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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Thierry was an indefatigable collector of medieval documents which he used to write his histories of the Norman Conquest and the Third Estate. Part of his interest was in the poems and songs of those who resisted the rise of state power. In a previous quote we used the story of the Kentishmen who resisted William the Conqueror. Here we have an Irish song which honours the men who died fighting for their freedom against the English invaders. Thierry argues that in “times of despotism” satire is the most useful tool; but in times like the present (the first half of the 19th century), what he calls “times of dubious liberty”, the French people needed “nobler songs” which were inspired by liberty and which were dedicated to its defence. He thought the Irish were good models for the French to follow.

Other quotes about Literature & Music:

22 February, 2010

Thierry250HiDef

Thierry on the need for songs about our lost liberties which will act as a barrier to encroaching power (1845)

Read the full quote in context here.

The French classical liberal Augustin Thierry (1795-1856) admires the habit of the conquered Irish to sing about their lost liberties. Thierry hopes that the French might learn from this, to use “nobler songs” as “a barrier to a power always tempted to encroach”:

Oh! could we from death but recover
Those hearts as they bounded before,
In the face of high heav’n to fight over
That combat for freedom once more.

Could the chain for an instant be riven
Which tyranny flung round us then,
No; ‘tis not in man, nor in Heaven,
To let Tyranny bind it again!

But ‘tis past—and, tho’ blazon’d in story
The name of our victor may be,
Accurst is the march of that glory
Which treads ‘er the hearts of the free.

Far dearer the grave or the prison,
Illumed by one patriot name,
Than the trophies of all who have risen
On liberty’s ruins to fame.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Sometimes he (Thomas More) invokes the memory of battles, the fate of which decided liberty: he paints the nocturnal march of the conqueror, and the last vigil of the soldiers of the country, intrenched on the declivity of a hill:—

While mute they watch’d, till morning’s beam
Should rise and give them light to die.

Forget not the field where they perish’d,
The truest, the last of the brave,
All gone—and the bright hopes we cherished
Gone with them, and quench’d in their grave!

Oh! could we from death but recover
Those hearts as they bounded before,
In the face of high heav’n to fight over
That combat for freedom once more.


Could the chain for an instant be riven
Which tyranny flung round us then,
No; ‘tis not in man, nor in Heaven,
To let Tyranny bind it again!


But ‘tis past—and, tho’ blazon’d in story
The name of our victor may be,
Accurst is the march of that glory
Which treads ‘er the hearts of the free.


Far dearer the grave or the prison,
Illumed by one patriot name,
Than the trophies of all who have risen
On liberty’s ruins to fame.


It is a great title to the gratitude of a nation to have sung its present or past liberty, its secured or violated rights, in verses capable of becoming popular. He who would do for France what Mr. Moore has done for Ireland, would be more than rewarded by the knowledge of having served the most holy of all causes. In the times of despotism, we had satirical burdens to arrest injustice by the frivolous fear of ridicule; why, in these times of dubious liberty, should we not have nobler songs to express our wills, and to present them as a barrier to a power always tempted to encroach? Why should not the prestige of art be associated with the powers of reason and courage? Why should we not make a fresh poetry, inspired by liberty and consecrated to its defence, poetry not classical, but national, which should not be a vain imitation of geniuses which no longer exist, but a vivid painting of the minds and thoughts of the present day which should protest for us, complain with us, and should speak to us of France and of its destiny, of our ancestors and of our descendants.

We have succeeded in our love elegies, ought we to fear undertaking patriotic elegies, not less touching, not less sweet than the former? What image more worthy of pity and of love, than the land of our fathers, so long the plaything of fortune, so often vanquished by tyranny, so often betrayed by its own supporters, now reviving but still tottering, and in a feeble voice claiming our assistance and our devotion? What more poetical than its long existence, to which our temporary existence is bound by so many ties? We that are called new men, let us prove that we are not so; let us rally round the banners of those watch-words popular to the men who formerly wanted what we now want, to the men who understood as we do the liberty of the French soil. The spirit of generous and peaceful independence far preceded us on that soil; let us not fear to stir it deeply to find that spirit: our researches will not be in vain, but they will be sorrowful; for we shall oftener meet with tortures than with triumphs. Let us not deceive ourselves; it is not to us that the brilliant things of past times belong; it is not for us to sing of chivalry: our heroes have more obscure names. We are the men of the cities, the men of the villages, the men of the soil, the sons of those peasants whom a few knights massacred near Meaux, the sons of those citizens who made Charles the Fifth tremble, the sons of the rebels of the Jacquerie.

[More works by Augustin Thierry (1795 – 1856) and on 19th Century French Liberalism]