Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Freedom and liberty have proved to be popular topics for poets down the ages, whether it’s Romantic poets espousing the values of liberty in the wake of the French Revolution or more recent poets musing upon the various meanings of freedom in the world. Here are ten of our favourite poems to touch upon freedom and what it means to be ‘free’.
1. William Wordsworth, ‘Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room’.
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found …
We start this pick of the best poems about freedom with an unusual choice: a poem that is about the value of being restricted or confined. Wordsworth considers some examples of people who actually prefer to have a ‘scanty plot of ground’, much as the sonnet-writer makes do with just 14 lines. The sonnet makes the paradoxical argument that restriction can mean freedom, since sometimes clearly defined boundaries are needed for creativity and thought.
What is often viewed as a ‘prison’, a space which restricts us, is actually no prison at all in Wordsworth’s view. The ‘Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground’ was a happy place for Wordsworth the poet to be ‘bound’, the implication being that a bit of structure and order was a good thing for a young poet. It taught him restraint and organisation. Wordsworth says that the sonnet is a good poetic form for those who ‘have felt the weight of too much liberty’.
2. Percy Shelley, ‘Ode to Liberty’.
Written in 1820, this poem by one of the leading lights of Second Generation Romanticism in England was inspired by a revolution in Spain in March of that year, although the poem takes in numerous kinds of ‘liberty’:
Come thou, 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?
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Of Old Sat Freedom on the Heights’.
The longest-serving UK Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), personifies freedom as ‘Freedom’ in this little-known early poem from the 1830s. Tennyson views Freedom as a deity, a goddess whose influence gradually spreads throughout the world:
Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet:
Above her shook the starry lights:
She heard the torrents meet.
There in her place she did rejoice,
Self-gather’d in her prophet-mind,
But fragments of her mighty voice
Came rolling on the wind …
4. Helen Hunt Jackson, ‘Freedom’.
Jackson (1830-85) was a poet, a novelist, and an activist who campaigned on behalf of Native Americans. Here, Jackson takes up the abolitionist cause during the American Civil War:
What freeman knoweth freedom? Never he
Whose father’s father through long lives have reigned
O’er kingdoms which mere heritage attained.
Though from his youth to age he roam as free
As winds, he dreams not freedom’s ecstasy.
But he whose birth was in a nation chained
For centuries; where every breath was drained
From breasts of slaves which knew not there could be
Such thing as freedom, – he beholds the light
Burst, dazzling; though the glory blind his sight
He knows the joy. Fools laugh because he reels
And wields confusedly his infant will;
The wise man watching with a heart that feels
Says: ‘Cure for freedom’s harms is freedom still.’
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘No Rack Can Torture Me’.
Emily Dickinson, Jackson’s contemporary, wrote about a vast range of topics, so it’s of little surprise that she turned her distinctive mind and voice to the question of liberty:
The Eagle of his Nest
No easier divest—
And gain the Sky
Than mayest Thou—
Except Thyself may be
Captivity is Consciousness—
So’s Liberty …
6. Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’.
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame …
Here’s a poem that’s not just about liberty, but was written for Liberty: the Statue of Liberty, that is. In 1883, Lazarus penned this stirring sonnet for the newly completed statue; its rousing words are now inscribed at the base. Lazarus’ poem celebrates the United States of America as the Land of the Free, a welcoming nation where people can come to make something of themselves.
Not only this, but France intended for the Statue of Liberty to be propaganda, with the light-bearing female personification of Liberty – that French Revolutionary watchword – symbolising a beacon of enlightenment for those European countries still living under tyranny. But Lazarus twisted this propagandistic intention, and her poem ensured that the Statue of Liberty would instead be viewed as a beacon of welcome for immigrants leaving their European mother countries, for the new ‘Mother of Exiles’.
7. Edward Thomas, ‘Liberty’.
Thomas (1878-1917) is often classified as a ‘war poet’ and sometimes as a ‘Georgian poet’, but really he was more complex than either of these labels suggests. In this poem, Thomas identifies with the moon, reflecting on his own freedom and also the limits of that freedom: ‘There’s none less free than who / Does nothing and has nothing else to do …’
It is as if everything else had slept
Many an age, unforgotten and lost –
The men that were, the things done, long ago,
All I have thought; and but the moon and I
Live yet and here stand idle over a grave
Where all is buried. Both have liberty
To dream what we could do if we were free
To do some thing we had desired long,
The moon and I. There’s none less free than who
Does nothing and has nothing else to do,
Being free only for what is not to his mind,
And nothing is to his mind …
8. Osip Mandelstam, ‘The Twilight of Freedom’.
Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a Russian poet and essayist, and wrote this poem in May 1918, shortly after the October Revolution in Russia the previous autumn.
9. e. e. cummings, ‘as freedom is a breakfastfood’.
In this poem, the brilliantly eccentric American poet e. e. cummings (as he styled himself) ponders freedom and much else besides, in verses which verge on the Carrollesque (look out for the line about hatracks growing into peachtrees…).
10. Langston Hughes, ‘Freedom’s Plow’.
Hughes was probably the most celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, and is widely viewed as one of the finest African-American poets of the twentieth century. ‘Freedom’s Plow’ lauds freedom as an essential value, particularly in the United States of America.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.