Take up the White Man's burden-- Send forth the best ye breed-- Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives' need;
So, we just started the poem and already our speaker is bossing us around. Take it easy, pal. (Read up on this guy over at our "Speaker" section.)
Specifically, he wants us to do some work: "take up," or help out with, "the White Man's burden." Now, a burden is something heavy. If you have to carry home four textbooks from school, that could be a burden. But this could also be something figurative , like a job or a responsibility.
In addition to this, the speaker wants us to ship off "the best ye breed." In other words, he's asking for the A-team here. He only wants the very best for this job.
Of course, we have to acknowledge now that our speaker's idea of the very best just happens to be a White Man (notice that the poem capitalizes the words specially). So, we're given a clear idea of racial superiority in just the first two lines of the poem.
At the same time, the use of the word "breed" in line 2 is telling. Racial categories were considered markers of your inner character during the time that this poem was written. There was a whole "science" behind this idea, which claimed that the way folks looked on the outside could tells us what they were made of on the inside. And guess which category the exclusively white, exclusively male group of "scientists" put at the top of the chain? That's right: white guys.
Our speaker has clearly bought into the hype, and believes that white men are the cream of the human crop, so to speak.
And he wants these white men to be sent away ("bind […] to exile") to do some service for a group of "captives," or prisoners.
(History Note: As we told you over in "In a Nutshell," Kipling was writing this in response to the American defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War. As a result, the U.S. came into possession of overseas territories like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and—the place the Kipling was focused on—the Philippines. By "captives," it's likely that Kipling had the native Filipinos in mind here since, having been freed from Spanish rule, they were now under American control.)
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild-- Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
What else to these best-of-the-best white men have to do? Well, they have to do some pretty tough work, like waiting on these captives in a "heavy harness." This is a metaphor that likens the white men to strong horses who have to pull a sizable load.
Of course, it would be challenging if your job was to help out "fluttered folk" who were "wild." Here the poem describes the native captives like so many butterflies flitting about without a care in the world. Have you every tried to shoo a moth out of an open window before? The moth doesn't know what you're up to, so it doesn't cooperate. The implication from this description is that the natives are just a bunch of uncivilized animals.
What's more, according to our speaker they're also "sullen," or gloomy, devil-children. All in all, this is not a flattering description. The upshot is that these undeveloped people need "saving" by the noble efforts of white men. (Now do you see why this poem's fallen out of favor in the past 100 years or so?)
This poem's got a pretty despicable message, but you sure can tap your toe to it. This boasts both a regular rhyme scheme and meter. For more on that, head on over to "Form and Meter."