The Power Of Words: Colonialism And Imperialism In Ulysses


The power of words should not be underestimated. Throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of motivation brought upon masses by moving and colorful speeches. From warlords who gave motivational pep-talks right before the battle began, speeches that boiled the blood of soldiers and made them fight ten times stronger, to speeches given by politicians nowadays that cause large numbers of people occupying the streets and burning down public properties. From Pericles, in the battle of Marathon, when he said “We must live up to the standard they set: we must resist our enemies in any and every way, and try to leave to those who come after us an Athens that is as great as ever,” and lead them to their victory, to Mark Anthony’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Shakespeare 75), that turned the people for him and against Brutus and his followers, to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”, which encouraged many while and people of color to act against racism, all are great examples of the power of speech and how it can motivate people.

“Ulysses”, written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is a great example of the power of speech used to motivate the reader to do as the speaker suggests, although what the speaker suggests might not be as straightforward as some other speeches. It is without a doubt a great poem, worthy to recite over and over again, and as described by T.S. Eliot, “a perfect poem”. It is a poem with many layers: autobiographical (related to the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam) (Napierkowsky 278), mythologically allusive (referring to Homer’s and Dante’s Ulysses), psychological (the speaker seems to seek his demise in various lines), and also, political. There have been many debates on how to interpret the poem, some scholars have focused on the poem’s form and how the first half of it seems to be a soliloquy, rather than a dramatic monologue (Hughes 201), some have considered the anxiety of influence factor of the poem, some discussed the ideological and political side of it, among many others. Although the poem might primarily and readily be interpreted as a “dramatic monologue on life, journey, old age, an elegy on death, an exhortation to live it to the full and be virtuous and hope to go to heaven etc.”, its political agenda should not be ignored.

Colonialism and imperialism

A Savage Race

Many scholars have discussed the post-colonial and even the imperialist aspect of the poem, but the jury is still out on why he calls his own people “a savage race.” Once one establishes that this poem can be interpreted as a mouthpiece for English colonialism and imperialism, one can have a better understanding of this belittlement. According to Rowlinson, “he seems to be imagining between himself and his subjects not just differences of class, but, bizarrely, cultural and even racial differences”. Although this scholar is dubious about whether Ithaca is Ulysses’ home and his people are his own, or that it is indeed a colonize land, in my opinion, which is in line with what Dr. Raiyah thinks, the “savage people” the speaker of the poem is referring to are the people who have already been colonized by the British Empire. Why else would they not “know not him”? Why else would they be culturally and even racially different from him? They do not know him, and they are different from him, because they are not actually his people, and they have been recently come under his rule. These people, now people under his command, are described as “rugged,” and in need to be “subdued to the useful and the good.”


Some readers may have the impression that he sees himself superior to his son; since, after all, the speaker is the one who “strove with Gods” (capital G) and his son is the one who has to “pay / meet adoration to his household god” (small g). What his son is doing, is a crucial part of the process of colonialism. If we are to take the “savage people” as the colonized people, Telemachus has to stay there and rule them, lest they try to start a revolution and drive them out. Hence, their “ruggedness” would be attempts to riot, and “the useful and the good,” would be being submissive to their English rulers. The son has to be “gentle,” because it is the nature of colonialist agendas to appear as caring for the colonized people, to try to so-called culture them, and make them so-called civilized. It would not be far-fetched to assume that the colonizers do not care about the colonized, and calling them “savage” would not be a surprise. What the son is doing here, in my opinion, is the definition of ruling a colonized country: “Telemachus is … characterized as a colonial administrator who has his job cut out for him”.

The Power of Words

In regards to the points mentioned above, the poem has the potential to evoke a sense of pride in the British reader. The speaker, although old, like the country itself, is full of pride for its achievements, and has done so many great things. He and his friends, as a true Englishmen would like to believe, have “took / the thunder and the sunshine, and opposed / free hearts, free foreheads.” One could interpret the word “free” here as one who always captures, and is not captured. Also, the text of the poem is full of motivational and thrilling tropes and schemes. As Lee notices,

“We witness here such prosodic devices as alliteration (“life to the lees”); parallelism (“enjoyed / greatly … suffered greatly”); contrast (the terse “on shore” against the amplified “when / Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades / Vext the dim sea”), verbal repetition (“Greatly … greatly”), and inverted word order (“suffered greatly”). “

These figures of speech, in addition to hyperbole (“moved earth and heaven”), personification (“rainy Hyades / Vext the dim sea”), among others, are found all over the poem, most noticeably in the end. The poem has an epic tone; it is written in the form of a dramatic monologue; it is written in iambic pentameter; and it is highly allusive. All these combined have the potential to create a sense of livelihood and excitement in the reader. A recent example of the usage of this poem can be seen in the movie Skyfall (2012), in which the leader of a secret organization recites the last few lines of the poem in order to motivate her peers to give her another chance and to trust her. Although it is just a movie, but the effect that the poem brings on the listeners cannot be merely fictional and fake. If the British reader of the time were to get the hints provided by the poem, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine what an effect this poem would have on them. I suggest such a poem, alongside other motivators, would suffice in provoking a young man to go and “seek a newer world.” The speaker calls the reader to move: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / to rust unburnished, not to shine in use / as though to breath were life!” To him, it is a great sin to “hoard”, as he mentions it twice. Capitalistically speaking, it is a good idea to amass belongings and become wealthier, as it would bring well-being for the individuals and eventually, the society. But an even better idea would be to gain those riches through an easier way, i.e., colonialization, and the poem promises this to the readers: “though much is taken, much abides” and “we shall touch the Happy Isles,” which is a heavenly place which has all that one needs. Of course, that would not last long, since once they are done with ransacking a land, they suddenly realize that the people there have been, and will always be, savages, and they need to find a new place to culture. As we can see in the second line of the poem, “By this still hearth, among these barren crags,” this island has no loner any capitalistic value for him in terms of natural resources, and he needs to find newer places.


The speaker has been to many places and knows many things; he boasts that he is honored by “cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments.” But the placement of the following line has always bothered me: “And drunk delight of battle with my peers, / Far on the ringing plain of windy Troy.” Why would he talk about his war experiences all of a sudden? And why would he mention a war which has a colonialist nature? Sure, he could have been boasting his trickery with the Trojan Horse in the Trojan war, but if we look at it from a colonialist point of view, he could be glorifying war in order to capture new colonies. To him such a battle is “delightful,” and it is equal to values such as being honored by “cities of men / And manners, … councils, governments.” Immediately after this, he claims: “I am a part of all that I have met,” suggesting that he does not belong to the island, and has to seek newer battles.

As suggested by many scholars, the speaker seeks his death, and according to some, finding “spiritual reality” after death. I agree with this reading of the poem, since the evidence for it is abundant. But the point is, even if he were to die, his friends were not necessarily to have the same fate as well. He calls himself, and not others, a “gray spirit yearning in desire / to follow knowledge like a sinking star,” (and we know that sinking star here most probably refers to his probability of death) and later says that “his purpose holds / to sail beyond the sunset, until he dies.” And even if they all were to die, as some other lines suggest, who is to say that their next generation would not follow their path? In this case they will be the sacrificial leaders of their people, something similar to the story of Leonidas and his people in the movie 300, motivating others to follow their bravery, or in the case of their death, seek revenge.

Britain at the Time of “Ulysses”

The colonialist agenda of the poem reaches its most direct form in the lines “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” and later the last five lines. As Koshy suggests, “The great pity here … is the misuse of Jesus’ words in an entirely different context of ‘seek and ye shall find’ by adding ‘strive’ before it and ‘not to yield’ after it, … shifting a spiritual imperative to a political one’”. At the time the poem was written, Britain had not yet become “the empire on which the sun never sets” (Wikipedia Contributors). According to Rowlinson,

At that date, for instance, Australia was still in one settlement a penal colony, in others the enterprise of private trading companies; India too was still formally under the administration of the East India Company and not that of the Crown, while Upper and Lower Canada and the West Indies were Crown colonies. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the construction of an imperialist ideology on the foundation of newly evolved notions of race and culture that would make it possible to represent these diverse institutional phenomena as parts of a single national drama. 

It was important, at least at the time the poem was published, to increase the dominion of Britain over the world. As we can see later, according to Rowlinson, when there were uprisings taking place in Canada in 1837, the Whig Prime Minister admits that the separation of Canada from the British Empire “would be a serious blow to the honour of Great Britain, and certainly would be fatal to the character and existence of the Administration under which it took place”. So, it is quite plausible that Tennyson, the poet laureate of the time, attempt to help gather forces to strengthen the empire.


Although Tennyson later became “more or less a crude apologist for an imperialist policy”, an example of which being his epilogue to his Idylls of the King, in which he “rebuked the argument that Britain should give up its military presence in Canada because it is too costly”, we should not ignore the colonialist and imperialist overtones found in “Ulysses.” A masterfully constructed poem, it is nostalgic tale with an epic tone, calling the (British) reader for a journey to colonialize other nations may also predict the gradual and mournful demise of the British Empire over the course of the two centuries since 'Ulysses' was written.

Works Cited

  • 300. Directed by Zack Snyder and Noam Murro, Warner Bros., 2006.
  • Hughes, Linda K. “Dramatis and Private Personae: 'Ulysses' Revisited.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 17, no. 3, 1979, pp. 192-203.
  • Koshy, A.V. “A Political Re-reading of the Poem “Ulysses” by Lord Alfred Tennyson.” Academia, Accessed 18 February 2019.
  • Lee, Anthony W. ““I Am Become a Name”: An Allusion to Psalm 69:8 in Tennyson’s Ulysses.” The Explicator, vol. 76, no.1, pp. 52-54.
  • Mitchell, Charles. “The Undying Will of Tennyson's Ulysses.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 2, no. 2, 1964, pp. 87-95.
  • Napierkowsky, Marie Rose, and Mary K. Ruby, editors. Poetry for Students: Volume 2. Gale. 1998.
  • Nohrnberg, James. “Eight Reflections of Tennyson's 'Ulysses'.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 47, no. 1, 2009, pp. 101-150.
  • Pettigrew, John. “Tennyson's 'Ulysses': A Reconciliation of Opposites.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 1, no. 1, 1963, pp. 27-45.
  • Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. Greek Tragedy. Blackwell Publishing. 2008.
  • Rowlinson, Matthew. “The Ideological Moment of Tennyson's 'Ulysses'.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 30, no. 3/4, 1992, pp. 265-276.
  • Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar: Webster’s Thesaurus Edition for PSAT®, SAT®, GRE®, LSAT®, GMAT®, and AP® English Test Preparation. Icon Classics. 2005.
  • Skyfall. Directed by Sam Mendes, Columbia Picture, 2012.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. King’s Dream. Yale University Press. 2009.
  • Tennyson, Alfred. “Ulysses.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 1, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton & Company, 2006, pp. 992-994.
  • Wikipedia Contributors. “The empire on which the sun never sets.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Accessed 25 February 2019.
16 August 2021
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