Despite the wide array of themes and ideas present in his tragically small body of work, many view Edward Thomas as being a wartime poet. His career and life were cut tragically short during the First World War, and while it appears to have been the inspiration for much of his poetry, he was also famous for his unique style and intelligent use of words to convey his often abstract messages. Liberty certainly appears to touch on the concept of war, but is left very open to interpretation for his many readers.
Edward Thomas actually wrote Liberty as a single verse, which has been divided here to make the analysis more fluid.
The last light has gone out of the world, except
This moonlight lying on the grass like frost
Beyond the brink of the tall elm’s shadow.
The narration in this poem takes on an interesting tone for the reader; the speaker declares that “the last light has gone out of the world,” a common metaphor used to suggest hope or life. Already, Thomas displays his intelligent use of word choice by placing “the last light” before “except,” to emphasize the loss of light, rather than the one light that remains. The natural imagery invoked here makes the nighttime scene seem natural and peaceful, despite the hopeless nature of its words.
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 the grave
Where all is buried. Both have liberty
One interesting element about Liberty is that it is both very abstract and very literal. Looking at this second aspect of the poem, the literal meaning of the words is very clear. The speaker stands in the moonlight, considering that the moon and their own self are the only things that aren’t dormant in the world, while the rest of the world is buried in its grave. On a deeper level, this is where the poem begins to discuss the relationship between hopelessness and peace — the natural imagery continues to feel safe, while the words themselves discuss the end of the world. The idea that the moon still lives is an interesting use of personification, perhaps used to emphasize that the speaker is very much alone, presumably the last human alive.
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. If every hour
Both the moon and the speaker consider themselves free to dream about freedom. This is a strange statement to make, because it implies that there is no liberty here at all — the freedom to think about freedom is not a whole lot of freedom. This part of the poem seems to challenge the notion of liberty, suggesting that thinking without doing is freedom only in the most abstract sense of the word. This part of the poem is written very plainly, and the primary “poetic factor” is the line breaks, which emphasize words such as “being free,” “and nothing,” or “to dream.”
Like this one passing that I have spent among
The wiser others when I have forgot
To wonder whether I was free or not,
Were piled before me, and not lost behind,
And I could take and carry them away
I should be rich; or if I had the power
To wipe out every one and not again
Regret, I should be rich to be so poor.
The metaphoric nature of Liberty becomes especially apparent at this point in the poem, where the narrator begins musing on the literal nature of his idle thoughts from the past. The speaker speculates that they would be “rich” if they could take every moment in which they wondered whether or not they were truly free, and place those moments in the future, rather than in the past. This sounds like something of an “If I knew then what I know now” kind of moment, one that changes a person’s thought process after all the light in the world has faded. The last line of this section stands out somewhat, as the speaker laments on the idea that they could never speculate on the nature of freedom and be a “poorer” person for it, but a happier one. The metaphor used here likens this to financial wealth, suggesting that their greatest happiness could come while they perceived their feelings as the opposite. Their ignorance, as the cliché suggests, could have been their bliss.
And yet I still am half in love with pain,
With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth,
With things that have an end, with life and earth,
And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
Liberty concludes by finishing that last thought, and with the speaker resigned to the simple truth that they are “half in love with pain;” that on some level, they feel that the knowledge they have is worth the pain they feel. These last four lines are filled with images of opposites: love opposed to pain, tears opposed to mirth, life opposed to the earth, and the moon, used as a sign for light earlier in the poem, opposed to darkness. The core idea that surrounds this work seems to be that liberty is an abstract and complicated concept; it cannot be perfect or defined easily, nor can it be too abstract, or it ceases to have meaning.
When Thomas discusses the ability to choose which thoughts to “carry away” and which ones to place before the thinker, he is discussing a kind of partial freedom — if a person has the freedom to consider “some thing we had desired long” and doesn’t have the freedom to actually do that thing, are they truly free? Do they have liberty? In some sense, yes. In others, no. And the freedom to know that, to understand those restrictions, is both painful and, in some ways, a good thing. The philosophical nature of the poem is further complemented by the peaceful-apocalyptic imageries that persist throughout in the form of empty nature and darkness. That same philosophical abstraction is what makes it such a compelling poem — like in the mind of the speaker, there are many potential paths that can lead to understanding Edward Thomas’s Liberty, and which one each individual reader takes will be entirely dependent on their own personal understanding of the concept of liberty.