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Free Verse

4 Mins
August 19, 2010

September 2004 -- As John Enright notes , there is a wealth of poetry about political and personal freedom. I thought Navigator's readers might enjoy hearing about a few more poems that they can search out.

One of the first poems that people connect with personal freedom is "Invictus," by W. E. Henley (1849-1903). The last two lines are the most famous: "I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul." Equally strident is "The Outcast," by John Davidson (1857-1909).

Soul, be your own
         Pleasance and mart,
A land unknown
         A state apart.

(A pleasance is a secluded enclosure laid with shady walks and ornamental uses of water.)

And please do not overlook Davidson's "Ballad of Hell." Anyone who reads the whole thing will never forget the last two lines.

Much quieter than Henley and Davidson is the poem by A.E. Housman (1859-1936) that begins:

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me.

A deeply meditative poem about personal freedom is "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939).

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds.

The comparison is far-fetched, but for another poem about flight, check out this zestful ode to the mating of the queen bee, written by E. B. White (1899-1985).

When the air is wine and the wind is free
and the morning sits on the lovely lea
and sunlight ripples on every tree
Then love-in-air is the thing for me
I'm a bee,
I'm a ravishing, rollicking, young queen bee,
That's me.
I wish to state that I think it's great,
Oh, it's simply rare in the upper air,
It's the place to pair
With a bee.

Another poem about personal freedom seen through the eyes of an animal, but this time a tragic poem, is Vachel Lindsay's "The Bronco That Would Not Be Broken."

Turning from personal freedom to political freedom: Those who love the Enlightenment and revel in Voltaire's battle against religious persecution will appreciate "Voltaire at Ferney," a tribute written by W. H. Auden (1907-73).

…He would write,
"Nothing is better than life." But was it? Yes, the fight
Against the false and the unfair
Was always worth it.

Another Auden poem, "The Unknown Citizen," discusses liberty ironically by suggesting what heroism would mean in the over-regulated society.

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Many poems about political liberty involve war, for the obvious reason that freedom must often be won by war. "Lepanto," by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) is very good once one gets the hang of reading it, or, more strictly, chanting it: PUR-pling all the O-cean like a BLOOD-y pirate's SLOOP. As an additional virtue, the poem is politically incorrect in the extreme, celebrating as it does a 1571 sea battle (the Battle of Lepanto) in which a Christian alliance defeated the Ottoman Turks. In this passage, Don John of Austria frees the Christians who were laboring as galley slaves in the Sultan's ships.

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea

White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Lastly, I cannot close an article such as this without recommending "The Star-Spangled Banner." If you have not before, read Isaac Asimov's splendid essay "All Four Stanzas," which is available at many websites .  

This article was originally published in the September 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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