speaker begins by demanding that the reader, or an intended listener, “Take up the White Man’s Burden”. It’s clear there is some job or responsibility that the speaker is trying to engage someone else in. He tells the listener to “Send for the best yet breed,” or your best sons, for the job. So far, all that’s clear is that there is a burden, a heavy task of some kind, that is related to white men, that needs to be completed. The following lines and stanzas describe what exactly that means. 

It is important to note in this racially insensitive poem, that the “best” is very clearly aimed at white men. There are no other races, the speaker suggests, that would fall into this category. The men should be sent away to do service for the “captives”. The “captives” Kipling is referring to are the native Filipinos who were, at the time, lately freed by America, from Spanish rule. 

 

Lines 5-8 

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

In the next four lines of ‘The White Man’s Burden’, the speaker explains more about what the “best” bred white men are going to be doing. They will do hard work, as explained through the metaphor comparing them to workhorses in a “heavy harness”. The speaker describes the native people as “fluttered folk” and “wild”. They appear to him to be out of control, without direction, like butterflies or birds. They are “new-caught” and because of that, “sullen”. They’re gloomy and unhelpful in the speaker’s mind.

From these lines, it’s clear why the speaker thought the job the white men have to do is so difficult. They aren’t going to be getting any assistance from this group of newly conquered people. 

 

Stanza Two 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

In patience to abide,

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple,

An hundred times made plain.

To seek another’s profit,

And work another’s gain.

In the second stanza of ‘The White Man’s Burden’, the poet repeats the refrain, “Take up the White Man’s burden—“ and adds details about how the men should act. They should, in contrast to the minority the speaker is discriminating against, act patient. Others are less than the white men are, and they should prove their superiority. Pride should also be kept in check so that they might do their job and control this other group to their best ability. 

Kipling’s speaker’s message does not get any less discriminatory in the next lines. He tells the listener that they should speak slowly and simply because these folks will not be able to understand anything complicated. The speaker tries to emphasize the point that this effort they’re going to is for “another’s gain” but it’s hard to believe that’s the case considering the way he’s going about it. 

 

Stanza Three 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

The savage wars of peace—

Fill full the mouth of Famine

And bid the sickness cease;

And when your goal is nearest

The end for others sought,

Watch Sloth and heathen Folly

Bring all your hopes to nought.

After the refrain, the speaker gets more specific about what the white men are going to do to help the native people. First, after all the violence the people suffered at their hands, they need to bring peace. It might take “savage wars” in order to complete this goal, but, the speaker concludes, so be it. This paradox is a great representation of the juxtaposed ideas and attitude at the center of ‘The White Man’s Burden’.

They will “Fill full the mouth of Famine”. Personified famine should be destroyed in the lands. They should also “bid the sickness cease”. This suggests that they can just ask for diseases to go away. In the next four lines, the speaker adds that when all this has been done it will likely fall apart again. This is due to the perceived “Sloth” and “Folly” of the native people. 

 

Stanza Four 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

No tawdry rule of kings,

But toil of serf and sweeper—

The tale of common things.

The ports ye shall not enter,

The roads ye shall not tread,

Go make them with your living,

And mark them with your dead!

The men who travel to this land to, in name alone, help the native peoples of the Philippines are not going to go there in order to become kings. The point of this endeavor is not glory or money. It is a story of “serf and sweeper,” or hard workers and hard work. 

The white men shall not, the speaker says, take any pleasure from this work. They won’t get to go into town or walk on the roads. They just have to work and some might even end up dead. 

 

Stanza Five 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard—

The cry of hosts ye humour

(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—

“Why brought ye us from bondage,

Our loved Egyptian night?”

With another iteration of the refrain, the speaker adds to the poem that the only award the white man is going to get from this hard work is “blame” and “hate”. Those the speaker sees as being inferior are going to hate the “betters,” the white men. 

In the next four lines of ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ the speaker says that those the white men help (conquer) are going to be very unhappy. They’ll cry out in distress as if they are the freed Jews from Egypt, mourning their lost slavery. 

 

Stanza Six 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Ye dare not stoop to less—

Nor call too loud on Freedom

To cloak your weariness;

By all ye cry or whisper,

By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples

Shall weigh your Gods and you.

The men selected for the task should understand everything the speaker said and confront this problem head-on. They shouldn’t “stoop to less” or complain. They shouldn’t cry out “Freedom” when really they’re just being lazy. There is no easy escape from this work. They’re going to have to work hard, deal with the judgments of the native peoples, and contend with their different religious beliefs. 

 

Stanza Seven 

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Have done with childish days—

The lightly profferred laurel,

The easy, ungrudged praise.

Comes now, to search your manhood

Through all the thankless years,

Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,

The judgment of your peers!

In the final stanza, the speaker tries for one last time to encourage the white men to do what needs to be done. They should stop acting youthful and childish and instead take some responsibility as men. 

After their days of hard work, the men will gain wisdom and the respect of their peers. This should something that anyone to whom the poem is addressed will be attracted to.

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Emma Baldwin
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Avatar Alan B. Nelson says:

    A typical 2021 review of a poem written over 100 years ago with attempts to compare it to todays woke culture.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think it’s a useful activity to reflect on classic poetry with a modern lens. “woke culture” is certainly superior to a world where inequality was rife. I am proud of how progressive society has come – although there is still work to do.

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