The bold imagery of Collins's ode condenses and refines themes treated throughout eighteenth-century Spenserian verse. Liberty's Temple, with its composite orders, is at once a metaphor for the British constitution and for the literary program that would become the basis of romantic poetics: "Even now before his favoured Eyes, | In Gothic Pride it seems to rise! | Yet Graecia's graceful Orders join, | Majestic through the mix'd Design."
Collins, a promiscuous reader, may well have known the pavilion described in Samuel Croxall's The Vision (1715) which also traces the progress of liberty to gothic origins: "Thence, as with glancing Eye I chanc'd to rove Along the Border of the neighb'ring Grove, | A fair Triumphal Arch begun to rise, | And shoot its spiring Top among the Skies. | On Gothic Columns fix'd, aloft it stood." He certainly knew John Hughes's remark in Works of Spenser (1715): to compare the Faerie Queene "with the Models of Antiquity, wou'd be like drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture." See also the Whiggish sentiments allegorically expressed in Nicholas Rowe's Ode for the New Year MDCCXVI, marking the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.
Edward Gardner: "The ode to Liberty is truly sublime; it opens in the true spirit of a chorus song of Sophocles. The fall of the Roman Empire is at all times a great object of contemplation. When Mr. Gibbon says at the conclusion of his history, 'It was amidst the ruins of the capitol I conceived the first design of writing this history,' the idea which is awakened in the mind is as vast as it is capable of receiving: yet Collins is hardly less sublime" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 1:174-75.
Algernon Charles Swinburne: "He was the first English poet, after Milton's voice 'for the dwellers upon earth' fell silent, to blow again the clarion of republican faith and freedom: to reannounce with the passion of a lyric and heroic rapture the divine right and the godlike duty of tyrannicide. He too, in the high-toned phrase of Mr. Browning, like Milton, Burns, and Shelley, 'was with us; they watch from their graves.' And on this side of the summit of fair fame he stands loftily alone between the sunset of Milton and the sunrise of Landor. I hardly think there are much nobler verses in all English than those in which the new Alcaeus, 'fancy-blest' indeed, has sung the myrtle-hidden sword that rid the sunlight of the first Pisistratid. For all her evil report among men on the score of passive obedience and regiculture, Oxford has now and then turned out — in a double sense, we might say, with reference to Shelley — sons who have loved the old cause as well as any reared by the nursing mother of Milton" The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:281.
Edmund Gosse: "Essentially a lyric poet, Collins is not happy in a long flight, and his two lengthiest odes, To Liberty, and On Popular Superstitions, though they contain what are perhaps his noblest passages, are far from being noble throughout" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 233.
George Saintsbury: "the lyric scheme of the 'Poetic Character' insists on being attended to; it is not, like the usual eighteenth-century strophe and stanza, a congeries of lines with little individual and less symbolic harmony. 'Mercy' is doubtful. But who shall overpraise the opening strophe of 'Liberty' as poetry or prosody? Its substance is, if not exactly naught, naught better than Akenside. But its form abolishes the substance; for we know that only the chosen ones — the aristocracy, or for the special occasion the monarchy, of poetical man — can so write. 'Liberty' to write like that, will enable no one to write like it" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 2:515.
W. J. Courthope: "in architectural design and ornament, Gray was Collins' superior. I cannot agree, indeed, with Mr. Gosse in thinking that Collins' work was wanting in these qualities. The Ode to Liberty seems to me to have been carefully thought out, the conclusion, with which Mr. Gosse finds fault, being, in my judgment, very finely conceived. The Second Epode is evidently allegorical, and the imagery employed to express the uncertain origin of British Constitutional Liberty, as well as the certainty of its future triumph throughout the western world, is truly noble and exalted. But, as a finished workman, Collins is often open to reproach. It is worth noting that Gray and Johnson both blame him on just the same grounds" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 5:393.
Oliver Elton: "In the Ode to Liberty, which opens to the tune of the 'Spartan fife' and the strains of Alcaeus, the progress of poetry is again recited; and it comes down, as in Gray's ode, 'from Greece to Italy, and from Italy to England.' Collins does not here 'lose himself in the sand,' as Matthew Arnold complains of his doing in the Ode to Evening" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:48.
Christine Gerrard: "Collins's platonic Druidic Temple in the 1746 'Ode to Liberty' was clearly modelled in large part on [Gilbert] West's own very similar account, published only four years earlier [Order of the Garter], of the hallowed fane in the celestial blessed isles housing Albion's heroes and Druidic bards" The Patriot Opposition to Walpole (1994) 146.
John Langhorne's Observations:
"The ancient states of Greece, perhaps the only ones in which a perfect model of liberty ever existed, are naturally brought to view in the opening of the poem: 'Who shall awake the Spartan fife, | And call in solemn sounds to life, | The youths, whose locks divinely spreading, | Like vernal hyacinths in sullen hue.' There is something extremely bold in this imagery of the locks of the Spartan youths, and greatly superior to that description Jocasta gives us of the hair of Polynices [Greek passage]. 'What new Alcaeus, fancy-blest, | Shall sing the sword, in myrtles drest, &c.' This alludes to a fragment of Alcaeus still remaining, in which the poet celebrates Harmodius and Aristogiton, who slew the tyrant Hipparchus, and thereby restored the liberty of Athens.
"The fall of Rome is here most nervously described in one line 'With heaviest sound, a giant statue, fell.' The thought seems altogether new, and the imitative harmony in the structure of the verse is admirable.
"After bewailing the ruin of ancient liberty, the poet considers the influence it has retained, or still retains among the moderns; and here the free republics of Italy naturally engage his attention — Florence, indeed, only to be lamented on account of losing its liberty under those patrons of letters, the Medicean family; the 'jealous' Pisa, justly so called, in respect to its long impatience and regret under the same yoke; and the small Marino, which, however unrespectable with regard to power or extent of territory, has, at least, this distinction to boast, that it has preserved its liberty longer than any other state, ancient or modern, having, without any revolution, retained its present mode of government near 1400 years. Moreover the patron saint who founded it, and from whom it takes its name, deserves this poetical record, as he is, perhaps, the only saint that ever contributed to the establishment of freedom. 'Nor e'er her former pride relate | To sad Liguria's brooding state.' In these lines the poet alludes to those ravages in the state of Genoa, occasioned by the unhappy divisions of the Guelphs and Gibelines. — 'When the favour'd of thy choice, | The daring archer hoard thy voice.' For an account of the celebrated event referred to in these verses, see Voltaire's Epistle to the King of Prussia. 'Those whom the of Alva bruised, | Whose crown a British queen refused!'
"The Flemings were so dreadfully oppressed by this sanguinary general of Philip the second, that they offered their sovereignty to Elizabeth; but, happily for her subjects, she had policy and magnanimity enough to refuse it. Desormeaux, in his Abrege Chronologique de l'Histoire d'Espagne, thus describes the sufferings of the Flemings: 'Le duc d'Albe achevoit de reduire les Flamands au desespoir. Apres avoir inonde les echafauds du sang le plus noble et le plus precieux, it faisoit construire des citadelles en divers endroits, et vouloit etablir l'Alcavala, ce tribute oneroux qui avoit ete longtems en usage parmi les Espagnols.' — Abreg. Chrome. Tom. IV. — "Mona, | Where thousand elfin shapes abide." Mona is properly the Roman name of the Isle of Anglesey, anciently so famous for its Druids; but sometimes, as in this place, it is given to the Isle of Man. Both these isles still retain much of the genius of superstition, and are now the only places where there is the least chance of finding a faery" Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins (1765) 162-66.
Who shall awake the Spartan Fife,
And call in solemn Sounds to Life,
The Youths, whose Locks divinely spreading,
Like vernal Hyacinths in sullen Hue,
At once the Breath of Fear and Virtue shedding,
Applauding Freedom lov'd of old to view?
What new Alcaeus, Fancy-blest,
Shall sing the Sword, in Myrtles dressed,
At Wisdom's Shrine a-while its Flame concealing,
(What Place so fit to seal a Deed renown'd?)
Till she her brightest Lightnings round revealing,
It leap'd in glory forth, and dealt her prompted Wound!
O Goddess, in that feeling Hour,
When most its Sounds would court thy Ears,
Let not my Shell's misguided Pow'r,
E'er draw thy sad, thy mindful Tears.
No, Freedom, no, I will not tell,
How Rome, before thy weeping Face,
With heaviest Sound, a Giant-statue, fell,
Push'd by a wild and artless Race
From off its wide ambitious Base,
When Time his Northern Sons of Spoil awoke,
And all the blended Work of Strength and Grace,
With many a rude repeated Stroke,
And many a barb'rous Yell, to thousand Fragments broke.
Yet ev'n, where'er the least appear'd,
Th' admiring World thy Hand rever'd;
Still 'midst the scattered States around
Some Remnants of Her Strength were found;
They saw by what escap'd the Storm
How wond'rous rose her perfect Form;
How in the great, the labour'd Whole,
Each mighty Master pour'd his Soul!
For sunny Florence, Seat of Art,
Beneath her Vines preserv'd a part,
Till They, whom Science lov'd to name,
(O who could fear it?) quench'd her Flame.
And lo, an humbler Relick laid
In jealous Pisa's Olive Shade!
See small Marino joins the Theme,
Tho' least, not last in thy Esteem:
Strike, louder strike th' ennobling Strings
To those, whose Merchant Sons were Kings;
To Him, who deck'd with pearly Pride,
In Adria weds his green-hair'd Bride;
Hail Port of Glory, Wealth and Pleasure,
Ne'er let me change this Lydian Measure:
Nor e'er her former Pride relate,
To sad Liguria's bleeding State.
Ah no! more pleas'd thy Haunts I seek
On wild Helvetia's Mountains bleak:
(Where, when the favour'd of thy Choice,
The daring Archer heard thy Voice;
Forth from his Eyrie roused in Dread,
The rav'ning Eagle northward fled.)
Or dwell in willow'd Meads more near,
With Those to whom thy Stork is dear:
Those whom the Rod of Alva bruis'd,
Whose Crown a British Queen refus'd!
The Magic works, Thou feel'st the Strains,
One holier Name alone remains;
The perfect Spell shall then avail.
Hail Nymph, ador'd by Britain, Hail!
Beyond the Measure vast of Thought,
The Works the Wizzard Time has wrought!
The Gaul, 'tis held of antique Story,
Saw Britain link'd to his now adverse Strand,
No Sea between, nor Cliff sublime and hoary,
He pass'd with unwet Feet thro' all our Land.
To the blown Baltic then, they say,
The wild Waves found another way,
Where Orcas howls, his wolfish Mountains rounding;
Till all the banded West at once 'gan rise,
A wide wild Storm even Nature's self confounding,
Withering her Giant Sons with strange uncouth Surprise.
This pillar'd Earth so firm and wide,
By Winds and inward Labors torn,
In Thunders dread was push'd aside,
And down the should'ring Billows born.
And see, like Gems, her laughing Train,
The little Isles on ev'ry side,
Mona, once hid from those who search the Main,
Where thousand Elfin Shapes abide,
And Wight who checks the west'ring Tide,
For Thee consenting Heaven has each bestow'd,
A fair Attendant on her sov'reign Pride:
To thee this blest Divorce she ow'd,
For thou hast made her Vales thy lov'd, thy last Abode!
Then too, 'tis said, an hoary Pile
'Midst the green Navel of our Isle,
Thy Shrine in some religious Wood,
O Soul-enforcing Goddess stood!
There oft the painted Native's Feet
Were wont thy Form celestial meet:
Tho' now with hopeless Toil we trace
Time's backward Rolls, to find its place;
Whether the fiery-tressed Dane,
Or Roman's self o'erturned the Fane,
Or in what Heav'n-left Age it fell,
'Twere hard for modern Song to tell.
Yet still, if Truth those Beams infuse,
Which guide at once, and charm the Muse,
Beyond yon braided Clouds that lie,
Paving the light-embroider'd Sky:
Amidst the bright pavilion'd Plains,
The beauteous Model still remains.
There happier than in Islands blest,
Or Bow'rs by Spring or Hebe drest,
The Chiefs who fill our Albion's Story,
In warlike Weeds, retir'd in Glory,
Hear their consorted Druids sing
Their Triumphs to th' immortal String.
How may the Poet now unfold
What never Tongue or Numbers told?
How learn delighted, and amaz'd,
What Hands unknown that Fabric rais'd?
Even now before his favoured Eyes,
In Gothic Pride it seems to rise!
Yet Graecia's graceful Orders join,
Majestic through the mix'd Design;
The secret Builder knew to chuse,
Each sphere-found Gem of richest Hues:
Whate'er Heav'n's purer Mould contains,
When nearer Suns emblaze its Veins;
There on the walls the Patriot's Sight
May ever hang with fresh Delight,
And, grav'd with some Prophetic Rage,
Read Albion's Fame thro' ev'ry Age.
Ye Forms Divine, ye Laureate Band,
That near her inmost Altar stand!
Now sooth Her, to her blissful Train
Blithe Concord's social Form to gain:
Concord, whose Myrtle Wand can steep
Ev'n Anger's blood-shot Eyes in Sleep:
Before whose breathing Bosom's Balm
Rage drops his Steel, and Storms grow calm;
Her let our Sires and Matrons hoar
Welcome to Britain's ravag'd Shore,
Our Youths, enamour'd of the Fair,
Play with the Tangles of her Hair;
Till in one loud applauding Sound,
The Nations shout to Her around:
O how supremely art thou blest,
Thou, Lady, Thou shalt rule the West!