Ode To Liberty: by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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      The Ode to Liberty is Shelley's most ambitious and successful Pindaric Ode. Its nearest relations in English are Gray's Progress of Parsy and Coleridge's Ode on the Departing Year. Written in the spring of the year 1820 and published in 1821 along with Prometheus Unbound, the poem derives its inspiration from the revolution by the liberal forces against Spanish regime. The years 1820 and 1821 were marked by a series of revolts in southern Europe, the first being in Spain. The Bourbon Ferdinand VII had been restored to the Spanish throne in 1814, after the Napoleonic wars. He revoked the liberal constitution drawn up by the Cortes in 1812, restored the inquisition and ruled despotically. Discontent flared into revolution early in 1820, and Ferdinand was forced to accept a liberal government, which lasted till 1823. When Shelley first heard of the revolt he talked of visiting Spain in person, like some leftwing poet of the 1930s. In fact, he merely followed the newspaper reports and sublimated his enthusiasm into the poem.

Historical Background

      For the appropriate appreciation of the poem the readers need to have a look into the political turmoil that Europe and America were going through. The Parliamentary forces in England toppled down the Charles I, in 1649. The French Revolution of 1789 paved the path for Napolean to rise who later became anarchist. After his death, by 1820 France was freed from anarchism. In 1821 Naples and Greece witnessed the uprise of liberal forces. The American Revolution sparked off in the year 1775 and which continued till 1783 that upheld the liberal dictum. All these events left their traces in these poem.


      This formal ode is a history of the idea of Liberty, as Shelley sees it. We are often reminded of the Fairy's lecture in Queen Mab, for the poem is alleged to be spoken by an equally convenient mouthpiece, an oracular 'voice out of the deep'. In the primaeval, non-liberal era, we are told, all was chaos. This was followed by tyranny and it was not until the golden age of Greece that the dormant seeds of liberty germinated. Side by side with liberty, the arts arose, and provided a lasting moment in Athens. The torch of liberty passed from Greece to Rome, there to be snuffed out by materialism. Man had dared to resign his hard-won rights, and Liberty was left to mourn in 'utmost islets inaccessible'. Shelley then illustrates the revival of Liberty in Europe, with references to Alfred, to Renaissance, Italy, Luther, Milton and the French Revolution. After that he chides the European nations of his day, with the honourable exception of Spain for condoning tyranny. He even starts to arraign kings and priests, as if he had put back the clock to Queen Mab:

Oh, that the free would stamp the impious name Of King into the dust
Oh, that the wise from their and bright minds would kindle Such lamps within the dome of this dim world,
That the pole name of Priest might shrink and dwindle Into the hell from which it first was hurled...

      After this diatribe the oracular voice dies away, and the tension gradually slackens in the diminuendo of the last stanza. Shelley often describes himself as sinking thus suddenly from a heaven of song, as if he felt that all his attempts to escape from the reality that he hated must be as vain as rebellion against the attraction of gravity.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      In this poem, as the critic A. Clutton-Brock observes, Shelley revived and developed a kind of poetry which Crashaw had first made and which we may call orchestral rather than lyrical. In the critic's words—"It has been still further developed by Swinburne in many odes. It is a magnificent means of expression, but it still waits for an English Pindar to manage it perfectly. Even the finest examples of it, of which Shelley's Ode to Liberty is certainly one, remind one of those modern symphonic poems in which the orchestration is apt to overpower the subject matter. There is too much imagery in the Ode to Liberty, and versification too swift and rich, not only for the thought but for the emotion. The poem is prolonged by device after device without development of the theme. There is much more variety and continuity of music than in Gray's odes, but the same eloquent irrelevancies which seem to be a chronic vice in this kind of poetry. Thus Shelley, having told how liberty fled from Rome, proceeds to ask:—

From what Hyrcanian glen or frozen hill,
Or piny promontory of the Arctic main,
Or utmost islet inaccessible,
Didst thou lament the ruin of thy reign,
Teaching the woods and waves and desert rocks,
And every Naiad's ice-cold urn,
To talk in echoes sad and stern,
Of that sublimest love which man had dared unlearn?"

      This question bears no relation to reality. Because the poet has personified Liberty, he thinks it necessary to conjecture where she was when men had lost all knowledge of her. The conjecture that she taught the woods and waves to talk of her loss is as meaningless as any frigid fancy of the eighteenth century."


      The Ode to Liberty is in nineteen regular stanzas of fifteen lines each and describes the evil state of the world before the birth of Liberty. Most part of the ode is a mere rhetoric, until the last-scene, in which Shelley describes the slidden end of his inspiration. Shelley adopts the required rhetorical tone, and he proceeds patiently, nineteen times, through the daunting labyrinth of the rhyme-scheme ababcdddcecedee. In the Ode to Liberty he is more successful than either Gray or Coleridge in avoiding the great danger of his formal ode—that the language may become stilted as the rhyme-scheme. Shelley uses only a minimum of eighteenth-century abstractions, like Pity and Hope, and he enlivens the poem with startling images, like

.....every Aeolian isle
From Pithecusa to Pelorus
Howls, and leaps, and glares in chorus.

      He shows he is not going to let the verse-form cramp him when he twice carries through a clause from one stanza to next, a liberty which Gray would never have countenanced, even in an ode to Liberty. Yet, despite Shelley's efforts to revivify and liberalize it, the formal-rhetorical ode seems to have an obstinately un-English streak, which he cannot wholly eradicate.


      The critic Desmond King-Hele has best summed up in his words the core of the message that the poem conveys: "As a clarion-call to fight for freedom, there is nothing in English poetry to equal the Ode to Liberty: if we are really one of the freedom-loving peoples, we ought to be carried away with enthusiasm, following in the wake of John Stuart Mill, who used to weep when reading the poem to his friends. But if we want to be stuffily objective we can point out that the greatest poetry avoids open propaganda, while the Ode to Liberty is flagrantly propagandist, like Queen Mab and The Revolt of Islam. And if we have slipped too far down into the groove of conventionality we may not like to see kings thwacked and priests baited. The poem is, then, a fine piece of propaganda, an anthem for passionate freedom-lovers; but those who are more bashful in wooing freedom may find it too biased."

      The poem is abstract and vague in form. The images and allusion are too implicit to apprehend; Shelley was a atheist yet he prayed to 'Lord' and 'Power unknown'. The poem as a whole is steeped in emotion. It is the emotion that applauds Athens and Rome as the true seats for liberty which is conducive for nurturing art but he fails to perceive the inhumanity associated with the slavery system which prevailed their society.

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