What Is The White Man’s Burden Poem About?

by Amy

In the late 19th century, during the height of European imperialism and colonial expansion, Rudyard Kipling penned “The White Man’s Burden.” This period was characterized by Western nations asserting dominance over non-Western territories, often justifying their actions through notions of civilizing missions and moral responsibilities.

Summary of the Poem

“The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling is a poem that exhorts the United States to assume colonial responsibilities in the Philippines, which had recently come under American control after the Spanish-American War. The central message of the poem is that it is the duty of the white, Western nations to uplift and civilize the “savage” peoples of the world, thereby justifying imperialist ventures as benevolent and necessary acts of burden.

Themes Explored

The poem explores themes of imperialism, duty, paternalism, and the moral justification of colonialism. Kipling portrays the white man’s burden as a noble obligation to bring civilization, education, and religion to the non-European world, framing colonial conquests as a humanitarian endeavor rather than exploitation.

Literary Devices and Style

Kipling employs various literary devices to convey his message effectively. The poem uses repetition, rhetorical questions, and vivid imagery to emphasize the challenges and responsibilities imposed on the colonizers. Metaphors such as “new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child” depict the colonial subjects as in need of guidance and upliftment.

Criticism and Controversies

“The White Man’s Burden” has been met with significant criticism over time. Critics argue that Kipling’s portrayal perpetuates racist stereotypes and justifies colonial exploitation under the guise of moral duty. The poem has sparked debates about the ethics of imperialism and the cultural superiority complex inherent in colonial ideologies.

Historical Impact

Historically, the poem played a role in shaping public opinion regarding imperialism and colonial policies. It reinforced notions of racial superiority and paternalistic attitudes towards non-Western societies, influencing policies and justifications for colonial rule in the Western world.

See also: What Is It Called When A Poem Rhymes?

Comparison with Other Works

Comparing “The White Man’s Burden” with contemporaneous literary works reveals similar themes but differing perspectives. While some works celebrated imperialism, others, like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” critically examined its moral and psychological consequences, presenting a darker view of European colonialism.

Modern Relevance

The themes of imperialism, race relations, and global responsibilities explored in Kipling’s poem continue to resonate in modern discussions. Issues such as post-colonialism, cultural hegemony, and the legacy of colonial exploitation remain pertinent topics in global discourse, influencing international relations and development policies.

Educational and Ethical Considerations

In educational settings, “The White Man’s Burden” is often taught to provoke critical thinking about historical perspectives on imperialism and their enduring impacts. Educators navigate ethical considerations in discussing a poem that addresses sensitive issues of race, power dynamics, and the consequences of Western domination.


In conclusion, “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling holds significant historical and literary importance, reflecting the attitudes and justifications of its time regarding imperialism and colonialism. Its enduring impact lies in its portrayal of Western civilization’s perceived obligations towards non-Western societies, sparking ongoing debates about race, power, and moral responsibilities in global contexts.

FAQs about “The White Man’s Burden” Poem

1. What is the message of the poem The White Man’s Burden?

The message of “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling is that it is the moral and humanitarian duty of white, Western nations to civilize and uplift the peoples of non-Western territories through imperialism. The poem portrays colonialism as a burden borne by the colonizers for the supposed benefit of the colonized, promoting the idea of paternalistic duty and cultural superiority.

2. What is the White Man’s Burden poem about in simple terms?

In simple terms, “The White Man’s Burden” is about Rudyard Kipling’s call for the United States to take up the responsibility of governing and educating the Filipino people after the Spanish-American War. It argues that it is the obligation of white Europeans and Americans to bring civilization and progress to what Kipling perceives as “savage” and undeveloped societies.

3. What was the purpose of the White Man’s Burden and who wrote it?

“The White Man’s Burden” was written by Rudyard Kipling in 1899. Its purpose was to persuade the United States to embrace its role as an imperial power and justify its colonial ambitions, particularly in the Philippines. Kipling believed that imperialism was a moral duty to uplift and educate non-European peoples.

4. Which best describes the white man’s burden?

“The White Man’s Burden” best describes the concept that Western nations have a responsibility to civilize and govern non-Western peoples, often using paternalistic justifications of moral duty and cultural superiority to justify colonialism and imperialism.

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