The White Man’s burden reflects the Victorian degradation of the non-European world. Rudyard Kipling invites Americans to join the ranks of the British in imperializing the uncivilized Filipinos to rid them of troubles. The imperial nation plays a role of a father who is obligated to raise the child-like natives into becoming mature westernized adults. These Imperialists are defined throughout the poem as having idealized, saintly characteristics that are patrilineally passed through generations of whites for the purpose of imposing well-built culture to the atrocious adolescently uncultured. An altruistic, chauvinistic tone and purpose brings a shining idolization of imperialism but in doing so reveals Victorian era thoughts and sociocultural beliefs. These beliefs would not have been readily accepted as part of the modern time of the late 1800s, yet they were so deeply engrained into society that they shaped the lives of not only white men but of unrelated races of the world. These industrialized, patriarchal, racist attitudes have become so imbedded into the minds of people that it went unnoticed as to how it affected their definitive ideas of race, gender, social status, idealized characteristics, and nationalism. Kipling portrays this through constant use of figurative language to exaggerate certain ideas and relate them to the main theme of necessary colonialism. The use of a similar structure for each stanza group, alongside with the use of repetition and an unselfish tone, create a sense of order and of a powerful urgency to commit imperialism.
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The poem is organized in a manner that portrays order and power. He organizes each stanza into an octet. Each stanza, being eight lines long symbolizes perfection. Eight is the infinity sign sideways and represents totality and absolutism (Properties of 8). The imperialist view themselves as perfect being that have complete order and Kipling captures this by organizing his stanzas in a manner that most represents the infinite symbol. The poem is organized into an iambic trimeter and has rhythm every odd line. The unit of sound is divided into two syllables and stresses the second syllable (iambic trimester wiki). This is used to stress the importance of certain words in each line; for example: “forthâ€¦bestâ€¦breed/ bindâ€¦sonsâ€¦exile” (Kipling, lines 1, 2). These words are stressed because they are the ones that are important for the meaning of the lines and the poem as a whole. Two words that are constantly stressed throughout the poem are “White” and burden” (Kipling line 1). Kipling purposely does this to relay the significance of these words as they relate to his poem as a whole. They hold more meaning because of they are repeated throughout and are stress.
The first and foremost obligation the audience must meet is of a racial concern. An imperialist must be white and of a westernized culture. This was an obvious requirement and seemed natural to the peoples of the 1800s; however, it served a more distinct purpose of creating a division between two peoples: the Whites, in this case the Americans, and nonwhites, particularly those who are Filipinos. This division is set up to faintly, yet effectively, create a dichotomy between the two. One expression about this dichotomy is a metaphorical representation of a father to a son. The son, who represents the natives, is an uneducated and unenlightened “half-devil and half-child” (Kipling, line 8). He is young and has had no exposer to a responsible, committed, and real-world lifestyle and lives in isolation from the rest of humanity and knows nothing of its complexities. Children need the care of a mature adult who is willing to “search [his] manhood” and take up the challenge of teaching them to “have done with childish days” (Kipling, line 53, 49). This use of language creates men, not woman, as the care giver. Child rearing was done predominantly by woman during this time; however, Kipling ignores this tendency and uses a fatherly relationship. In Victorian society, men need to become fathers as a rite of passage in their masculinity (Tosh, page 79). Being a patrilinial society, the ideal child was a son; he would carry on the name and inherit the essence of the family. Children obeyed their father and if they failed to do so, the father alone punishes them; he is the enforcer. Although the actual raising of a child was done by the work of women, Kipling refers to the fatherly dominance of the household. The natives will inherit the father’s characteristics and must obey him at all times otherwise they will be punished. Kipling ignores the fact that rearing children was done by women because colonialism is about taking on the characteristics of the imperial nation. He chooses to use the metaphor of fathers, not mothers, because men have a stronger will to conduct the task of imperialism.
Without the white man to be a father to these children, they shall remain ignorant, weak, and uncultured. Kipling exaggerates this with strong word choices. For example, the natives are described as illiterate, “silent, sullen people” (Kipling, line 47). Kipling ignores the fact that they speak a foreign language and, instead, says they do not speak at all. This dehumanization insists that the indigenous people will remain “silent” unless they learn the true language of English; the only language that is in existence, the rest is gibberish. Another example of Kipling’s use of strong language would be when he hints that starvation and disease will be inevitable unless they have a father to “fill full [their] mouth[s] of famine” and “bid the sickness cease” (Kipling, lines 19, 20). The natives are automatically categorized as famine and disease infested. This is used as another form of justification for colonialism. The fatherly nations of imperialism will put an end to this. The natives, being children, will remain like this unless they are taught otherwise. And since most of western society during the 1800s was patriarchal, the father was the one to do the job.
Kipling’s use of language makes it quite clear as to who the poem is aimed at in terms of gender. The constant repetition of sexist language is evident in the title and in every following stanza with the phrase: “White Man’s burden.” This reappearance is meant to create a clarification of who has the privilege of colonization. More words that reflect a male audience are “sons,” “manhood,” “king,” and the continuous reiteration of “his” and man” (Kipling, lines 3, 26, 53). These word choices hint heavily toward a male audience. The role of an imperial colonization was solely a man’s duty and honor to complete. This reflects a sexist Victorian world where males play the dominant role (Tiffert). It was a time where women were expected to be conservative, quiet, caring, emotional, and supportive of their husbands yet reliant of them. Males, on the other hand, were brave, politically active, patriotic, socially active, and hardworking. During this time it was only fitting for men to construct colonies and be brave enough to aid the foreign “sullen people” (Kipling, line 7). But not just any man was fitting enough to execute such a task successfully; it had to be narrowed down to an elite few.
The Victorian era was a time of many statuses and classes that divided people and made certain white males more qualified to colonize over others; “The White Man’s Burden” captures this division in a few lines. Kipling targets parents to “send forth the best ye breed” and “bind [their] sons to exile” to “serve [their] captives needs” (Kipling, lines 2, 3, 4). Now first off, it is not considered an exile but a privilege because only the select few have what it takes to colonize. The word “exile” is used as a metaphorical representation of the foreign land. The natives live in a place that is not suitable for proper life; it would be considered an exile to the peoples of western society. Its very existence is a crime against nature. The white man must go and fix this land and its people. And second, as hinted in this quote, only the most intelligent and superlative can conduct such a challenging task of cleansing and taming the untamed. The phrase, “best ye breed,” not only states who the intended class is, but also creates a division among the whites themselves and says that not all can undertake in the mission of colonization. The word “breed” brings to mind either dogs or horses; more specifically pure breed ones. This allusion is used to represent the upper (pure breed) and lower (mixed breed) classes and puts a value on them. Pure breeds are usually worth more than mixed-breeds; therefore, the upper class has a higher value, is specialized, better developed, and more idealized (Welton). But then later in the poem Kipling seems to contradict himself when he says that this process requires the “toil of serf and sweeper” (Kipling, line 27). These jobs of servitude were usually held by members of the lower class during this time (“Victorian Era”). But, realizing how daunting the challenge of colonization is, the work of lower class men must be included. Colonization was just like any other business of the time. The rich are the bosses and the poor are the workers. The orchestrator gets all the recognition but the musicians are the actual ones to conduct the procedure. Now of course the upper class has organization skills, tenacity and many other characteristics that are vital for imperialism to be performed. Traits that Kipling so explains throughout his poem in a condescending manner. If it were not for the brainchild of the intelligent, this operation would not happen at all. Kipling really emphasizes this by choosing to only portray elements of upper class men. It is evident in his patronizing tone throughout the whole poem. For these reasons, the target of the poem can be narrowed down to the middle to upper class of society, the knights of bravery; knights who are required to fight for their birthright to honor and duty.
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Kipling implies the importance of this duty to colonize but explains this by using the seemingly unrelated, connotative meaning of the word “burden.” He repeats the phrase, “take up the White Man’s burden” at the start of every stanza to illustrate the white man as his sole audience; it is a demand aimed directly at the reader, commanding them to “take” up the “burden” (Kipling, line 1). This “burden” is described throughout the poem as requiring the white man to “serve the captives needs,” “veil the threat of terror,” to “fill full the mouth of famine,” and the list goes on (Kipling, line 4, 11, 19). The ultimate meaning is that the conquerors are providing benefits and servitude to the conquered and nothing is mentioned about slavery, stolen political freedom, and the life toll of defeat. The “burden,” being of such a noble cause, can only be conducted by white’s that have the proper characteristics. This is where Kipling’s patronizing tone comes into play. He explains that they must show “patience”, be “plain” in their purpose, forfeit their “show of pride”, and be selfless (Kipling, line 10, 12, 13, 14). They must be merciful enough to end the misery of the “half-deviled and half-child” by filling “full the mouth of Famine” and making their “sickness cease” (Kipling, line 8, 19, 20). They must be willing to work hard and conduct the “toil of serf and sweeper” and not just simply rule as luxurious lazy kings (Kipling, line 26, 27). The saintly figures will never exploit the colonized but instead they bestow their heavenly touch on the people: curing their diseased, revitalizing their economy, and ending their hunger. All these noble characteristics, duties, and acts of civility are taught in western culture and are born from nationalistic passions.
Nationalism is the main idea behind colonization. Kipling is explaining how nationalism can be harnessed to implore citizens to believe colonization is a necessity and that this imperialistic “burden” is, in fact, a natural occurrence. In this sense, nationalism can be explained by Imperialism which, in turn, can be explained in terms of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was born in the 19th century and soon became recognized by imperialist in the same way Aristotle’s ideas about planetary orbit around Earth was recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (What is Social Darwinism). It was nothing but truth and could be related to almost every aspect of human interaction in one form or another including superiority of a race over others (What is Social Darwinism). Western nations, as known throughout the Victorian era, are by far the most superior beings in the world and the highest example, at this time, was Great Britain. This can be explained by their advances in science, industry, medicine, and even quality of life as expressed through culture. Foreign races, lacking many of these same advances, naturally were less competent and weaker. But instead of letting these races die out or live horrible lives as explained by Darwin, it is more humane and noble to assist them in becoming enlightened. It is the duty of western culture to use their predictive knowledge of the troubles of these foreign races and aid them before they happen. Imperialism demands that they take advantage of this opportunity and act, not only for spoils but for honest principles. Their natural, nationalistic pride should stir up these beliefs and if they do not, they are just as inferior and ignorant as the races they are trying to help. If America does not quench it’s prides demands, they shall face the “judgment of [their] peers” who are the British (Kipling, line56). Nationalism is a justification for imperialism which Kipling harnesses, and this is why his poem is effective in convincing his audience towards colonialism.
The root of this justification is Great Britain, the homeland of Rudyard Kipling. Kipling is informing Americans on the proper way to portray their nationalistic passions. In doing so, Britain becomes the teacher; a teacher who does not wish to get embarrassed by the pupil. America needs to show maturity and responsibility in empire building. Kipling is spurring America to work hard and long and to reject the “lightly proffered laurel” and “the easy ungrudged praise” of taking the painless route to international and national recognition (Kipling, line 51, 52). It is something that is earned through progressive work with the indigenous, not something that can be easily taken from them.
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