Study Guide

The White Man's Burden Form and Meter

By Rudyard Kipling

Form and Meter

This poem may deliver a pretty troubling message, but when it comes to the form and meter, we could give it serious points for consistency (if we were in the point-giving mood). The rhythm and rhyme scheme are so regular that you can practically set your watch to it—if folks actually wore hand-wound watches to set anymore.

Don't believe us? Just read this stanza out loud:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
(1-7)

If you did read that out loud (and you haven't been kicked out of the computer lab yet), then you're hearing alternating patterns for each line. The odd-numbered lines (staring with line 1) are written in a pattern that features two iambs, followed by an amphibrach.

Now, before you have a terminology freak-out, don't worry too much about the fancy language. An iamb is just a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is stressed and the second one isn't: daDUM. (Say "although" out loud to hear an iamb in action.) An amphibrach is a rarer beast in the poetry kingdom. It's actually a three-syllable trio, where the first and last syllables are unstressed, but the middle on is: daDUMda. Think of an iamb with an extra, unstressed beat at the end. "Allowance" gives you an amphibrach rhythm.

The even-numbered lines (2, 4, etc.) are a bit less exotic, rhythm-wise. They consist of three iambs, or—as they would say in the poetry biz—iambic trimeter (tri- meaning three). So, we have alternating lines that sound like:

daDUM daDUM daDUMda
daDUM daDUM daDUM

What's most striking about this rhythmical pattern, though, is how little it changes throughout the poem. There's nothing even close to a deviation in this pattern. We dare you to find one, in fact. Every odd-numbered line gives us two iambs and an amphibrach; every even numbered line features three full iambs. And the same goes for the poem's rhyme scheme: ABCBDEFE, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme. Every stanza follows the same pattern—not a word, or a rhyme, out of place.

As a result, the poem takes on an orderly, regimented feel, almost like a march. It also reminds us of those cheers that we would hear at high school football games: "Push 'em back. Push 'em back. Waaaay back!" In both cases, the form of the poem is totally appropriate. Here we have a speaker who acts like a kind of cheerleader, encouraging white men to go out and establish their order, their way of life on the "wild" natives of other countries. Push 'em back, indeed.