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Poetry of Freedom

Poetry of Freedom

6 Mins
August 19, 2010

Editor's Note: This article is based on a poetry reading given by the author at The Atlas Society’s 2003 Summer Seminar.

September 2004 -- I've gathered for you some poems that celebrate political and personal freedom. I like them, and I hope you will like them, too. This is only a tiny selection, of course. Many, many more poems about freedom exist. In making my picks, I have tried to consider both historical importance and what I thought you would enjoy. As regards the sequence of presentation, I am going to move in chronological order, so that we can see how the poetry of liberty has evolved across the centuries.

I start with John Milton (1608-74) and the speech he gives to Satan in Paradise Lost. Have you ever been mad as Hell and you're just not going to take it anymore? Well, Satan is mad as Hell. God wants him and the other angels to do some things that Satan just does not want to do. And here is his advice to the other angels:

Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
The supple knee? Ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
Natives and sons of Heaven possessed before
By none; and if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for orders and degrees
Jar not with liberty, but well consist.
Who can in reason then, or right, assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendour less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and edict on us, who without law
Err not? much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration, to the abuse
Of those imperial titles, which assert
Our being ordained to govern, not to serve?

There are a couple of interesting things in this. The famous quote in here is: "for orders and degrees jar not with liberty." You will see that pop up now and then. Satan is not an egalitarian. He knows that people and angels have different talents and abilities and standings, and he is insisting, rather angrily, that just because God is a little better than the rest of us, he can't push us around. The other point worth noting is the claim that Satan makes to freedom. The angels, he says, are "Natives and sons of Heaven, possessed before / By none." In other words, they are the first inhabitants, the aborigines. Therefore, anyone who now tries to set himself up as a monarch in Heaven is a usurper.

That selection was, of course, from a long poem. This next excerpt is from a little play by John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada. Dryden lived from 1631 to 1700 and so was a very close contemporary of John Locke (1632-1704).

The lines in Dryden's play are spoken by a man who has been captured, and whose captors are trying to make him submit and obey. His answer begins, "Obeyed as sovereign by thy subjects be." What he means is: "Go ahead. Be obeyed by your subjects. You shall not be obeyed by me."

Obeyed as sovereign by thy subjects be.
But know that I alone am king of me.
I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

You are probably more familiar with the "noble savage" from Rousseau. But Dryden lived before Rousseau, and apparently it was Dryden who coined the phrase. Notice, also, the way that Dryden conceives of liberty in terms of being a king. After all, kings were the only people who were not subordinate to other people—neither to their subjects nor to other kings. Dryden's character says he is a king, but only of himself: "king of me." He is subordinate to no one, but at the same time no one is subordinate to him. It is very Lockean.

Now, let's move to the early Romantic era and William Blake's "A Little Boy Lost." (Blake lived from 1757 to 1827.) In the poem, apparently, a little boy is talking to a priest, and the first thing he says is that Christ's injunction—"Love thy neighbor as thy self"—is impossible. So clearly, this kid is in trouble. Then he says: It's also impossible to worship (venerate) someone else more than one worships oneself. He's saying he worships himself more than God! So he is in really, really big trouble. But he's not through. In fact, the little boy says, it is impossible for the mind to conceive of anything greater than itself! Now he's done for.

Before I begin, I want to point out that the little boy is, in a way, more defiant than Satan. Recall that Satan said, "orders and degrees / Jar not with liberty." So, yes, God is greater than us—he just shouldn't push us around. The little boy, on the other hand, is saying that it is impossible even to conceive of something greater than yourself. That is, in some ways, a typically Romantic-era sentiment: Man is the supreme being.

"Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.

"And, father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door."

The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired his priestly care.

And standing on the altar high,
"Lo, what a fiend is here!" said he:
"One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery."

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,

And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion's shore?

Well, I doubt that children were being burned for heresy on altars in England in the late 1700s, or probably at any other time in the Christian period. Certainly, you could get in a Hell of a lot of trouble for ideas like these. But why does Blake exaggerate by having the boy burned on the altar? I think there is actually Christian symbolism here: Innocence is being crucified by a priestly caste. Blake is saying that priestly Christianity has become an inversion of Christian simplicity, which is suggested by the very Franciscan image of the boy loving birds equally with humans.

Moving into high Romanticism, we have a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) that is often known by its first seven words: "It is not to be thought of." The basic metaphor in this poem is that British freedom is like a mighty river that all the world admires. The quotation "pomp of waters, unwithstood" is from an epic poem about the War of the Roses, published in 1595.

It is not to be thought of that the Flood
Of British freedom, which, to the open sea
Of the world's praise, from dark antiquity
Hath flowed, "with pomp of waters, unwithstood,"
Roused though it be full often to a mood
Which spurns the check of salutary bands,—
That this most famous Stream in bogs and sands
Should perish; and to evil and to good
Be lost for ever. In our halls is hung
Armoury of the invincible Knights of old:
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held. In everything we are sprung
Of Earth's first blood, have titles manifold.

So, Wordsworth begins by praising the flood of British freedom, but there is a hint of concern right from the start. He says: "It is not to be thought of…That this most famous stream in bogs and sands / Should perish." But obviously it is being thought of. He himself is thinking of it. And he is warning against it: "We must be free or die." Perhaps that is where New Hampshire gets its license plate.

Notice the allusion back to Milton, whose Satan claimed that the angels deserved freedom in Heaven because they were the "Natives and sons of Heaven, possessed before / By none." Because their lineage went all the way back, anyone who tried to subordinate them would be a usurper. Here, Wordsworth is making a similar claim for Englishmen. They are "sprung / Of Earth's first blood," so in addition to being the greatest race—the race of Shakespeare and Milton—they are as old as any race extant, and none has the right to supplant them.

Let's move on to "Impromptu," by Lord Byron (1788-1824). I think that he wrote this in an evening, probably at a party, given the kind of guy that he was.

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbours;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
And get knocked on his head for his labours.

To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hanged, you'll get knighted.

In an ironic way, this tells the story of Byron's life. He couldn't have known it at the time, but he was to die, in Greece, fighting to liberate the Greeks from the Ottoman Empire. He did not get shot or hanged—he died of a fever. But before he died, he wrote (in Don Juan) a lovely passage about liberty and Greece. I'll just give you the key quatrain.

The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might still be free

I first encountered this next poem in a high-school poetry text as part of a comparison between two poems. They didn't even tell you who the authors were; I had to look that up. Anyway, one of the poems was supposed to be the "good" poem and one was supposed to be the "bad" poem. This was the "bad" poem, because it is lacking in irony and ambiguity and all that good stuff the other poem had lots of. But I preferred this one.

The author of the poem, Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), was a rather distinguished man. He was a professor of English literature at Princeton and at one time U.S. minister to the Netherlands. Aptly, then, the poem is called "An American in Europe."

'Tis fine to see the Old World, and travel up and down
Among the famous palaces and cities of renown,
To admire the crumbly castles and the statues of the kings,—
But now I think I've had enough of antiquated things.

So it's home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be,
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.

Oh, London is a man's town, there's power in the air;
And Paris is a woman's town, with flowers in her hair;
And it's sweet to dream in Venice, and it's great to study Rome;
But when it comes to living, there is no place like home.

I like the German fir-woods, in green battalions drilled;
I like the gardens of Versailles with flashing fountains filled;
But, oh, to take your hand, my dear, and ramble for a day
In the friendly western woodland where Nature has her way!

I know that Europe's wonderful, yet something seems to lack:
The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free, --
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.

So it's home again, and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that's westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the blessed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.

There are two themes in this poem that I want to call to your attention. The first is the theme of open space. This is very characteristic in American poetry about freedom. Even when British poets are thinking about personal liberty, they think about it in terms of status: "orders and degrees / Jar not with liberty"; "I am the king of me." There is nothing wrong with that. We say, "A man's home is his castle." But, typically, when Americans think about freedom, they think about being someplace where there is no one else around, usually in the forests or the plains or the mountains. "Don't Fence Me In"—it is a different operating metaphor.

The second theme is somewhat related and appears in the lines with the references to stars. On the face of it, the statement is literal. The flag is full of stars. But suppose the poet had written: "To the blessed Land of Room Enough, far from the packed bazaars, Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of bars," as in "stars and bars." Would that have worked? No. The stars are a symbol of idealism; "reaching for the stars," we say. For Americans, there is a close association between liberty and idealism. The European view is different. Dryden's character says: "I am the king of me." And what is the most notable and notorious characteristic of kings? They get to fulfill their every whim. The British author G. K. Chesterton was being very European when he said that "freedom is the right to be your potty little self." For Americans, as for Objectivists, freedom is glorious because it allows one the liberty to achieve excellence.

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

John Enright
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John Enright
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