In contemporary times, much criticism has been placed upon Rudyard Kipling for his support of British Imperialism; George Orwell went so far as to call him the “prophet of British Imperialism during its expansionist phase.” To be sure, a considerable portion of Kipling’s works were written in celebration and support of Imperial expansion, but it is short-sighted to simply label him as an Imperial propagandist or apologist. Two of his most oft-condemned poems, Recessional and The White Man’s Burden, actually were used by both sides of the colonial issue at the time.
1 A reading of Recessional, taken in the context of the prevailing attitudes of the time, seems to indicate that it is a piece about hubris rather than a promotion of the Empire. And the “burden” that Kipling writes on, while patronizing, was indeed a genuine burden.2 The fact that the British Empire went far in alleviating famine and disease in the conquered territories should not be ignored.
It is beyond a doubt, however, that Kipling was convinced of Britain’s superiority in the world. In For All We Have and Are, for instance, the reader is convinced with the last two lines, “What stands if Freedom fall?/Who dies if England live?” Kipling was not by far the most vociferous of the jingoists; having been somewhat of an outsider all for his life, he showed great sympathy for those whose lives were wasted in the expansion of the empire, and criticized the Imperial machinery that used them. His poetry as told by the common British soldiers show his ability maintain his status as poet laureate of the Empire while telling the stories of its victims, and at times, condemning it for the way it treated those soldiers. Kipling published Barrack-Room Ballads in 1890, and it immediately gained him great success in England. A collection of poems written in the voice of a London cockney, they display Kipling’s remarkable breadth of understanding of soldiers and soldiering during the Vi.