Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview

Freedom and Captivity

The earliest poem by a known author in the English language on the theme of freedom is the sixteen-line poem titled “Freedom” from “The Bruce,” a fourteenth-century epic by the Scottish poet and archdeacon John Barbour. Without defining it, Barbour succinctly and elegantly describes freedom as the condition without which no other comforts can be possible; freedom “all solace to man gives,/He lives at ease that freely lives.”

Later poems take up the theme in terms of prison rather than feudalism. One of the best loved of the Cavalier poems is Richard Lovelace's “To Althea from Prison,” written when Lovelace was imprisoned in 1642 for supporting the traditional powers of the monarchy rather than parliament. His witty response to captivity juxtaposes three forms of enslavement to freedom, but each is a paradox. He is captivated by Althea, but as he lies “tangled in her hair/And fetter'd to her eye” he actually enjoys more liberty than the birds. Stanza two accords more freedom to the wine drinker than to the “fishes that tipple in the deep.” In the third, the Cavalier finds liberty in outspokenly singing the virtues of his king—the cause of his imprisonment in the first place—liberty greater than that of the “enlarged winds that curl the flood.” The fourth stanza begins with the now-famous lines, “Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage.” If his heart and soul have liberty, only an angel has more freedom than he.

Emily Bronte was drawn to the same notion of the freeing of the soul while the body is held captive in “The Prisoner: A Fragment” (1845), from the poems written by Emily and her sister Anne about an imaginary land called Gondal. The poem is a conversation between the narrator, in whose father's dungeon they are speaking, the jailer, and the prisoner, a beautiful woman. When she tells them that their chains will

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Thematic Guide to British Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Anthologies of British Poetry and Abbreviations Used xi
  • Active and Contemplative Lives 1
  • Art, Imagination, and Inspiration 15
  • Beauty 31
  • Carpe Diem 43
  • Christmas Poems 47
  • Death 53
  • Death of the Young 65
  • Duty 77
  • Fame and Ambition 81
  • Family Relations 85
  • Freedom and Captivity 89
  • The Golden Mean 93
  • Immortality 97
  • Industrialism and the City 105
  • Innocence and Experience 111
  • Love 119
  • Marriage 141
  • Music 153
  • Nature and Country Life 159
  • Old Age 187
  • Patriotism 193
  • Politics and Human Rights 197
  • Pride and Vanity 205
  • Rebellion and Conformity 215
  • Regret, Consolation, and Melancholy 221
  • Religion 229
  • Sleep 243
  • Time and Change 251
  • War 257
  • Biographical Sketches 269
  • Further Reading 293
  • Index 295
  • About the Author 305
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