The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 3. Prometheus Unbound

From Este, Shelley turned south once more, arriving, early in 1819, at Rome. Many vivid letters to Peacock and the Stanzas written in dejection, near Naples (December, 1818), already mentioned, make the journey live for us. Since his arrival in Italy, he had brooded over the plan of a lyrical drama. Three subjects, Mrs. Shelley reports, attracted him: Tasso, Job, Prometheus. Of the first two, only a fragment of Tasso remains; but the fact helps to define his line of approach to the one which he finally adopted and carried into execution. In all three, a noble character suffers grievous things at the hands, or by the consent, of a superior all-powerful will. There is tragedy, of varying quality, in the situation of all three. The sublime figure of Job, visited with immeasurable sufferings, but resisting all appeals to submission, alone in all literature matched the heroic grandeur of the Aeschylean Prometheus. But that this last subject finally prevailed is not surprising. Aeschylus had been his constant companion since he crossed the Alps, in the spring of the previous year. The typical Shelleyan situation—an ideal hero confronting a tyrant—was far more unequivocally present in the Prometheus story than in the rest. And this story offered an opening for the doctrine, yet more intimately Shelleyan, of love as the central principle of things and the key to the ideal future of humanity. The figure of Prometheus had appealed powerfully to other idealists of the revolutionary age. Goethe, in his storm and stress phase, had seen in him the human creator, shaping men in his own image and scorning God; and Beethoven found noble music for the theme. To Byron, in 1816, he was a symbol of the divineness, the heroic endurance and the “funereal destiny” of man. To Shelley, also, he stood for man creating and enduring, endowing the gods themselves with wisdom and strength, and suffering their vindictive rage. But, for Shelley, no symbol of humanity could suffice which excluded the perfected man of the future he confidently foresaw. Aeschylus had made Prometheus finally surrender to Jupiter, and become reconciled with him. This conclusion was, to Shelley, intolerable.

  • The moral interest of the fable [he declares] would be annihilated if we could conceive him unsaying his high language, and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.
  • The story thus had to undergo a radical transformation to fit it to Shelley’s boundless faith in the perfectibility of man. His Godwinian creed had, in this respect, undergone no abatement whatever. Pain, death and sin were transitory ills. Religion, too, man would necessarily outgrow, for the gods were phantoms devised by his brain. A Prometheus who should symbolise humanity thus conceived necessarily triumphed; there was even danger lest his adversary’s overthrow—at bottom, a fight with a figment—should appear too certain and too easy. And this danger was not diminished by the specifically Shelleyan traits which transformed the substance without altering the outline of Godwinian man, and changed the being of pure reason into the being of absolute love; making earth no mere source of human utilities, but the mother “interpenetrated” in every pore of her granite mass with love like his own. The sublime doctrine of love was foreign to Aeschylus and to Greek myth, no less than to Godwin; but the legend which made Prometheus the son of Earth provided Shelley with a pregnant symbol for his thought. The earth-born Titan must partake of the spirit of love which pervades the earth. Even towards his enemy Jupiter, he cannot, therefore, be implacable. Yet, since Jupiter stands for the power of evil which it is his task and destiny to destroy, he cannot be placated. The allegorical and the literal sense thus thrust the story in different directions. Prometheus acts, in part, as the spirit of love, hating, ipso facto, the spirit of hate, and ruthlessly pursuing it to its doom; in part, as the sublime Christ-like sufferer, who wishes “no living thing to suffer pain,” and will not curse even his persecutor. In the great first act, hanging in torture on the cliffs of Caucasus, he seeks to recall the curse upon Jupiter which he had once pronounced, and to which all nature had listened appalled. But he will not disclose the secret which alone can avert Jupiter’s ruin. To the threats and arguments of Mercury—in the most Aeschylean and least undramatic scene of the poem—and to the torments of the furies, he remains inflexible. The catastrophe accordingly follows; Jupiter topples from his throne, as it were, at a touch; indeed, the stroke of doom is here so instantaneous and so simple as to be perilously near the grotesque. Jupiter’s fall is the signal for the regeneration, no less instantaneous, of humanity; man’s evil nature slips off like a slough; Prometheus is “unbound.”

    But this symbolism leaves the character of Prometheus incompletely portrayed. To be chained and set free is but a slender portion of his suffering or of his joy. His keenest pangs—the last resource of the furies when other torments fail—are of the soul, pity for the sufferings of other men, and, worse than blood and fire, pity for their deadly apathy:

  • Hypocrisy and Custom make their minds
  • The fanes of many a worship now outworn.
  • They dare not devise good for man’s estate,
  • And yet they know not that they do not dare.
  • And, as his pains are spiritual, so, while he is still bound, are his joys. The earth, his mother, sends the spirits of heroes and martyrs to cheer him; lovely phantasmal shapes of faith and hope hover round him; and he knows that there awaits him, still afar and invisible, his bride, Asia, the spirit of love in nature—“Lamp of the earth,” “whose footsteps pave the world with light”—but whose transforming presence will fade “unless it be mingled with his own.” The love that is “blindly wove through all the web of being” is incomplete until the love that pervades nature has also triumphed in man made “one harmonious soul of many a soul.” Long before that blissful hour arrived, nature and man had mingled in the glowing speech of poetry; into her “golden chalice,” when his being overflowed, he poured the “bright wine” of his impassioned thought. Such moments Prometheus remembers, though Asia is afar, and “vain all hope but love.”

    Prometheus has thus, from the first, “great allies”; even when anguish is loudest, a hushed rapture of expectation is not far off. Everything in the drama seems to support the faith of Shelley’s most exalted hours, that love, even here and now, is the substance of things, and evil a phantasmal shadow. In such hours, we know, it was written: the vigorous awakening of the Roman spring around him as he wrote, and “the new life with which it drenches the spirits even to intoxication, were the inspiration of this drama.” The speech is almost everywhere lyrical in temper where not in form, and the ardour of Shelley suffuses itself into the atmosphere, compelling even the forces of evil to speak in accents like his, as if secretly persuaded of the fatuity of their own cause. Jupiter speaks in lovely images of stars and sun, as if he, too, were a lover of Asia, the lamp of earth; the fury, in the very act of tormenting Prometheus, speaks as one who herself suffers what she inflicts.

    Finally, in the fourth act, added as an afterthought, some months later, this implicit lyricism becomes a sustained rapture of song. Considered as the closing act of a drama, it is otiose, for it adds nothing to the action; but it is rather to be regarded as the final movement of a symphony; a completion necessary in the logic of emotion, though superfluous in the logic of event. In the great choric songs of the earth and the moon, and in the triumphant strains of the hours and the spirits of the mind, Shelley reaches the sublimest note of his lyric. No modern poet has come nearer than he to making “the morning stars sing together.” Almost all his other modes of song, from the simplest to the most intricate, are to be found in the earlier acts; and on the deep organ tone of Demogorgon, proclaiming that love and wisdom and endurance are of the eternal truth of things, the poem closes.

    Prometheus Unbound is not to be judged as an essay in the philosophy of progress; but neither is it to be treated merely as a tissue of lovely imagery and music. Shelley’s ardour, fortified and misled by the cold extravagances of Godwin, hurried him over the slow course of social evolution. He conceived both the evil in human nature and the process of overcoming it with strange, sublime simplicity. But the ideal of love and endurance, which he sees fulfilled by regenerated man, stands on a different plane; it is rooted in existing human nature, and expresses a state towards which all genuine progress must advance. And, when he portrays the universe as at one with the moral strivings of man, he is uttering no fugitive or isolated extravagance, but the perennial faith of idealists in all ages. Under forms of thought derived from the atheist and materialist Godwin, Shelley has given, in Prometheus Unbound, magnificent expression to the faith of Plato and of Christ.

    Though written at Rome, Prometheus does not bear any direct trace of its origin. Any other flowering glades than those that crowned the baths of Caracalla, and any other glowing Italian sky, would have provided a like intoxicating milieu. Nor was Shelley easily accessible to the specific traditions and character of Rome. It was no city of the soul for him, as for Byron, but a beautiful tomb, “where empires and religions lie buried in the ravage they have wrought”; and neither Vergil nor Lucretius, nor Lucan—a name more honoured by Shelley than either—availed to endear to him the metropolis of papacy. But one tradition of modern Rome had, since his arrival in Italy, moved his deepest interest. The story of Beatrice Cenci, in a form, as is now known, more favourable to her than history warrants, was universally current among the Roman populace, and “not to be mentioned in Roman society without awakening a deep and breathless interest.” Guido’s portrait of Beatrice, in the Colonna palace, heightened Shelley’s passionate sympathy with her personality. Her story was already a tragedy, and “nothing remained, as I imagined, but to clothe it to the apprehensions of my countrymen in such language and action as would bring it home to their hearts.” To bring his thoughts and convictions home to the hearts of his countrymen had never been an aim foreign to Shelley; but he had never, as now, subordinated his own artistic bent and technique to this aim. Though distrustful of his power to write a drama for the stage, he yet chose this incomparable means of popular appeal; and he held his visionary imagination in severe control, avoiding all “mere poetry,” and using a speech which differs from the “familiar speech of men” only in its nobler, more classical, simplicity. That Shelley, after a few weeks’ interval, could carry out, with unfaltering hand, and with supreme success, a poetic transition not less astonishing than would have been the appearance of Samson Agonistes on the morrow of Comus, marks his will power no less than his imaginative range.