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The Real White Man's Burden - Irony and Symbolism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3161 words Published: 7th Jul 2017

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I aim to evaluate the use of irony and symbol in the poems “The White Man’s Burden” and the “Real White Man’s Burden” to see how effective both writers were in using these elements to convey meanings. In the case of Kipling, I will consider two points of views. The first point of view is that Kipling was an imperialist who supports the take over of other governments to show superiority. The second point of view is that Kipling was an imperialist who supports the take over of other governments as an act of humanity to bring civilization to the uncivilized and, that he warns of the perils of showing superiority as oppose to bringing true liberation. In the case of Crosby, since he presents a single view point, I will evaluate his effectiveness of using irony and symbolism in parodying the work of Kipling. Effectively used, irony and symbol could convey a message with more than one meaning as demonstrated in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” or, they could convey a single message demonstrated in Ernest H. Crosby’s poem “The Real White Man’s Burden”. In the final analysis, I submit that the effective use of the elements of poetry, in this case, irony and symbol, are vital to the correct interpretation and understanding of the meaning of both poems.

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In order to establish a well-rounded understanding of the basis for the two interpretations of Kipling’s work and the single interpretation of the work of Crosby, I submit definitions for the terms ‘imperialism’, ‘irony’, and ‘symbol’. These definitions will also serve to show whether or not there was effectiveness in the use of the elements of poetry, in both poems. As defined by Dictionary.Com:

Imperialism is “the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies. Irony is the discrepancy between what is said, done, expected or intended, and what is meant, what happens, and what others understand. Satirical irony is the exposure of the vices or follies of an individual, a group, an institution, an idea, a society, usually with a view to correct the folly. Symbol is anything that stands for something else”. (Dictionary.Com)

Having establishing the definitions, I will now analyze the use of irony and symbols in Ruyard Kipling’s poem. While Kipling uses both irony and symbols, his use of irony is greater. Kipling’s expertly uses irony to bring about the intended end result of two opposing perspectives as to whether imperialism is for ‘human good’ or ‘elitist gain’.

In the first view point, Kipling uses the poem “The White Man’s Burden” to encourage America to take over the Phillipines imperialistically or, for elitist gain. Kipling writes:

Take up the White man’s burden / Send forth the best ye breed / Go bind your sons in exile / To serve your captives’ need; (1-4)

The first observation of the poem is Kipling’s decision to call the poem “The White Man’s Burden”. Undoubtedly, the use of the phrase ‘White Man’ is the lightening rod that sparks the view that Kipling’s position was that of an imperialist having at its core the tenets of Social Darwinism. According to Kretchner, the concept of Social Darwinism purports that “natural order obligates powerful, civilized nations to appropriate the limited resources of the weak.” (Kretchmar) Hence, Kipling’s urging of America to assist the Phillipines to reach civilization may be interpreted as him supporting the imperialistic movement.

Even further, Kipling’s encouragement that the empire should ‘send forth the best ye breed’ has very strong racial connotations. During that time in history, blacks were not considered as equals to whites in America. The unequal treatment of blacks was so prevalent in America’s economic, political, and social systems that James Weldon Johnson, writes “Lift Every Voice and Sing” also known as the “Black National Anthem”, to encourage black people to sing and march until victory is won. This cry for equality continues in 1968, with Martin Luther King still only having a dream of equality. Though, in 2008, Barrack Obama becomes the first black President, there still remains the cry for true equality.

In addition to the charges to “Take up White Man’s burden / Send forth the best ye breed”(1-2), Kipling’s use of phrases such as “To veil the threat of terror / And check the show of pride.” (11-12) asserts that the Empire must do what is necessary to eliminate resistance and to subdue insurrections against Imperialism. Not only should the Empire silence the voices of the captives, but she must also limit or remove any signs of pride that they might muster.

Further, Kipling’s characterizations of the people as “On fluttered folk and wild / New caught- sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child.” (6-8) may be easily construed as connatively condescending. Kipling seems to imply that the empire must be prepared to reinforce her stance “By open speech and simple / A hundred times make plain” (13-14). Kipling’s distinction of the empire seem to be lofty in its tone. By marrying the symbols of the captives as being inferior people to the santimonious responsibility of the Empire to bring civility to the uncivilized, one can conclude that Kipling supports that the Empire is superior and hence has the responsibility to bring civility to the uncivilized.

Ironically, the same body of work that interpretively champions the Empire as being superior to the captives, implores the empire to be fair and complete in its liberation of the captives. The second point of view to the work of Kipling in the “The White Man’s Burden” is 4that he advocates for the fair treatment of the captives. Kipling’s urging of the empire to liberate the captives and to take care of their needs can be found throughout his poem. According to Bonamy Dobree, while speaking to Canadians in 1907, Kipling said:

“I have, I confess it now, done my best for about twenty years to make all men of the sister nations within the Empire interested in each other. Because I know that at heart all our men are pretty much alike, in that they have the same aspirations, and when all is said and done we have only each other to depend upon.” (Dobree 80)

Kipling demonstrates a view consistent to those who believe that true liberation is not oppressive. For example, he writes:

Take up the White Man’s burden– / The savage wars of peace- / Fill full the mouth of Famine / And bid the sickness cease; (17-20)

Further, Kipling warns the Empire that all of its actions or inactions, all that it say or not say will help to determine how the captives view the Empire and its God. Here is what Kipling says:

By all ye cry or whisper, / By all ye leave or do, / The silent, sullen peoples / Shall weigh your gods and you. (45-48)

In addition to how the captives view the Empire and its God, Kipling writes that other countries and future generations will also look at the treatment of the captives and judge the Empire. Kipling goes on to tell the empire not to celebrate its victory or relish in the praise, since these acts are ‘childish’, but that the Empire should be more concern with how the work would be judged by the Empire’s peers for years to come.To encapsulate the view that Kipling wanted the Empire to bring civilization without showing superiority, his closing verse from the poem is submitted. Kipling writes:

Take up the White Man’s burden– / Have done with childish days– / The lightly preferred laurel, / The easy, ungrudged praise. / Comes now, to search your manhood / Through all the thankless years / Cold. Edged with dear-bought wisdom, / The judgment of your peers! (49-56)

These words clearly indicate that Kipling encourage the Empire to be honorable in its dealings with the Natives.

Contrary to the school of thought that Kipling advocates civilization with true liberation, is Crosby’s position that the Empire uses ‘blessings’ as a doorway to go in and ‘take away’ the true riches of the people and in exchange gives them an oppressive life style. Unlike Kipling’s rendering of his poem, “The White Man’s Burden” where he shows his trust for the Empire, Crosby in his parody “The Real White Man’s Burden”, blatantly shows his mistrust of the Empire. Most importantly, though he employs heavy use of irony and symbols to demonstrate his opposing view of the Empire, Crosby does not dillute the single message of his poem.

First, Crosby’s title of the poem is a clear indicator of his dissent from Kipling’s views. He uses the term “White Man” to solidify the object of his remarks, but, he goes further by using the word “Real” which ironically implies that there is a masking of the truth. Crosby’s title speaks strongly of his judgment against the Empire. Historically, his point of view is drawn from his experiences as a social activist and as a black man living in America at the time of the Spanish American War. According to an essay by Andrew Hebard, Crosby’s position on Imperialism mirrors that of Amy Kaplan who says imperialism is “as a network of power relations that changes over space and time and is riddled with instability, ambiguity, and disorder, rather than as a monolithic system of domination that the very word ’empire’ implies.” (Hebard)

Next, are observations of the blending of symbol and irony used by Crosby to demonstrate his view of the Empire. Crosby believes that the motive of the Empire is ill-willed. He also believes that their ‘chaiotic sytems’ bring failure, and the Empire dangle ‘proverbial carrots’ in exchange for far more valuable gains. Crosby’s position is that the eventual outcome of imperialism will be social, economical, and political oppression.

At this time, a detailed look at Crosby’s use of irony and symbols to depict the social climate that prevailed in America, the climate which he opposed to being introduced to the Natives, is warranted. Crosby asserts:

Take up the White Man’s burden; / Send forth your sturdy sons, / And load them down with whisky / And Testaments and guns. (1-4)

Ironically, these lines subliminally say that the drinking of whiskey mask the truth, since it is widely known that people who consume too much alcohol are not as cognitively aware as they should be and, therefore, not able to think correctly are apt to believe anything told to them. Further, being loaded down with whiskey causes a usually sturdy person to stagger, and even fall. More overtly though, is the fact that “Testament” represents truth and wholesomeness, and “guns” represent power and destruction. But, because the minds are altered with alcohol, the masking of the real motive is easily perpetrated. There is a strong possibility that the soldiers will introduce the social ill of alcoholism to the natives, and will also help to spread propoganda about the ‘good’ of imperialisim thereby causing the natives to become drunk and misinformed. The abililty of the natives to think reasonably correct about their condition will be diminished.

To further support his view of social failure and to show that the Empire thinks that the Natives have limited information and can be easily captured if not military, certainly they can be captured through the spread of socially communicable diseases. Crosby writes:

Throw in a few diseases / to spread in tropic climes, / For there the healthy niggers / Are quite behind the times. (5-8)

Crosby bolsters his position of social oppression by saying:

Give them electrocution chairs, / And prisons too, galore, / And if they seem

inclined to kick, / Then spill their heathen gore. (21-24)

The symbols of ‘electrocution chairs’, ‘prisons’, and ‘gore’ ironically speaks of death both physically and mentally. Physically speaking, there is the death of the person whether by electrocution, or the spilling of the blood. Then, there is death of having freedom of space, since prisons limit movement. While subtle, based on Crosby’s account, the intention to kill the dreams of the natives, screams from the pages of history. Crosby knows from his experience, that if any form of resistance, whether through word or action, is shown, if any attempt to pursue any dreams, ideologies, or customs that threatens the goals of the Empire is made, that the Empire would by any means necessary, ensure that the pursuit of those dreams was deferred and dry up like “A Raisins in the Sun”. (Diyanni 1870 )

In addition to social oppression, Crosby purports that the Natives will be opressed economically through hard labor as well as through the Empire’s system of taxation and debt. The view point of oppresive labor is aptly projected through the use of irony. Crosby claims:

And don’t forget the factories. / on those benighted shores / They have no cheerful iron mills / Nor eke departmemnt stores / They never work twelve hours a day, / And live in strange content. (9-14)

Through his masterful use of irony, Crosby argues that the natives, who did not work as long hours as did the Americans, were very content with what little they thought they had. However, the bigger issue for Crosby appears to be that Empire knew that the natives were actually very successful and wealthy and sought to make them believe that their way of life was inadequate, and to turn them from being ‘owners of the land’ to ‘laborers in the land’ so that the Empire may be expanded. (A perfect combination of imperialism and colonialism!) Even more indicative of his stance against economic oppression, Crosby decried the imposing of taxation and debt. He writes:

Take up the White Man’s burden, / And teach the Phillipines / What interest and taxes are / and what a mortgage means. (17-20)

Again, in Crosby’s minds eye, there is the irony of a people who are successful in their simple but, independent way of life who being militarily inferior are consequently forced to become failures by their dependence on a monstrous financial system.

In a final attempt to show the fallacy of the Empire, Crosby highlights the political climate that the Empire embraces. He pens:

They need our labor question, too, / And politics and fraud. / We’ve made a pretty mess at home; / Let’s make a mess abroad. (25 -28)

The irony in these lines humorously evaluate the endeavor of the Empire to fix another’s problem, when it cannot solve its own problems. In a nutshell, Crosby believes that Imperialism is a preposterous veiled attempt to cloak greed in kind deeds by using methods that are disfunctional.

In summarizing his single message of the failure and hypocrisy of the Empire, Crosby does three things. First he mocks what the Empire regards as a valiant mission, Next, he shows the unparrarel trade that the Empire wants, and then, he addresses the façade of the scripting of the mission that the Empire prefer to be written in the annals of history. The use of satirical irony and symbols are well armoured vehicles to deliver these points. Crosby declares:

Take up the White Man’s burden; / to you who thus succeed / In civilizing savage hordes / They owe a debt, indeed; (33 -36)

Crosby questions the validity of the mission. He goes on to weigh the exchange between the Empire and the Natives. He adds:

Concessions, pensions, salaries, / And priviledge and right, / with outstretched hands you raised to bless / Grab everything in sight. (37 -40).

In terms of irony, not only is there a contrast between how much is given verses how much is taken, but, also of what is given verses what is taken. The natives receive a few limited handouts like ‘agreements’, ‘benefits’, and’ paychecks’ and, in exchange the Empire takes ownership of the natives’ land and naturual resources. Interpretively, Crosby demostrates this transaction as a falling leap by going from owning to owing; which is very much an uneven trade. Finally, he attacks the hypocrisy of using the art of writing to distort the issue and hide the true motive of the Empire. It is necessary to present the catalog of words Crosby uses to expose what he views as being socially, economically, and politically incorrect . Crosby concludes:

Take up the White Man’s burden, / And if your write in verse, / Flatter your Nation’s vices, / And strive to make them worse. / Then learn that if with pious words / you ornament each phrase, / In a world of canting hypocrites / This kind of business pays. (41 – 48)

Fittingly, Crosby uses satirical irony to reveal the true motive of the insincere enthusiam that Crosby believes Kipling is showing for the Empire’s high ideals of pious goodness. Crosby is successful in presenting the single viewpoint of the Empire’s greed disguised as bringing civility to the uncivilized.

In conclusion, the expert use of irony and symbol by both Kipling and Crosby prove to be excellent conveyors of the poets’ messages. Kipling’s use of irony and symbol brillantly delivered two very contradictory positions. He lauds Imperialism by advocating that it is the responsibility of civilized nations to help to bring civilization to underdeveloped nations. He also decries the pride of thinking to be superior and being unfair to people perceived to be less finanically fortunate, not as socially advanced, and not as politically savvy. Like Kipling, Crosby employs irony and symbols to deliver his solo message. Crosby’s message is that the Empire is hypocrital in its motive and that the gist of what they really wanted to do was camoflagued by missions to humanity, and described as helping to bring civilization to the uncivilized. Clearly, the poets’ use of irony and symbol shaped the understanding and interpretation of the poems intended meanings. The use of Irony and Symbol was so well executed, there remains no argument as to the value of these elements in both poems.


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