Percy Shelley’s “Ode to Liberty” ends in an unraveling of both the poet’s signification of liberty and of his portrayal of the Spanish Revolution of 1820, an event that illustrates liberty at the outset of the poem. The reasons for this unraveling can be found largely within the poet’s appropriations of language used by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The textual proximity of these appropriations to the poet’s own self-portrayed failure to signify liberty marks the empiricist tradition as a target of Shelley’s moral and rhetorical criticisms. To demonstrate this point, I first examine the textual fluidity of variant manuscripts of “Ode to Liberty.” I then examine, in historical context, varied terminology, both within and outside the Ode. Overall, I offer a reading of “Ode to Liberty” that demonstrates ways in which general, moral terminology (implied, for example by the word “liberty”) occasionally serves contrary political ends.
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Many of Percy Shelley’s poems explore issues of origin. In “Ode to Liberty,” Shelley complicates this issue by situating himself on the bookended stanzas of his own nineteen-stanza poem. In the first stanza, Shelley evokes the Spanish Revolution of 1820 as his influence for the creation of the historical narrative of the poem’s inner stanzas. In those, Shelley tracks liberty’s manifestations in Europe. Thus, as far as conceptual origins of liberty are concerned, the inner stanzas point to the outer stanzas, whereas the outer stanzas reference the Spanish Revolution of 1820 as both an event illustrative of liberty and as the poet’s source of inspiration. However, in spite of this grounding, the inner narrative’s culmination in the final two stanzas results in a breakdown of Shelley’s ideal of Liberty, along with an exhaustion of his poetic inspiration. Because this abrupt turn lacks any explicitly stated cause, readers question whether this failure portrays the “despair” and “darkness” of Shelley’s own failed political idealism (Hitt 68). In “A Sword of Lightning,” Christopher Hitt upholds this view, which differs from those of Desmond King-Hele and Patricia Hodgart. They regard the ode as a celebration of the victory of European liberty over tyrannical government and religious organization. In contrast, Hitt argues that Shelley’s “Ode” conveys the violent limitations of “an event inspired solely by revolutionary zeal,” thus undermining the Spanish Revolution as the poem’s inspirational foundation and, in turn, the very poem itself (Hitt 70). Although I agree with Hitt’s assessment of the ode as a text that eventually unravels, attention to the ode’s manuscripts, as well as to many of the philosophical texts read and written by Shelley, provides a reoriented historical context in which perceptual and linguistic concerns take precedence over the literal violence of revolutionary events.
This focus resonates with the assumptions of Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry,” published less than a year after the ode’s composition. In this essay, Shelley states that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination” and that “poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause” (682), the cause being “integral” human thought itself. Language, as the poet’s artistic medium, would play a primary role in this imaginative process, especially given its assignment by Shelley as a “direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being,” and as having “relation to thoughts alone” (678). In opposition to the imaginative faculty is the rationalism of such Enlightenment thinkers as John Locke and David Hume, whom Shelley criticizes for their attempt to “exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.” However, Shelley also admits that without the societal influence of these philosophers, “we might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain” (695). The causal connection posited between the Spanish Revolution and the public reading of empiricist philosophy complicates “Ode to Liberty,” given the revolution’s inspiration in Shelley’s poetry and its political influence. In effect, I will argue that the inner narrative’s collapse accompanies an appropriated empirical outlook, along with Shelley’s use of language congruent with John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which Shelley read both in his early years at Oxford and again between 1815 and 1817 (Milnes 6). This appropriation of Lockean language reveals the ode’s substantial involvement in the empirical tradition, an involvement that portrays the Spanish Revolution not only as a political revolution, but as a philosophical revolution. The ode’s conflict between perception and expression portrays Shelley’s exploration of the relation between political events and the philosophical tenets that seem to underwrite them.
The ode’s first stanza and its manuscript variants introduce the word/idea dichotomy as essential to Shelley’s political thought and as fundamental to his relationship to Locke’s philosophy. The poem begins with an allusion to the Spanish Revolution: “A glorious people vibrated again / The lightning of the nations” (1-2). The enigmatic imagery of vibrations and “lightning” are illuminated by reference to the differences between the wording of Shelley’s manuscript and that of the published ode. In the manuscript, the word watchword is situated in place of lightning, and upheld takes the place of vibrated. However, both of these original words are crossed out and replaced by the wording of the published text. Furthermore, the phrase “thy name” pervades the edges of the manuscript page, seeking an entrance into the first stanza, but remains absent in the published ode (Shelley 296). These cancelations and absences can be viewed as “the visible sign of altered intentions,” or less rhetorically, as the poet’s attempts to more closely “approximate” his words to represent his “thoughts” (Bryant 1, 12). In this case, the changes signal a different view of the Spanish Revolution and of the forces that elicited its occurrence. The former expression conveys the word liberty as a commonplace “watchword” that inspired revolution among Spain’s populace. Such is one example of a uniform conception of words as figuring significantly in revolution.
In contrast, the natural imagery of Shelley’s substitution—“vibrated” and “lightning”—mark a more enigmatic approach to the causes of revolution. The poetry of Lord Byron (a close friend of Shelley’s) is a case in point. In particular, Byron’s use of the word “lightning” in the third canto of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” calls for a more expanded conception of the realm of words and ideas. Byron here expresses his wish to use “lightning” as the “one word” (910-11) which might “unbosom now / That which is most within me” (906-7), including “soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak” (908), as well as “all that I would have sought, and all I seek, / Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe” (909-10). Just as the word “lightning” would serve Lord Byron to express the totality of his own personal experience and self, so Shelley’s appropriation of the word seems to express the totality of the influences, both conceptual and reactionary, which elicited the Spanish Revolution. Therefore, in the ode, the word “lightning” elicits these causes and qualities. However, Byron realizes the impossibility that this single-word expression will communicate any substantial meaning: “But as it is, I live and die unheard, / With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword” (912-3). These lines express an inevitable loss in the conveyance of the poet’s thoughts during and after the signification process, an analogy of word to sheath and thought to sword. The word “lightning” similarly expresses the inability for Shelley’s written verse to account for the totality of causes of the Spanish Revolution. Overall, in the textual fluidity of these changes, we see Shelley’s increasing doubt in the ability for language to elicit uniform thought, as well as uniform political action.
Light as a Revolutionary Metaphor for Liberty
Despite this doubt, Shelley continues to use light as a metaphor for liberty in the succeeding lines of the first stanza:
From heart to heart, from tower to tower, o’er Spain,
Scattering contagious fire into the sky,
The metaphor used in these lines is ambiguous in its positioning insofar as “liberty” is said to have “gleamed” both “from heart to heart, from tower to tower,” as well as “o’er Spain, / Scattering contagious fire into the sky.” The latter portrayal seems suggestive of the sun in its position “o’er” and outside of Spain, whereas the prior portrayal situates liberty within the hearts and towers of Spain’s people. This prior portrayal simulates the reactionary and light-based imagery of the poem’s first sentence, given liberty’s portrayal as a “contagious fire” whose revolutionary manifestations spread among the “hearts” of Spain’s people. However, liberty’s simultaneous portrayal as the sun calls into question the possibility of a further foundation for liberty, one that would encapsulate all of the conceptual and emotional phenomena that elicit and constitute its manifestation as a political event. As Jacques Derrida states, the Western philosophical tradition has commonly used the sun as a metaphor for what “is natural in philosophical language” (251).Shelley likely employs this metaphor in a similar way, given his acquaintance with this tradition. In this instance, Shelley uses the sun as a metaphor to posit an external foundation for liberty as a complex idea. Thus, liberty’s metaphorical portrayal as the sun introduces naturalness as a prominent concern of the poem.
Shelley’s self-portrayed reaction to the Spanish Revolution further conveys his attempt to establish liberty as natural. His reaction follows:
My soul spurned the chains of its dismay,
And, in the rapid plumes of song,
Clothed itself, sublime and strong;
As a young eagle soars the morning clouds among,
Hovering in verse o’er its accustomed prey. (5-9)
The fifth line conveys the intensity of Shelley’s own reaction to the Spanish Revolution, as shown by his soul’s spurning of “dismay.” However, despite this initial focus on the poet’s own emotional reactivity, the shift in pronouns from “my” to “its” and “itself” signals a split in the poet’s identity. Furthermore, Shelley’s subsequent description of his soul as “hovering in verse” (9) establishes a connection between the art forms of “song,” which “clothed” Shelley’s separated soul, and poetical verse. The primary characteristic that separates song and verse is a possible lack of semantic content in the former. Thus, the separation of Shelley’s “soul” from his self during the act of “song” implies his inability to communicate his own personal meaning of liberty to an audience. However, the poet’s function, as the “the spirit of the age,” necessitates this kind of split insofar as he must engage with his culture even at the costs of his own thought’s direct expression (“A Defense of Poetry” 701).
Although this communicative anxiety resonates with Byron’s own anxiety as expressed in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” the transformative simile of lines 8 and 9 marks a departure from Byron’s more definitely stated inexpressibility. While the description of Shelley as an “eagle” “hovering in verse” signals the beginning of the poet’s writing process, the words “in verse” also serve as a pun when combined to form the word “inverse.” This understanding suggests an inversion of Shelley’s “accustomed prey.” If the youth of this eagle represents the earlier youth of the poet, Shelley’s “accustomed prey” would consist of monarchical government and religious organization. Direct criticisms of these social structures constitute much of the prose work of Shelley’s early youth (Bruhn 373). In “Ode to Liberty” an inversion from this usual prey would turn the eagle toward the sun and away from the political and religious circumstances of the earth, given the eagle’s placement among “morning clouds.” The sun itself, as a metaphor for what humans perceive as natural, becomes Shelley’s prey in his recasting of the solar metaphor beyond its prior contexts. By using this metaphor to establish the naturalness of liberty as a moral ideal, Shelley portrays its manifestation as always realizable, regardless of the particular political and religious circumstances of any specific time period. This use resonates with “Defense of Poetry,” where Shelley focuses his argumentative energy on the perceptual influence of accidental circumstances more than on “the dogmatical Truth of organized religion” (Milnes 22). One of Shelley’s targets seems to be John Locke, who argues against the innateness of any foundation for complex modes like liberty. Rather, Locke argues that the foundation for these kinds of moral ideas never extends beyond the cultural circumstances of the thinking subject (Locke 399). Therefore, Shelley’s portrayal of his split self (or written work) as a predatory animal signals less his literal participation in revolutionary violence than it does his appropriation of philosophical language for his own rhetorical ends (Hitt 70). The violence of this appropriation lies in the trope’s split from its original context and thereby in the diminishment of communicative energy of other writers’ texts.
Appropriations of Lockean Language
The historical narrative of the inner stanzas illustrates how Shelley appropriates philosophical language for his own purposes. Still, recourse to Shelley’s July 12, 1820 letter to Thomas Peacock directs our attention to a particular segment in this narrative:
I enclose two additional poems, to be added to those printed at the end of “Prometheus” [including “Ode to Liberty”]: and I send them to you, for fear Ollier might not know what to do in case he objected to some expressions in the fifteenth and sixteenth stanzas; and that you would do me the favor to insert an asterisk or asterisks, with as little expense of the sense as may be. (Letters 213)
This excerpt points to stanzas 15 and 16 as a kind of rhetorical hotspot within the inner narrative, given Shelley’s insistence that their “sense” remain unchanged. Shelley even prefers words hidden by “asterisks” to words completely altered by editorial revision, as if a future reader’s contextualization of his poetry could serve to remedy such absences and rehabilitate communication. This kind of defensive position makes sense, given these stanzas’ criticism of monarchical government and religion. However, a more implicit critique of empirical reason lies in the appropriation of Lockean language and metaphor within these particular stanzas and in the way Locke figures in the ode’s final collapse. Furthermore, given Peacock’s adherence to the tenets of enlightenment reason, Shelley’s choice to send his “Ode” to Peacock, along with Shelly’s directing Peacock’s attention toward these specific stanzas, further suggests that the ode’s primary target is empirical reason. Peacock’s beliefs caused tension between the two authors, as shown by “A Defense of Poetry,” an explicit rebuttal of the empirical bent of Peacock’s “Four Stages of Poetry” less than a year later.
Further, parallels in wording link the above-mentioned stanzas to stanza two, which chronicles the beginning of the perceivable universe. By contrast, these two sections of the historical narrative explore the foundations for what in “A Defense of Poetry” Shelley calls “the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression” (677). As Mark Bruhn states, these relations most adequately serve as the moral foundations that Shelley wished to locate within the analogical process of the human psyche itself (382). It would direct human communication toward “equality, diversity, unity, contrast” and “mutual dependence” as “the motives according to which the will of a social being is determined to action” (“A Defense of Poetry” 675). In turn, the ode’s inner narrative allows Shelley to represent the link between these forces by the presence or absence of one moral and political value: liberty. In the remainder of this essay, I will examine the relationships between these stanzas, with the goal of illuminating Shelley’s relationship to Lockean philosophy and the relation of this philosophy to European politics.
To remain faithful to the chronology of Shelley’s historical narrative, I will begin with stanza 2. This stanza commences with the sudden appearance of the sun and moon at the origin of perceptual existence. The alliteration of this stanza illustrates the poet’s initial ability to transcend the hierarchical nature of dualistic representation. The stanza begins: “The Sun and the Serenest Moon sprang forth” (16). The s alliteration between the words “Sun,” “Serenest,” and “sprang” serves to tie the sun and moon together in a relationship of mutual dependence. Many formal factors determine this relationship. First, the verb “sprang” at once connotes origins and a change of location. The former nuance implies that the figures depend on one another for their initial existence in the poet’s perception. The latter sense of the word would have Shelley representing these figures as active, independent agents. This autonomy accords with Shelley’s ideal of liberty as applicable to events or representations that avoid or reduce hierarchical relations.
The consonance of line 16 also establishes a dependence between the moon’s status as “serenest” and the presence of the “sun” (16). Given its subject, the adjective “serene” seems to connote clarity and tranquility. Thus, the sun allows the poet the clearest possible perception of the moon. This reading accords with the scientific theories of Shelley’s time. For example, David Walker, a professor of photosynthesis of the early nineteenth century, claimed that the appearance of color depended on chemical reactions elicited in objects by sunlight. Shelley attended many of Walker’s lectures and was likely inspired by Walker’s scientific theory of sunlight. Shelley extended the applicability of this theory to analogize perception and sunlight (Underwood 310). If the sun is analogous to perception and the moon is analogous to a unified perceptual object, then a dual representation of these two figures represents one being completely unaffected by any hierarchical divisions. Furthermore, liberty’s original adherence in the sun—as a metaphor for naturalness—casts this image as the total presence of liberty.
The subsequent lines of stanza 2 demonstrate an increase in the complexity of the poet’s perception and an adaptation to this complexity at the cost of the initial representation of liberty. Following the appearance of the sun and moon, the poet notes: “The burning stars of the abyss were hurled / Into the depths of Heaven” (17-8). Concerning Shelley’s knowledge of stars, Ted Underwood claims: “Shelley would have known… that the fixed stars were bodies like our sun, producing light by the same (unknown, but probably chemical) processes” (311). In effect, the sun and moon lose their status as active agents because they “were hurled.” Also lost is the dual representation of liberty, attributable to the poet’s perceptual limitations as he begins to signify objects. In turn, the poet’s language reflects these limitations insofar as his “grammatical predication provides a proportional means of expressing the perceptual or phenomenological ‘diversity’ or ‘inequality’ of agents and objects” (Bruhn 394). Thus, the poet’s status as a perceiver ensures his own failure to represent a non-hierarchical conception of liberty. In response to these newly perceived relations, the poet states: “But this divinest universe / Was yet a chaos and a curse, / For thou wert not” (21-3). The words “was yet” demonstrate the poet’s forgetfulness that the initial representation mirrored his conception of liberty. Given this forgetfulness, the poet views the “chaos” of the “divinest universe” as a “curse.” Paul De Man comments on this process of forgetting and its role in Shelley’s poetry thus: “what is forgotten is absent in the mode of a possible delusion, which is another way of saying that it does not fit within a symmetrical structure of presence and absence” (105). This statement applies to each linguistic representation of phenomena in this poem’s historical narrative, even the first concerning the initial dual figure of sun and moon. Still, the consonance of the dual figure’s linguistic representation and the poet’s prior conception of liberty, as formulated in stanza 1, differentiates it from the imagery of stanzas 15 and 16.
Stanzas 15 and 16 also represent a process of forgetting, except that Shelley here portrays the poet as not only forgetting prior sections of the poem, but also the context of the texts whose philosophical and metaphorical language he appropriates. At this point in the narrative, communication with others even further complicates liberty’s identification. This is most noticeable by comparison of the ode to John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For example, in stanza 15, Shelley declares that the free should “lift the victory-flashing sword, / and cut the snaky knots of this foul Gordian word [KING]” (217-8). In many ways, this declaration closely follows Locke’s own analogy of word and knot. Concerning the mind’s formation of complex ideas, Locke states that although “it be the mind that makes the collection [of simple ideas], it is the name which is as it were the knot that ties them fast together” (Locke 360; emphasis added). In this case, Shelley’s use of this metaphor remains faithful to its original context, given Locke’s condemnation of men who purposefully obscure language to obtain positions of power (Locke 414). This adherence to Locke’s political argument soon lapses into a momentary commitment to Locke’s philosophy. Similar to stanza 1, the “victory-flashing sword” appropriates Byronic language. As mentioned, Byron analogizes “sword” and “thought,” with words acting as a sheath, or an obscuration of a writer’s thought and feeling (912). Here, Shelley’s declaration calls for a heightened correspondence between inner understanding and word usage, which illustrates the poet’s own propagation of the Lockean word/idea dichotomy.
However, stanza 16 marks a simultaneous increase in Shelley’ appropriation of Lockean metaphor and in Shelly’s guardedness concerning many of Locke’s philosophical tenets. The stanza begins with the declaration,
O that the wise from their bright minds would kindle
Such lamps within the dome of this dim world,
That the pale name of PRIEST might shrink and dwindle
Into the hell from which it first was hurled. (226-9)
The metaphor of “bright minds” and their use in the regulation of language accords with Locke’s own recurring metaphor, “the light of reason” (Locke 39). Locke generally employs this metaphor to signify the mind’s ability to assemble simple ideas under one word, signifying the thinker’s own complex ideas. Although this metaphor—with its attention to light—posits a natural foundation for complex ideas, Locke ultimately asserts the existence of a Christian-like deity as the ultimate provider of this “light of reason” (409). Furthermore, through the study of the Bible, Locke claims that this “light of reason” can help humans establish a proper knowledge of complex moral ideas. Shelley of course omits this deified foundation in his appropriation of Lockean language. This aspect of Locke’s Essay would work contrary to Shelley’s glorification of the Spanish Revolution in its abolition of the Spanish Inquisition. Recourse to Locke would also minimize Shelley’s criticism of words that signify religious, authoritative power, such as the “name of PRIEST,” whose “pale” quality signifies its deviance from any standard found in nature. Given this omission, the “bright minds” of the wise remain as the foundation for a word’s mental content. Thus, it is in this stanza that Shelley deals with the relation between perception and expression and the possible morality therein.
In the above lines, a lack of any external foundation for word signification (such as an actual sun) begins to gesture toward an undoing of the initial conditions that occasioned Shelley’s writing of verse in stanza 1. Only artificial “lamps” remain (227), rather than the kind of “contagious fire” (4) that symbolized the heightened reactivity that spread among Spain’s people, in stanza 1, as a kind of collective foundation for liberty. In comparison to stanza 1, the light imagery of stanza 16 seems far less extensive and powerful. This comparison portrays the moral fault of Locke’s Essay as rhetorical in nature and as unable adequately to rouse the European public’s moral fervor.
The parallels between the wording of stanza 16 and of stanza 2 further illuminate the reasons for morality’s breakdown in the relation between perception and expression. In particular, Shelley’s assertion that the “pale name of PRIEST” “first was hurled” from “hell” (228-9) mirrors the passage from stanza 1 where stars “were hurled / Into the depths of Heaven” (17-8). This hurling act establishes the passivity of both stars and the word priest in the face of a rapid multiplication. In stanza 1, the stars appear passive to the increasing complexity of the poet’s perception. Contrarily, the passivity of the word priest lies in a multiplication of the ideas and signified objects underling this word’s expression throughout society and within the minds of different people. Shelley espouses this kind of linguistic and conceptual passivity in “A Philosophical View of Reform,” where he states:
Sacred names borrowed from the life and opinions of Jesus Christ were employed as symbols of domination and imposture; and a system of liberty and equality, for such was the system preached by that great reformer, was perverted to support oppression—Not his doctrines, for they are too simple and direct to be susceptible of such perversion—but the mere names. (637)
When “borrowed” from its original context, written words and “names” become the passive object of other writers and speakers. Words come to serve different rhetorical ends by their recombination with other words in the mind’s formation of complex ideas. The “hell” from which the word priest “first was hurled” therefore is ultimately unknown, given the word’s absence in the biblical accounts of Christ, just as the source of stars in stanza 1 is left unknown as they enter “the depths of Heaven.” Overall, Shelley portrays a search for an ultimate origin for either ideas or words as dubious, at least from the empiricist viewpoint appropriated in stanzas 15 and 16.
Shelley soon expands upon the reasons for the inability of the enlightened man to locate an empirical foundation for moral ideas such as liberty. Growing more desperate in his search for the foundation of complex ideas, the enlightened man exclaims,
O that the words which make the thoughts obscure
From which they spring…………………………..
Were stripped of their thin masks and various hue
And frowns and smiles and splendours not their own (234-8).
In this exclamation, the poet portrays “thoughts” as analogous to the dual figures of sun and moon in stanza 2: both spring. If the sun and moon signify liberty in this act, then the poet portrays “words” as antagonistic to his search for an origin of thought (including the concept of liberty). A comparative analysis of the above stanza with stanza 2 reveals the futility of a search for the origins of complex ideas. The word “the” pervades stanza 2—e. g. “the Sun,” “the serenest Moon” (16), “the burning stars” (17), and “The daedal earth” (18). This pervasion further implies the passive status of the perceiver, as well as his basis of signification on the simple ideas arising from his perception of objects. However, even these representations do not provide a foundation for thought. What De Man claims concerning light in “The Triumph of Life” can just as easily apply to the representation of these objects in stanza 2 of “Ode to Liberty.” De Man claims that the appearance of light “is not a natural event resulting from the mediated interaction of several powers, but a single, and therefore violent, act of power achieved by the positional power of language considered by and in itself” (116). Therefore, the “positional power” of the perceiver determines his word signification rather than any of the perceiver’s deliberate thoughts as traceable to a prime origin within his own cognition, at least as far as simple ideas of substance are concerned. The sun and moon are not phenomena in which the thought of liberty inheres. Rather, liberty inheres within the perceiver’s non-hierarchical representation of these phenomena. Given the passivity of both the perceiver and object in stanza 2, its language conveys the moral possibilities, or lack thereof, that inhere in the relation between “existence and perception” (677).
Contrarily, repetition of the word “and” in stanza 16 suggests the highly analogous nature of language, perhaps lending meaning to expressions that concern complex ideas. We see this in the poet’s wish to strip words “of their thin masks and various hue / And frowns and smiles and splendors not their own” (237-8, my emphasis). By repeated use of the word “and,” the poet portrays the associative nature of language, which the enlightened man seeks to reduce to simple ideas that correspond with original thoughts regarding perceptual objects. Specifically, the enlightened man emphasizes a distrust of emotional connotation, represented as the “smiles” and “frowns” of words. This distrust resonates with An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke states that “all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence has invented, are for nothing but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment” (425). An appropriation of this kind of distrust of emotional connotation introduces considerable problems for the poet at this point in the narrative, since his influence for writing “Ode to Liberty” stems from an emotional reaction to the Spanish revolution.
The Unraveling of Liberty’s Signification
In reaction to this appropriated outlook, in stanza 18 the poet’s historical narrative comes to an abrupt end, representing a complete undoing of the poet’s emotionally driven signification of liberty in stanza 1. Near its end, the poet asks whether “Blind Love, and equal Justice” are “disjoined” from the “name” of “liberty” (264-6). Given the poet’s perception of these listed qualities as inherent within the events of the Spanish revolution, this question, lacking a definite answer, undoes the signification of liberty on which the poem’s meaning rests. Like the questions that pervade “The Triumph of Life,” the above question never receives a clear answer (De Man 98). The poet never provides his audience with a final signification of liberty, or even of Shelley’s personal conception of liberty. Instead, he renders an account of his own emotional reaction to an event that he initially considers as constitutive of liberty, but which his appropriated empiricist outlook calls into question.
In stanza 19, Shelley indirectly questions the nature of liberty’s portrayal as the sun. The sun appears analogous to liberty in stanza 1, whereas in stanza 19, the poet’s communicative strength fails even at “dawn” (274), and amidst an “aerial golden light” (275). Here the sun no longer symbolizes liberty and the events that influenced the poet’s writing of “Ode to Liberty.” De Man discusses the potential effects of the sun’s effacement when he claims, “It (the sun) represents the very possibility of cognition….[T]o efface it would be to take away the sun which, if it were to happen to this text (“The Triumph of Life”), for example, would leave little else” (111). Accordingly, the initial symbolic meaning of the sun (as a natural foundation for liberty) is effaced by the questions that disjoin liberty from the qualities of the Spanish revolution. Given the probable function of these qualities as elicitors of Shelley’s prior emotional reaction to the revolution, the sun now represents only the poet’s own isolated self and his own external projections.
This isolation may stem from Shelley’s appropriation of Lockean language, which forces him to identify the individual mind and its conceptual content as the only foundation for liberty’s signification as a complex idea. The sun imagery that Shelley uses to symbolize the beginning of the Enlightenment era illustrates both the limits and benefits of such a narrow foundation. Shelley states that this beginning was “like Heaven’s sun girt by the exhalation of its own glorious light, thou [liberty] didst arise” (158-9). The circular image portrayed by the verb “girt” conveys a disruption of the natural solar cycle. It portrays an attempt to delay the sun’s “exhalation” as it sets in the west, “as if day had cloven the skies / At dreaming midnight o’er the western wave” (162-3). Thus, the naturalness of liberty (as conveyed by the sun metaphor) takes on a status of full and natural presence only by a paradoxical bypass of the natural cycle of the phenomenal world. The “bright minds” of the “wise” therefore serve as the means of maintaining this full presence even in the absence of a cycling sun.
This use of the sun metaphor represents the solution offered by John Locke in in his attempt to solve the problem of the indeterminacy of moral words. Locke’s conclusion follows: “A definition is the only way whereby the precise meaning of moral words can be known; and a way whereby their meaning may be known certainly, and without leaving any room for any contest about it” (433). Furthermore, Locke asserts that the formation of these complex ideas depends upon the mind alone as the “light of reason” (409). However, Shelley portrays the dubious nature of this foundation through his representation of the public reaction to the dawning of the Enlightenment Era: “Men started, staggering with a glad surprise, / Under the lightnings of thine unfamiliar eyes” (164-5). The return of lightning as a metaphor recalls again the primary role of emotional reactivity in the public reaction to liberty, or rather in reaction to the usage of the word “liberty” to describe events such as the Enlightenment reformation and the Spanish Revolution. However, this emotional reaction threatens a Lockean viewpoint, in which emotional connotation is viewed as obstructive to language’s transparency.
Overall, Shelley’s appropriation of Lockean language leaves the poet with a complete absence of any foundation for liberty, either in terms of an external God or in terms of a shared human psyche to guide the political conduct of society. A wish for this latter foundation pervades “A Defense of Poetry,” and Shelley’s appropriation of Lockean language signals the inability for Locke’s system to unite society under a similar moral purpose. However, the level in which Shelley’s thought deviates from the empiricist philosophy of Locke is questionable. Both thinkers focus on and posit foundations for moral action that exist only within the human mind, or in Shelley’s case, in the relations among human minds (although this difference is notable). What differentiates Shelley is his self-portrayed involvement in the rhetorical role of reactivity and emotional connotation in the occurrences of political events. Regardless of the poet’s ultimate position, “Ode to Liberty” provides readers with an account of the relationship between a public appropriation of philosophical tenets and the occurrence of political events.
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