For those who have wondered, and for those readers who have asked in the comments, here it is: It’s time to consider Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Perhaps tellingly for the poem’s reputation and Kipling’s, I can’t find it on the Poetry Foundation’s otherwise exhaustive web site. My quotations are from “Rudyard Kipling Complete Verse, Definitive Edition.”
First of all, if you are thinking that this poem is pro-British, I’ll argue the point. Kipling, who lived in India and Vermont (!) as well as Britain, was writing more about the burden of colonial power than of any particular race. Get a copy of the poem and look beneath its notorious title, where the next lines read “1899” and “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”
The U.S. was just becoming a colonial power in 1899, with its influence in the Philippines, and Kipling’s poem is welcoming this young country to problems the much older British Empire already had.
“Take up the White Man’s burden,” the poem says at the beginning of each stanza. Not “hooray for our side,” not “we’re better,” but “take up a burden.”
Remember, this was 1899.
As a society, we’re developing the habit of re-writing any historical event, trying to understand it only in light of present-day values. We tend to think that any art, any style, any opinion, ought to be considered the same as any others. Whatever you want to believe, politically or religiously, is right for you, say many people.
We forget that there was ever an age when there were absolute standards, when it was not only all right, but it was expected that some things were better than others.
For example, the age that ended with the Great War — so soon re-named World War I — was an age of empires. Bringing civilization — sewage control and other infrastructure, not just political control — to a colony was a burden. The personnel needed to teach colonies (and colonists) how to run things had to come from colonizing countries.
That’s why Kipling is repeating “Take up the White Man’s burden” — because the U.S. was beginning to become a colonial power in the Philippines. These days, we wouldn’t put it so restrictively, but Kipling, a man very much of his time, was saying what we might translate as “Take up the superpower’s burden.”
Here’s what the burden sounds like in the penultimate verse:
“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.”
This is not saying that the burden is a good thing. It’s saying that a country will be judged by its handling of the burden of having colonies. (Sure enough, both Britain and this country are attacked to this day about “imperialist” actions — but places that were our former colonies have benefitted from our influences, just as we’ve benefitted from Britain’s influence on our form of government.)
If you don’t understand U.S. foreign policy at the turn of the last century, do some reading with “The White Man’s Burden” in mind as your starting point.
At this time of year, there’s an historical comparison that’s easy for me to think of: the many novels, poems and other art about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
I marvel at the idea that the presidential party that day was in an open-topped car. When I was growing up and mentioned that I had never seen a president do that, the answers I got could be summed up as “You wouldn’t.” (I was born on the day of the president’s funeral.)
Studying stories about those days, the “this is where I came in” of history, has taught me a lot about context. It’s hard to imagine TV news basically creating itself on the run that November.
It’s even tougher to go back 64 more years to the era of this poem. But that’s why we need to do it.
How else will we even try to understand?
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.