Liberty

P.B. Shelley, “A New National Anthem” (1819 or 1820)

Nanine Vallain,  Liberty  (1793)

Nanine Vallain, Liberty (1793)

"God prosper, speed, and save,
God raise from England’s grave
Her murdered Queen!
Pave with swift victory
The steps of Liberty,
Whom Britons own to be
Immortal Queen…

[Bewilder] her enemies
In their own dark disguise,--
God save our Queen!
All earthly things that dare
Her sacred name to bear,
Strip them, as kings are, bare;
God save the Queen!

Be her eternal throne
Built in our hearts alone--
God save the Queen!
Let the oppressor hold
Canopied seats of gold;
She sits enthroned of old
O’er our hearts, Queen!”

Written in 1819 or early 1820, Shelley’s alternative national anthem marks a continuation of the strategies Shelley adopts in works like “Men of England: A Song” and “The Mask of Anarchy”: to write poetry in a “vernacular” style, adopting popular genres like the song to reach the kinds of lower-class readers who might not ordinarily read poetry. Far less dense and challenging than much of his other poetry, Shelley’s anthem is written in a shorter, bouncy metre and evokes the same patriotic emotions that most anthems stoke. But make no mistake: Shelley’s poem is no ordinary celebration of King and country!

The “monarch” celebrated here is not King George III, but “Liberty,” a personified presence that Shelley calls the only true ruler of Britain. Evoking the regicides recently experienced in England and France, Shelley claims that this “Queen” has lately been murdered at the hands of traitorous politicians attempting to curb the reform movement in Britain. But Liberty also lives in the hearts of freedom-loving Britons, which means that she cannot be stopped by shows of force. Thus, while Shelley reflects upon a recent turn for the worse in Britain’s state of political affairs, his poem also offers some consolation: if Liberty lives in the hearts and minds of British people, its reign is inevitable, at least in the long run.