Empires and imperialism have been popular themes for poets over the centuries. The tone has often been elegiac: the impermanence of empires, their inevitably decay, and the moral and political problems the very idea of colonialism and imperialism suggest, are all frequent themes of poems about empire. Here’s our pick of ten of the best.
1. James Grainger, The Sugar Cane.
What soil the cane affects; what care demands;
Beneath what signs to plant; what ills await;
How the hot nectar best to christallize;
And Afric’s sable progeny to keep:
A Muse, that long hath wander’d in the groves
Of myrtle-indolence, attempts to sing …
This is a long poem, available in full via the Internet Archive link provided above.
Grainger was a Scottish doctor who settled on the West Indian island of St. Kitts in 1759, becoming the manager of his family’s sugar plantations. The Sugar Cane is a long ‘Georgic’ or pastoral poem published in 1764 which describes the landscape of the West Indies and the African slaves who were forced to toil the land. Although Grainger’s poem is of its time and the poet is not exactly critical of the imperial mission, he is interested in the various hardships faced by the slaves and the diseases they suffered.
2. Percy Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’.
‘“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away …’
The speaker of this poem by one of the greatest Romantic Poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), tells us of the traveller he met in an ‘antique land’ who told him about two stony stumps which stand in the desert. Near them are the remains of a stone face – evidently part of a statue – and the face bears a superior, grim expression. This stone face was clearly modelled on a real person, most probably a ruler, who once had a kingdom or empire in the desert – now long since vanished.
Shelley wrote the poem in 1817, not long after the British Museum announced that it had acquired a fragment of a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (his head and torso, to be exact). Shelley may well have heard of this acquisition and been motivated to write his sonnet about the pharaoh’s remains.
But was the poem also an oblique critique of the British royal family? We discuss this in our analysis of the poem, in the link above.
3. Christina Rossetti, ‘My Dream’.
So he grew lord and master of his kin:
But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?
An execrable appetite arose,
He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.
He knew no law, he feared no binding law,
But ground them with inexorable jaw …
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
This Rossetti poem from 1862 takes us into fantastical territory, with the poet’s vivid description of her dream involving crocodiles being spawned by the river Euphrates. One giant crocodile then eats up the others, before crying the proverbial ‘crocodile tears’ over what he’s done.
Although its symbolism is ambiguous, this poem has been interpreted as an allegory (an alligator-allegory, almost, we might say) for imperialism, and specifically the British empire, especially when we are told that ‘all the empire faded from his coat’.
4. Rudyard Kipling, ‘Recessional’.
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Although this poem is not now on the lips of many people, aside from diehard Kipling fans, one phrase from ‘Recessional’ is heard and read every year: ‘lest we forget’, the phrase used every Remembrance Sunday to commemorate those soldiers who died in war, comes from this poem, which Kipling wrote for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Perhaps not as famous as ‘The White Man’s Burden’, the controversial poem Kipling wrote in 1899 during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902), urging America to seize colonial control in the Philippines, ‘Recessional’ gives a more thoughtful view of the imperialist’s responsibility not to forget the ‘Law’ of God while colonising other lands.
5. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
Many people don’t realise just how deep-rooted the idea of empire is in Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem. From the Phoenician trader who washes up dead in the fourth part of the poem to the references to the falling empires of the past (which had their base in Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London – and Rome, of course), The Waste Land is a poem which, among other things, reflects the decay of a number of world empires at the end of the First World War.
We have analysed Eliot’s poem here.
6. Gabriel Okara, ‘You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed’.
Okara (1921-2019) was a Nigerian poet and novelist. This is one of his most frequently anthologised poems, and is usually interpreted as a conversation between a white colonialist and an African native. The white European laughs at the African man, mocking him for his difference – but the African speaker has the last word.
7. Derek Walcott, ‘Lost Empire’.
‘And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden’: so begins this powerful poem by the Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott (1930-2017), who was born in St. Lucia in the West Indies, about imperialism breaking apart and what happens in its wake. We love the line, ‘light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.’
8. John Agard, ‘Flag’.
Agard (born 1949) lives in the UK, and is an Afro-Guyanese playwright and poet who has also written for children. He was born in Guyana.
In ‘Flag’, a poem comprising a series of tercets which each begin with a question, Agard ponders the symbolism of the flag, and how this simple piece of cloth that flutters in the breeze can exercise such patriotic and nationalistic power over people.
9. Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Empire’.
The West Midlands poet Zephaniah (who retains close links with the city of Birmingham and has even appeared in Peaky Blinders) is known for the strikingly oral and performative nature of his poetry: he is a poet to be heard and seen as well as read. Happily, the link above is to a YouTube video of him reading his poem ‘Empire’, which is one of a number of engagements with the legacy of the British Empire we find in Zephaniah’s work. He famously turned down an OBE because of the imperialist connotations of being an ‘Officer of the British Empire’.
10. Raza Ali Hasan, ‘On Imperialism’.
Hasan is a Pakistani-American poet who moved to the US in 1991. This very short poem from Hasan’s 2015 collection, Songs of the Warrior Class is just five lines and three short stanzas long, and yet Hasan manages to condense the complexities of Empire into a poem of just 22 words. Note the masterly use of alliteration and assonance.