Prometheus from a Third-Personal Standpoint

face of a prisoner

The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein indicate effects of a third-personal standpoint on represented suffering. These three works were written in about three years from late 1816 to late 1819. They transfigure ideas from the classical Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound across a wide range of early nineteenth-century literary forms. The Cenci, subtitled a tragedy and written for popular stage performance, describes its source as historical events in sixteenth-century Italy. Prometheus Unbound is a closet drama of poetic images and ideas intended as a revision of myth for elite literary readers. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel formally similar to popular epistolary and gothic fiction from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Suffering in punishment in these works implies less accountability than does suffering in punishment in the Prometheus Bound. Even across a wide range of literary forms, a third-personal standpoint on suffering makes turning away from suffering less troubling.

In 1811, in his book The return to nature, or, A defence of the vegetable regimen, John Frank Newton described the ancient Greek account of Prometheus as an allegory. After presenting an illustrious, early seventeenth-century English philosopher’s interpretation of that allegory, Newton argued for his own, rather different interpretation.^ Newton explained that Prometheus’s gift of fire brought disease and woe to humans because fire promoted cooking and eating meat.

Newton’s interpretation of Prometheus won over the young Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley presented Newton’s argument, with additional elaboration, in his polemical pamphlet, A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813). Shelley also incorporated Newton’s argument into notes to his long poem Queen Mab (1813).^ Shelley’s A Vindication of Natural Diet featured on its front cover an untranslated quotation in Greek from Hesiod’s Works and Days. In that quotation, Zeus declares that Prometheus’s theft of fire will bring a great plague to men. Newton’s and Shelley’s texts on vegetarianism included many classical references and quotations in Latin and Greek. Both Newton and Shelley used their allegorical interpretation of Prometheus in marshaling ancient authorities to support vegetarianism to elite readers.

A rage for Aeschylus, and particularly Prometheus Bound, gripped early nineteenth-century Britain. In 1773, Prometheus Bound became the first play attributed to Aeschylus to be printed in English translation.^ Four years later, Potter’s English prose translation of all of Aeschylus’s extant plays was printed.^ Interest in Aeschylus rose through the beginning of the nineteenth century. Potter’s translation was reprinted in 1808.^ In 1809 and 1810, three editions of Aeschylus’s Greek texts and two editions of English translations came out. An intense scholarly battle over recensions of Aeschylus’s Greek texts droned on. That controversy spanned the specialized quarterly Classical Journal, founded in London in 1810, the literary quarterly Edinburgh Review, and the general-interest monthly Gentleman’s Magazine.^ Between 1795 and 1825, British printers produced seven editions of Aeschylus’s collected works and fourteen editions of individual plays attributed to Aeschylus.^

Ambitious writers in early-nineteenth-century England studied and thought at length about Prometheus Bound. Byron, writing to his publisher in 1817, declared:

Of the Prometheus of Aeschylus I was passionately fond as a boy (it was one of the Greek plays we read thrice a year at Harrow) ; — indeed that and the ‘Medea’ were the only ones, except the ‘Seven before Thebes,’ which ever much pleased me. … The Prometheus, if not exactly in my plan, has always been so much in my head, that I can easily conceive its influence over all or any thing that I have written ^

In addition to his short poem “Prometheus,” Byron referred to Prometheus in Manfred (1817) and Don Juan, Canto the First (1819). William Wordsworth invoked Prometheus in The Excursion (1814). John Keats did so in Endymion (1817). In 1825 before the Royal Society of Literature in London, Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave a lecture entitled On the Prometheus of Aeschylus.^

Shelley, like those leading literary men of his time, studied and thought at length about Prometheus Bound. Thomas Medwin, one of Shelley’s close friends, described Shelley’s activities in Geneva in the summer of 1816:

He reads incessantly. His great studies at this time were the Greek dramatists, especially Aeschylus’s Prometheus, whom he considered the type of Milton’s Satan. He translated this greatest of tragedies to Byron, a very indifferent Greek scholar, which produced his sublime ode on Prometheus^

Shelley became devoted to reading ancient Greek and Roman works in the original languages.^ In her journal’s list of books that Shelley read in 1816, Mary Shelley recorded Prometheus Bound.^ About a year later, Mary Shelley noted in her journal: “S {Shelley} traslates {translates} Promethes Desmotes {Prometheus Bound} and I write it.”^ From July 22 to Aug. 5, 1817, Shelley read “plays of Aeschylus.”^ About the first third of an English translation of Prometheus Bound, written in Mary Shelley’s hand, has survived. Shelley apparently did that translation in the summer of 1817.^ Traveling through the Alps on March 26, 1818, Shelley marveled at the scenery. He wrote in Mary Shelley’s journal:

The scene is like that described in the Prometheus of Aeschylus – Vast rifts & caverns in the granite precipices – wintry mountains with ice & snow above^

Shelley’s close friend Thomas Medwin reported that, during the the winter of 1820-1821:

he {Shelley} translated to me the Prometheus of Aeschylus, reading it as fluently as if written in French or Italian^

Shelley, drowned while sailing in 1822, reportedly died with a volume Aeschylus in his jacket pocket.^ Aeschylus, and especially Prometheus Bound, deeply shaped Shelley’s imagination.

In intimate communication, Shelley invoked Prometheus Bound from a third-personal standpoint. Shelley left his child and his pregnant wife Harriet in July, 1814, to pursue a relationship with Mary Godwin. In October, 1814, facing imprisonment for debt to a coach-maker, he desperately wrote to Harriet:

I cannot raise money soon enough – unless you can effect something I must go to Prison & all our hopes of independence be finished. I see no resource. I must hide myself til the 6th & then if you can raise no money, go to Prison to save my bail.

… If once in prison, confined in a damp cell, without a sixpence, without a friend (for I have mortgaged my income to Mr. Hookham) I must inevitably be starved to death.^

Thomas Hookham was a bookseller and a person whom Shelley addressed as a friend in 1812.^ Soon after he wrote the above to Harriet, Shelley wrote to Mary Godwin:

If you see Hookham, do not insult him openly. I have still hopes. We must not resign an inch of hope. I will make this remorseless villain loathe his own flesh – in good time. He shall be cut down in his season. His pride shall be trampled into atoms. I will wither up his selfish soul by peacemeal {sic}.^

Passive-aggressiveness seems to have been an aspect of Shelley’s personality.^ Shelley appended to this letter a quotation in Greek from Prometheus Bound. In English translation, the Greek quotation was “hissing terror from his horrid jaws.” Shelley commonly quoted or referred to authors he was reading or had just read.^ Shelley apparently was reading Prometheus Bound in Oct, 1814. Reading Prometheus Bound influenced Shelley’s personal communication in circumstances of acute personal stress.

Shelley’s Greek quotation from Prometheus Bound in his letter to his lover Mary Godwin concerns the monster Typhos. According to Prometheus Bound, Typhos violently challenged the ruling god Zeus. Zeus responded by hurling lightening at Typhos:

… blasting his
boasting tongue and scorching his
heart, his strength sent packing.
He lies there now,
helpless, limp

A few lines later in the same speech, Prometheus recounted what will happen at some indefinite future time:

One day rivers of fire will
leap from that peak, and flowing,
devour Sicily’s fruitful plains.
This will be Typhos,
Typhos burnt to ashes by Zeus’ thunderbolt,
but his rage will spew out
mountains of glowing
rock and fiery spray.^

Typhos, like Prometheus, endured punishment from Zeus. Unlike Prometheus, Typhos struck back violently. Shelley seems to have imagined himself as Typhos in Prometheus Bound. A critic has discerned more generally in Shelley’s poetry “an essentially retributive aesthetic … a highly self-conscious embrace of penal retributivism.”^

Within Shelley’s letter to his lover Mary Godwin, the quotation from Prometheus Bound is third-personal communication. Shelley quoted Prometheus Bound in ancient Greek. Mary Godwin could not read Greek. Shelley didn’t append the quotation to his letter to impress Mary with his classical knowledge. That would have been inappropriate for the letter’s circumstances and unnecessary in any case. The quotation is best understood to be Shelley connecting his letter to what he perceived to be a third-personal force in the imaginative universe: retributive justice.

Writing personally to Mary, Shelley didn’t consistently maintain a second-personal standpoint. He wrote:

I wander restlessly about I cannot read – or even write. But this will soon pass. I should not infect my own Mary with my dejection. She has sufficient cause for disturbance to need consolation from me. Well we shall meet today. I cannot write. But I love you with so unalterable a love that the contemplation of me will serve for a letter.^

Shelley’s cosmic view of himself is “this will soon pass.” With respect to Mary, Shelley shifted to first-personal self-address (“I should not infect my own Mary with my dejection”). Mary’s “disturbance” was her pregnancy with their child. Shelley also shifted to Mary’s second-personal standpoint: “contemplation of me will serve for a letter {to you}.” Shelley’s letter to Mary was not consistently second-personal address to her.

A Promethean theme from a third-personal standpoint unite The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein. None of these works achieved immediate success in the intense competition for attention in early nineteenth-century England. Both The Cenci and Frankenstein were initially offered publicly as anonymously authored works deliberately presented in ways to attract public attention. Prometheus Unbound, in contrast, Shelley seems to have written to circulate through only poetic means and forces. That intentional authorial distinction didn’t make a difference for Shelley’s Promethean communicative standpoint. The distinction between a second-personal standpoint and a third-personal standpoint is fundamentally important for moral accountability. The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein together indicate that a third-personal standpoint was a deep structural feature of literary imagination within the communicative circumstances of early-nineteenth-century England.

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