P.B. Shelley, “Ode to Liberty” (1820)

Jean-Pierre Houël,  Prise de la Bastille  (1789)

Jean-Pierre Houël, Prise de la Bastille (1789)

“Come thou [Liberty], but lead out of the inmost cave
Of man's deep spirit, as the morning-star
Beckons the Sun from the Eoan wave,
Wisdom. I hear the pennons of her car
Self-moving, like cloud charioted by flame;
Comes she not, and come ye not,
Rulers of eternal thought,
To judge, with solemn truth, life's ill-apportioned lot?
Blind Love, and equal Justice, and the Fame
Of what has been, the Hope of what will be?
O Liberty! if such could be thy name
Wert thou disjoined from these, or they from thee:
If thine or theirs were treasures to be bought
By blood or tears, have not the wise and free
Wept tears, and blood like tears?” (Lines 256-270)

Written in 1820, Shelley’s poem celebrates Liberty, a personified force that, after centuries of slumber, seems to be on the verge of reawakening at long last. While 1819 was a terrible year for reformers across Europe, 1820 brought new optimism: revolutions in Spain, Portugal, and Italy prompts Shelley to imagine the spread of Liberty further, across the world and into countries still under the yoke of tyranny. For Shelley, however, Liberty is not only a matter of representative government, fair pay, and impartial legal systems; it is also a state of mind. Beginning with a cave metaphor that might make us think of Plato’s famous allegory, Shelley imagines Liberty, leading the human spirit out of the shadows and into the light of wisdom, love, and hope—the qualities linked to human perseverance in the quest toward happiness.

But is the spread of freedom inevitable, according to Shelley’s poem? Think of how often Shelley gives us his picture of Liberty—what it is, when it appears—through questions: “Comes she not…?” While anticipated by Shelley, Liberty’s triumph is far from certain. After all, in the view of history presented in the poem, Liberty appears at several epochs—in classical Greece, the Roman Republic, and Saxon England—only to disappear once more. Written at a moment of tremendous upheaval in European history, Shelley’s poem captures the optimism that he and his fellow reformers experienced, but he never shies away from the vulnerability of it all. As his poem explores the struggle for freedom throughout history, it seems to be telling us that if the triumph of Liberty is not simply inevitable, the ongoing struggle to achieve and defend it becomes all the more important.


P.B. Shelley, “Men of England,” (1819 or 1820)

Jean-Francois Millet,  The Gleaners  (1857)

Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

“Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low? 
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear? 

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood? 

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge, 
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil? 

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm, 
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm? 
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear? …

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells— 
In hall ye deck another dwells. 
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye. 

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.”

In Europe’s revolutionary era, the contest over hearts and minds was fought across many cultural arenas. We get a sense of this in “Men of England,” a poem written in the style of the popular songs that, in the England of Shelley’s day, would have been the stuff of riotous sing-alongs in pubs, fairs, and other centres of public life. In 1820, writing politically-charged content intended for a mass audience was extremely dangerous: reformers who wrote for common people often found themselves facing libel or even treason charges. On the other hand, finding innovative ways to reach out to common, illiterate people was deemed crucial if England was to achieve grassroots change. 

Shelley commits himself to just this kind of project in “Men of England.” Shelley writes in easy-to-understand language and adopts a bouncy metrical structure (“tetrameter,” or lines of eight syllables) that makes memorization easy. The metaphors Shelley utilizes for describing the situation in England are simple but powerful: worker bees—the hard-working men of England—toil for the benefit of the “drones,” the non-labouring members of the hive. Capping it all off are a number of rhetorical questions that bring readers or listeners directly into the poem’s action: why “plough for the lords who lay ye low?”

Like the people of London described by William Blake, Shelley’s workers are adorned with “mind-forg’d manacles,” since they wear the very chains they themselves have “wrought.” While they remain complicit in their subjugation, understanding this fact is the first precondition for achieving lasting change. And it couldn’t come at a more crucial time: Shelley writes that by toiling the earth for other people’s profit, the labourers are in fact digging their own mass grave, one Shelley calls “England.”