Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shelley’s emotionally polemic poem is intended to further the cause of governmental reform, an issue that was dividing England at the time. Some of the reform efforts Shelley advocated were expanded suffrage and greater freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The poem supports these causes by metaphorically elaborating on the concepts of tyranny and liberty, describing the effects of each in concrete, poignant images. In simple yet searing language the poem vehemently denounces tyranny as exploitative and as going against the very laws of nature. Liberty, however, is a God-given right of every person. Living by the precepts of liberty will ensure a happier, more fruitful existence.

Liberty is seen in concrete and practical terms. The poem avoids any abstraction that would make freedom seem unrealistic and overly idealistic, a “superstition” doomed “soon to pass away.” On the contrary, freedom is “. . . bread,/ and a comely table spread.” It provides for the very necessities of life, clothing and food, things denied under tyranny.

Freedom is also associated with justice, providing for “righteous laws” that would forbid the kind of exploitation allowed by tyranny. Here one can see that Shelley did not advocate lawless revolution. Liberty does not mean the freedom to ignore law, but the establishment of equitable law. Lawlessness would be no improvement over tyranny. In fact, the masquerade of tyrants and the poem’s title...

(The entire section is 510 words.)