Themes and message

Duty and sacrifice

The theme of duty is suggested both in the title and throughout the poem through the phrase “the White Man’s burden”. The phrase implies that the White Man is morally required to bring civilisation into "savage" lands.

Furthermore, the poem has religious  elements – it resembles a hymn (a religious song), the speaker alludes to the Biblical story of the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt (p. 263, ll. 7-8), and he uses the word “heathen” (p. 262, l. 25) in connection with the colonised peoples. Consequently, this creates the feeling that the White Man has a spiritual responsibility, and he must honour the “burden” that was presented to him by God.

This is further enhanced by the idea of sacrifice. The speaker encourages the White Man to sacrifice his sons (p. 262, l. 3). They, in turn, will take up the hard work of “serf and sweeper” (p. 262, l. 30) without expecting praise, and they should endure the native peoples’ hostility (p. 263, ll. 3-5).

The speaker also urges the White Man to sacrifice freedom and even his own life while pursuing the betterment of native people: “Nor call too loud on Freedom/To cloak your weariness” (p. 263, ll. 12-13); “Go make them with your l...

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