The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Would a satirical reading of White Man's Burden be anachronistic?

I'm reading Tony Judt's NYROB review article [1] on the US and empire when the three little words crop up.

I naturally turn to the text of Rudyard Kipling's famous admonition to refresh my memory, only to find this locus classicus of the English straight bat - Play up and play the game [2] and all that jazz - is dripping with sarcasm.

Empire-building is a ghastly business: there's no profit in it -
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain.
- one gets no thanks from the natives -
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
- for the improvements one makes: and one's work is liable to be ruined at any moment at the hands of the little brown brothers -
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

The complaint smacks of the sort made by the British about the Americans' late entry into both World Wars (of the Good of you to turn up variety). Or Winston Churchill's famous line to the effect [3] that
The Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives.

A strong vein of (morale-boosting but not jingoistic) English character that showed itself in wartime humour - the cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather [4] in the First World War and the 1960s/70s TV sitcom Dad's Army [5]: only Daily Mail-reading Little Englanders in their bungalows who had been no closer to India than Margate would think there was anything glorious about empire [6]. It was, in some cases, a necessary evil.

When the poem was published in the US in 1899, it seems it was not taken as satire [7]. But that is scarcely conclusive of Kipling's views on the subject.

(There is, perhaps, a compare and contrast possible with the attitudes to the White Man's Burden after World War 2 (as oh so differently borne by Yanks and Brits) displayed in the works of Graham Greene - in the Quiet American and The Third Man, for instance [8].)

I may return to the substance of Judt's piece when I've read it!

  1. Which seems to have attracted surprisingly little blogo-comment.

  2. From Sir Henry Newbolt's poem - the title: Vitae Lampada ("Light of Life" - first time I've seen such a title).

  3. There are various versions - no sign of a proper source. Not that I've really looked...

  4. Begetter of walrus-moustached Old Bill - of If you know a better 'ole, go to it fame.

  5. About a Home Guard (formerly Local Defence Volunteers) unit on the south coast of England in the early 1940s. The mainspring of the drama that underlay the gags was the knowledge that, had a German invasion been mounted, these boys and old men would have almost certainly stood and fought, and been slaughtered in the first wave - a sort of re-run of the Charge of the Light Brigade, whose veneration by the English is, I suspect, most puzzling to foreigners.

  6. The pro-imperial PR grew as the UK's hold on its empire slackened: Empire Day (May 24) was first celebrated in 1902 - just after the British had confirmed to the Germans that, after fifty years of reform, the British Army could be humiliated by a bunch of white trash on horseback; and the pomp and circumstance of the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley belied the vastly reduced circumstances in which the world war had left the country.

  7. A collection of 50-60 contemporary articles, cartoons, etc on the poem; and a retrospective piece from the Monthly Review (November 2003).

    Piquant to find "the Great Commoner" Williams Jennings Bryant embracing the concept in a 1906 speech in London.

  8. My July 9 piece, one of a number on these two works, links a thesis comparing them.

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