This study guide will help you analyse the poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) by Rudyard Kipling. You can also find a summary of the text.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1935) was a British journalist, author, and Nobel Prize for Literature winner (1907). Born in India, Kipling received his education in England. A declared imperialist, Kipling wrote a lot about life in India and about the British Empire’s positive influence on the country. While Kipling’s views and work became controversial as the social and political climate began to change, he is, nonetheless, recognised as a literary innovator for his short stories and children’s literature. Among his most famous works are Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), The Jungle Book (1884), and Kim (1901).
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The White Man, therefore, must help end these conditions, even at the cost of a “savage war”. At the same time, this description helps with the speaker’s portrayal of the White Man as an agent of peace, a “saviour” that rescues the natives from their inhumane living conditions.
The colonies are also described in connection with its native peoples. According to Kipling’s poem, the colonised people are wild and ignorant (ll. 6-8). They will not understand the White Man’s efforts to help them, and they will judge, resent, or even fight him (ll. 1-8). This suggests that the colonies are unwelcoming places, where the White Man will not be met with gratitude for all the benefits he supposedly brings with him. Furthermore, the poem suggests efforts could be spoiled by the laziness and foolish ways of the natives:
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought. (ll. 23-26)
A reference to the time setting can also be found towards the end of the poem: “Through all the thankless years” (l. 24). This suggests that the White Man must remain faithful to his purpose, even though his efforts will not pay off immediately.
Overall, the setting suggests that the White Man is taking on a very difficult task when colonising others, especially because the native peoples are ignorant and difficult to handle. However, the speaker does not intend to discourage the White Man but remind him that he has a moral duty to civilise others.