All quarter, my brain has been completely fried when it comes to the humanities way of thinking and writing. Everything I write seems to be brain vomit… I am going to do a close reading of Rudyard Kipling’s infamous 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” because word choice is always interesting to me when I read poems, even though I am no expert in English of the past, but I do love reading it. (I am not trying to make a specific claim or argument, sorry.)
This poem was originally published in the February 1899 issue of McClure Magazine. Magazines are primarily for entertainment. The articles are written by people who are not experts in the field in which they are writing, they just have an interest in the topic. At the time, famous writers would publish short stories or poems in magazines. Rudyard Kipling falls in these two categories because he was a famous writer with an interest in and encouragement for imperialism.
Close Reading by Stanza
(again, here’s the link to the poem)
“Send forth the best ye breed / Go bind your sons to exile” lines 2, 3
Breeding is a term used for animals and, very regrettably, it was a derogatory term for when masters forced their slaves to have children; slavery, though, was abolished in the US thirty-something years before the poem was published. It is odd he uses this word when writing about the children of the people who are supposed to be the teachers of the world. It’s casting them to a sub-human level and at the same time challenges them to have the “best” children to take on the task.
Again with the slavery motif, Kipling calls for the parents to bind their sons, to force upon them involuntary exile, banish them from their own country into a completely different country. It is a punishment, but a necessary one, making their cause noble by degrading themselves.
“To serve your captives’ need; / … / Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child.” lines 4, 7, 8
This poem is about American imperialism in the Philippines. Sanctification by seeing themselves as serving the people they are invading and trying to control. If I had a dime every time some sort of sanctification happened in history and in the present times, I’d be able to afford school on my own. The idea of superiority and entitlement, dehumanizes the other by making them mere property, exemplified by “new-caught,” like newly caught fish.
“To veil the threat of terror / And check the show of pride;” lines 3, 4
The second stanza shows that the imperialists are very aware of themselves and their motives. They have to make sure to appear sincere, checking that they don’t spill the beans on their ulterior motives, when approaching the uncivilized in order to Trojan Horse them. They are veiling their threat of terror which will be unleashed if the people do not comply to the greedy will of the imperialists.
“By open speech and simple, / An hundred times made plain / To seek another’s profit, / And work another’s gain.” lines 5, 6, 7, 8
Their goal is exploitation to gain the profits of the resources of the Philippines. This method of exploitation has been used a hundred times before. The oppressors have always told themselves the oppression they inflict is harmless and simple, but that is a lie that ignores the vastness of human culture, identity, and emotion.
“Fill full the mouth of Famine / And bid the sickness cease; / … / Watch sloth and heathen Folly / Bring all your hopes to nought.” lines 3, 4, 7, 8
Lines 3 and 4 are about ending hunger and spreading health. This is the goodwill of their imperialists’ conquest. The image below is a 1890s advertisement for soap, it says “The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the values of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances…” Look closely at the corners of the image: Imperialist and racist propaganda.
Since it is a “burden,” there is a price to be paid. I think the last two lines of the stanza talk about the perversion of imperialists once they actually “conquer” their targets. They become heathen and because of their folly, the hopes of the “sons” from the first stanza are obliterated by the reality check.
“Take up the White Man’s burden / The savage wars of peace / … / And when your goal is nearest / The end for others sought” lines 1, 2, 5, 6
These lines are the cruelty that ruins the morale of their idealistic pursuits. The act of conquest is brutally savage and peace is only when the “captives” surrender or are annihilated. Then, will there be no one in their way.
“No tawdry rule of kings, / But toil of serf and sweeper / … / The ports ye shall not enter, / The roads ye shall not tread, / Go mark them with your living, / And mark them with your dead.” lines 2, 5-8
There is no desire to actually interact with and familiarize themselves with the people and countries they conquer. They want to handle them indirectly to make sure they toil. There is no heart or gratitude when Kipling says to mark them with the imperialists’ living and dead, his own people. It is just about claiming for the sake of bragging rights for the privileged. The soldiers who carry out the wishes of the privileged, who live and die for the sake of imperialism, are nameless and nothing to Kipling.
“And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard” lines 2-4
Line 2 plays upon the saying “you reap what you sow,” in this case, the imperialists sowed education and the gift of civilization with entitlement and therefore will reap, or will have to deal with, the envy of the other nations who will look for any opportunity to blame them/the USA (the poem is a call for action to the United States) for any failure. As well as the hate of the people they took over because they are trying to make them turn away from their own culture by bringing violence and non-word-specific enslavement.
“The cry of hosts ye humour / (Ah, slowly!) toward the light: / ‘Why brought he us from bondage, / Our loved Egyptian night?” lines 5-8
This is referencing the biblical story when God and Moses took the Jews out of Egypt to the Promised Land. The journey ended up extending to forty years (Ah, slowly!) because, I’m not quite sure, it was either a sin they committed or they were complaining too much, or maybe those two are the same thing. At some point, the Jews missed their life in Egypt even though they were slaves there. Its the idea of the captives resisting what is best for them that is being displayed in the last part of the stanza.
“Nor call too loud on Freedom / To cloke your weariness” lines 3-4
To me, these lines mean a certain thing, but I am also pretty sure that I am way off when I say it. By telling the Americans to not call “too loud” on freedom when taking up the White Man’s burden points to a self-aware hypocrisy in the standards Americans have for themselves and the exploitation they want off the Philippines. Americans pride themselves (myself too) on freedom and independence, but what they were doing was taking over the Philippines, eliminating their freedom and self-sufficiency by forcing them to extract their own natural resources for the economic benefit of the United States.
Weariness, here, is the big responsibility of managing a colony. If they were to talk a lot about freedom, the colony might revolt and become its own country, but at least that would take off a burden.
“Have done with childish days / … / The easy, ungrudged praise / Comes now, to search your manhood / … / The judgment of your peers!”
The United States was (and is) a young country. Throughout history, a country, or a peoples, proved their power as an empire by taking over other people. The US had yet to do that in the late 1800s, since in that century they focused on trying to figure themselves out with the slavery issue and other North and South differences. Kipling is urging them to follow in that great tradition of Empire.
What is the good of expanding your influence? The farther you try to reach, the sooner and the easier for you to be torn apart. No one has the absolute and the most progressive ideology, it is impossible for everyone to agree with you. And forcing your ideas on others just makes you a dictator. This is for nations and people.
The White Man’s Burden – Fordham University
McClure Magazine – Spartacus Educational
entertainment – Library, Oklahoma State University
At the time – The History of Magazines
Rudyard Kipling – Spartacus Educational
The Brown Man’s Burden – Henry Labouchère
In Defense of Rudyard Kipling and ‘The Jungle Books’ – Michael Dirda