Explanation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to Liberty

Ode to Liberty is an ode written by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Stanza-Wise Explanation

Stanza 1

The poem was written in the year 1820 celebrating the Spanish liberal revolution that led to the downfall of the monarchy. The curses in the society like slavery and tyranny were demolished. The cold soul like an eagle flying high in the sky scatters his pictures that celebrate the joy of freedom and advocates the removal of all the malpractices prevalent in society. Shelley pays his highest homage to liberty and tells of the process of development of human civilization from the beginning to 1820. It is an irony to remember that Shelley died in 1822 and could not anticipate that period of this liberty would be so short-lived. The French invasion overthrew the liberal regime and established theirs.

Stanza 2

In this stanza, Shelley gives an account of the origin of Earth. Shelley was a believer in atheism. He did not believe in God’s existence. His conviction was based on the theory that the Earth originated out of nothing. It is like an island in a vast ocean, hanging under the Sun and the Moon and other stars. Earth, thus created, was beautiful but full of chaos and violence. Earth gave birth to flora and fauna but violence was prevalent among them. All these creatures groaned because they were ill-treated.

Stanza 3

After the creation of Earth, men emerged as the Muller of this planet. They erected huge palaces and monuments as they grew in numbers. However, civilization made them the worst creatures.They were worse than the savage beasts. They were guided by all the evil designs. They were savage, cunning, blind and cruel. They could not enjoy liberty since tyranny, religious fanaticism and cruelty were the order of the day. Anarchists and religious leaders inflicted torture on the common mass in order to gratify their lust for power and wealth.

Stanza 4

The country, Greece basked in the glory for the favour that Heaven showered on them. It was a country among rocky mountains washed by the waves from the sea. From there rose the prophetic voices and melodious songs reverberated and spread all around. Nature has gifted the country in an abundance rich in various fruits and vines. Still, it was wild and not suitable for human inhabitation. However, art and philosophy started to develop there. Sculptors and architects erected beautiful statues, monuments and temples from the marbles brought from Paros. Contributions made by the poets, philosophers and dramatists enriched the culture of the country. Perhaps Shelley is referring to the great Greek scholars and philosophers like Homer, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes. Greece followed a democratic policy to govern the country. In the republican vein, the administrative body consisted of the representative of all the city-states selected by the citizens. It was a method of direct democracy in which the entire population had their say.

Stanza 5

Like a vision Athens arose. Its beauty was unique. It had beautifully crafted buildings and temples and their splendidness and magnificence seemed to mock the other artisan’s achievement The city was girdled by sea and the blue sky hung over at The towers were airy enough with the wind coming and going. As from the tower it headed towards the cloud upon which sunlight had fallen as if sun fire had garlanded it. The city shone brightly with its huge pillars like a mount of diamond standing on a hill. The city was shining because of the blessing of Liberty. The people there enjoyed the gift of liberty with all its creativity-inspiring qualities. The adjacent hill was once the abode of liberty. However, liberty’s latest abode is more beautiful than the earlier one.

Stanza 6

Over the course of time the glory of Athens has been lost but what is still remaining can inspire the artists and poets. The voices of the poets and philosophers of this city still continue to reverberate ‘through the caverns of the past’ denouncing the tyrants and fanatics. Athens was and is the origin of true joy, love and freedom. It is a nation that other nations should follow.

Stanza 7

Beside Athens, Rome arose. It was young and tender like the wolf-cubs who were breastfed by the Maenad of Thebes ruled by Cadmus. Rome drew inspiration from Athens which was being still nourished by Liberty. Rome is the city of seven hills and it was the place where great men like Camillus and Alilim lived. But after that oppression and wealth desecrated the capital, Liberty left the country giving way to bloody intrigues, orgies of tyrants. The excessive indulgence and wayward lifestyle and tyranny caused the agony and grief that Liberty disowned. Perhaps this chaotic situation is an allusion to the chaos followed after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the waywardness of the Caesars and their insatiable lust for power and ceaseless endeavour to expand their kingdom.

Stanza 8

Liberty might have escaped to the wild landscape of North, or in some narrow valley at the south-east coast of Caspian sea, or in a frozen hill or in an Arctic region or in an inaccessible small island. There, liberty lamented over the total collapse of the order of her reign. Preaching her philosophy to the woods, waves; desert rocks and other parts of nature, she told them how men had forgotten the sublime thought that she propagated. Liberty did not reside in war-ridden Scandinavian Civilization nor it was present among the Durid-dominated Celtic people. Liberty continued to groan in agony when the Galilean serpent, that is, Christianity, appeared to make the matter worse. [

Stanza 9

For thousands of years, Earth could not perceive you and remained in the state of ignorance and perplexity till you descended on the great Alfred. He was an advocate of peace and freedom. He subdued the warring kings, priests and slaves and established order removing all the chaos prevalent in Italy. He made a truce with the invaders, that is Dane, and unified England and other countries. During Alfred’s time development of arts gathered momentum and flourished in full swing.

Stanza 10

The hunter goddess Diana had terrorized all the tyrants of the world. Martin Luther initiated a campaign against the corruption in the Church and called for Reformation. His teachings contagiously spread all over Europe and this led to England’s demand for Liberty. Through their songs and poetry English writers started to pay tribute to Liberty. Shelley might have been referring to the incidents that prompted Charles I’s downfall.

Stanza 11

After much eager waiting and hesitation Eng- land ultimately welcomed Liberty. The great revolutionaries succeeded in their design defeating the king and hoisting the flag of freedom. In amazement they basked under the glory of freedom in Liberty.

Stanza 12

Out of this oppressive system, French people called for a revolution that resulted in plenty of bloodshed. Napolean leading from the front drove away from the reactionary regime. But when he came to power he himself became an ‘Anarch’ or tyrant. His armies caused greater destruction all over England. Now he is lying dead in the grave among his predecessors.

Stanza 13

But England is still ruled by a monarchy. England is still not reacting to the demand for complete freedom with intense zeal. Spain exhorts her to rise up like an eruption of a volcano that breaks away the hardest rock in order to come forth. The impact of this volcano has shaken the northern islands of Sicily and the western islands of Naples. The line “Be dim…ov’r us” is not, easy to understand. The line is not pertaining to the stanza. Shelley made an allusion to the plutocracy of England which can be overthrown rather easily than the military despotism that the Spanish are fighting against. The chain of England is frail whereas the chain of Spain is as strong as steel, still, they successfully got rid of it. Spain invokes Liberty to have her seat perpetually in its territory.

Stanza 14

Shelley invokes the spirit of Arminius, the great German warrior who defeated the Roman army in 9 A.D. and freed Germany from the monarchy. He led the insurgence and drove away all the tyrants. This victory will be his epitaph and will be celebrated in a wild manner like that Bacchanal- -a wild revelry in ancient Rome. Germany is already basking in the glory of Liberty. Shelley now directs his address to Italy, the ‘lost Paradise of the divine and glorious world’; the island of eternity whose beauty lies in the flowery wilderness, desolation yet loveliness. He urges Italy to gather courage and to fight back against those who are desecrating the sacred shrines of Italy.

Stanza 15

Shelley called the very word King impious and opined that it should be ground to dust. It is a dark patch on the history of mankind, it is like winding path that a snake follows and should be erased ‘like the name written in sand is erased by light air. Shelley called for prompt action to banish the monarchy. He wishes people not to hesitate but to sever the snaky gordian knot with their flashing swords of victory like Alexander who cut through the gordian knot with his sword. The weapons of tyranny used against mankind should be banned together. They are like the fasces, an emblem of fascist, arousing terror. The very sound of those arms made the life diseased, terrorized and inspires hatred. O Liberty, do not delay to come at the appointed time to crush those unwilling tyrants under your heel.

Stanza 16

Shelley vehemently asked the enlightened mind to illuminate the dark world and to abolish priesthood. They should be hurled back to hell from where they originated. Shelley finds the root of this devil in the human mind. The pride in one’s mind gives birth to religious fanaticism and dogmatism. In this context, we can recall that famous incident in Shelley’s life. Being an atheist Shelley wrote a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism when he was at Oxford University. This caused much furore and resulted in Shelley’s expulsion from that academic institute dominated by religion. Again Shelley ex-pressed his view on those fanatics whose mask and any pretensions should be stripped off so that the people can come to know the bare truth. He tells that a man should kneel down before its immortal soul, not before any false conviction or delusion and man should acknowledge the Power unknown’. The dogma of these fanatics pollutes people’s minds and tarnishes Heaven’s glory. They are accountable to Lord (maybe Shelley’s Power unknown’) and have to pay the due for their wrongful activities.

Stanza 17

Lord, that is the immortal human soul or maybe Shelley’s Power unknown’, taught man to defend himself by defeating all the evil agents in society. He is the superior species but still, he willingly accepts the slavery of the oppressors. They were subjected to torture but they endured it. Man has the power to build up their fate and they are the master of their destiny. Mother èarth can provide food and clothes in abundance. Art is the intermediary between Man and Nature and Art flourishes in the lap of Nature. The last two lines of this stanza are obscure to understand. We can only say in the gist that Shelley perhaps wants to mean that life breeds new desires and wants and the gifts offered by the earth or Nature should be distributed equally among the people of all rungs of the society. Monopoly should be discouraged.

Stanza 18

The poet exhorts to Liberty to guide the man’s spirit from the deep darkness of a cave, where it has fallen, like the morning star Venus which welcomes the Sun in the eastern sky. Wisdom will accompany Liberty and they together only can emancipate the poor, oppressed lot from ill-treatment, can inspire Love, equal Justice, Hope and Fame. Shelley questioned Liberty why she has severed its bond with mankind. If she is a treasure which can be acquired through blood and tears have not this poor mass cried a lot and shed blood?

Stanza 19

The sublime singing of the spirit, the solemn harmony paused and dived deep into the chasm. (It is not clear what Shelley wants to mean by solemn harmony or mighty singing is it Liberty or his own song) However, soon it mustered up its strength and then like a wild swan resumés its flight across the sky but it times to halt as it is hit by the thunderbolt, like a summer cloud that dissolves after heavy downpour like a candle that extinguishes after burning whole night, like a small insect that has a very short lifespan, the poet song dwindled as its wings had been clipped. The echoes of the great voices came to an end. And the waves hissed around his song that sunk tempestuously.

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