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.

Third-Personal Promethean Standpoint in The Cenci

face of a prisoner

The Cenci is a Promethean work in which third-personal claims about a just public order dominate second-personal communication of suffering. Prometheus in Prometheus Bound insists that the friends who visit him see his suffering. Prometheus insists that his visitors hear his account of the wrong Zeus has done to him. Prometheus’s rebellion against the current world order forms the background for valorizing second-personal communication with a person suffering in punishment. In The Cenci, Beatrice refuses to express even to her family and friends the injury that she has suffered. Beatrice insists that what has happened to her cannot be expressed. The second-personal communicative standpoint in the The Cenci serves to privilege third-personal condemnation of the current world order.

The Cenci positions its audience in a third-personal standpoint. The Cenci’s preface describes the drama’s source as a historical account in a manuscript from the Cenci Palace archives in Rome. The preface opens, “A manuscript was communicated to me during my travels in Italy.” The preface subsequently declares:

On my arrival in Rome I found that the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest; and that the feelings of the company never failed to incline a romantic pity for the wrongs, and a passionate exculpation of the horrible deed to which they urged her, who has been mingled two centuries with the common dust. All ranks of people knew the outlines of this history, and participated in the overwhelming interest which it seems to have the magic of exciting in the human heart.^

An ancient, obscure manuscript, the “not to be mentioned” subject, the sensational story – these are all conventional components of exotic travel accounts and gothic fiction popular in early-nineteenth-century England. The drama begins in a palace and then moves to a castle. Catholic institutions and practices figure importantly in it. Among fiercely Protestant, middle-class London theatre-goers, The Cenci represents geographically, historically, culturally, socially, and religiously distant others. Communication among the gods in Prometheus Bound was much closer to the ordinary life of Athenians in fifth-century Athens.

Speaking for over-hearers is at The Cenci’s dramatic climax. Like the false confession under a priest’s threat of “hell fire” in Frankenstein^, the true confession under judge-ordered torture in The Cenci is spoken for others to hear. Count Cenci commits horrible violence against his family and community. Beatrice, Count Cenci’s daughter, leads his son, wife, and hired accomplices in arrangements to kill her father.^ The dramatic tension reaches its peak in their trial for his murder. Beatrice proclaims their innocence and implores the others not to confess to the killing even under torture. The Cenci poetically addresses this extraordinary claim of innocence to the whole imagined patriarchal, monarchical, God-ruled world. Denying the killing is a noble lie. Beatrice assimilates this lie to her demand to the others to speak the truth at some higher level of abstraction.^ “Speak the truth” and “tell me the truth” are not the same moral imperative. The Cenci is primarily concerned with the former, third-personal moral imperative.^

Beatrice, the saintly and violated heroine, stands at trial with her step-mother Lucretia and brother Giacomo. They face Marzio, a vassal of their house. Beatrice violently threatened Marzio and paid him to get him to kill her father. A judge interrogates Beatrice:

A judge. Look upon this man;
When did you see him last?
Beatrice. We never saw him.
Marzio. You know me too well, Lady Beatrice.
Beatrice. I know thee! How? where? when?
Marzio. You know ‘twas I
Whom you did urge with menaces and bribes
To kill your father. When the thing was done
You clothed me in a robe of woven gold
And bade me thrive: how I have thriven, you see.
You my Lord Giacomo, Lady Lucretia,
You know that what I speak is true.
(Beatrice advances toward him; he covers his face, and shirks back.)
O, dart
The terrible resentment of those eyes
On the dead earth! Turn them away from me!
They wound: ‘twas torture forced the truth. My Lords,
Having said this let me be led to death.
Beatrice. Poor wretch, I pity thee: yet stay awhile.^

Beatrice then turns to address a church authority attending the trial. Her words to Marzio, “Poor wretch, I pity thee: yet stay awhile,” position her as a trial official speaking third-personally to Marzio. That implicit standpoint contrasts sharply with Marzio’s pathetic, second-personal lines, “You know me too well, Lady Beatrice. … You my Lord Giacomo, Lady Lucretia, / You know that what I speak is true.”

Beatrice ultimately forces Marzio to speak third-personally. Continuing to double herself with a trial lawyer and judge, Beatrice says to Marzio:

Beatrice. Fix thine eyes on mine;
Answer to what I ask.
(Turning to the Judges)
I prithee mark
His countenance: unlike bold calumny
Which sometimes dares not speak the thing it looks,
He dares not look the thing he speaks, but bends
His gaze on the blind earth.
(To Marzio)
What! wilt thou say
That I did murder my own father?
Marzio. Oh!
Spare me! My brain swims round … I cannot speak …
It was a horrid torture forced the truth.
Take me away! Let her not look on me!
I am a guilty, miserable wretch;
I have said all I know; now, let me die!

Beatrice’s second-personal claims in communication are figured as more painful than torture:

Marzio. Oh, spare me! Speak to me no more!
That stern, yet piteous look, those solemn tones,
Wound worse than torture.

This high melodrama pushes even higher before Beatrice overpowers Marzio:

Beatrice. … Think
What ‘tis to blot with infamy and blood
All that which shows like innocence, and is,
Hear me, great God! I swear, most innocent,
So that the world lose all discrimination
Between the sly, fierce, wild regard of guilt,
And that which now compels thee to reply
To what I ask: Am I, or am I not
A parricide?
Marzio. Thou are not!
Judge. What is this?
Marzio. I here declare those whom I did accuse
Are innocent. ‘Tis I alone am guilty.

Marzio. Torture me as ye will:
A keener pain has wrung a higher truth
From my last breath. She is most innocent!
Bloodhounds, not men, glut yourselves well with me;
I will not give you that fine piece of nature
To rend and ruin.

An appeal to “higher truth” is not just a move of heroes, ideologues, and pretentious dissemblers. Beatrice’s appeal to Marzio casts second-personal communication as a lower activity that can heroically serve third-personal ideas. Her appeal to higher truth devalues second-personal claims.

Beatrice’s suffering in The Cenci has less imaginative force than Prometheus’s suffering in the ancient Greek Prometheus Bound. Both Beatrice and Prometheus rebel against the ruling order and suffer weighty punishments for their actions. In a parody of Prometheus Bound’s ending, The Cenci ends with Beatrice speaking calmly of mundane details as she and her mother prepare to be dragged to their hanging:

Give yourself no unnecessary pain,
My dear Lord Cardinal. Here, Mother, tie
My girdle for me, and bind up this hair
In any simple knot; aye, that does well.
And yours I see is coming down. How often
Have we done this for one another; now
We shall not do it any more. My Lord,
We are quite ready. Well, ‘tis very well.^

This sardonic use of ordinary discourse might provoke theatre-goers’ moral outrage. It’s outrage well-distanced from second-personal claims on them. The implicit concern is clearly figured third-personally in one of Beatrice’s earlier declamations:

Will you give up these bodies to be dragged
At horses’ heels, so that our hair should sweep
The footsteps of the vain and senseless crowd,
Who, that they may make our calamity
Their worship and their spectacle, will leave
The churches and the theatres as void
As their own hearts?^

Beatrice’s concern in punishment is the content of everyone else’s heart. Prometheus Bound, in contrast, ends with Prometheus, chained to a crag, intensely chanting to the Athenians: “see how unjust / my / suffering.”

The Cenci reverses key aspects of Prometheus Bound’s second-personal communication. Beatrice’s father, Count Cenci, is an evil, thoroughly tyrannical Italian count who commits many wrongs. Unlike Zeus for the Athenians, Beatrice’s father has little specific importance to the world of The Cenci’s theater-goers. A specific wrong that Beatrice’s father commits against Beatrice drives the central action of killing him. Beatrice appears first to her step-mother after this wrong. Her step-mother repeatedly asks what has befallen her, what ails her, what her father has done. Beatrice refuses to say. She finally says:

What words would you have me speak?
I, who can feign no image in my mind
Of that which has transformed me. I, whose thought
Is like a ghost shrouded and folded up
In its own formless horror. Of all words,
That minister to mortal intercourse,
Which wouldst thou hear? For there is none to tell
My misery: if another ever knew
Aught like to it, she died as I will die,
And left it, as I must, without a name.^

Beatrice’s unwillingness to reveal her personal trauma parallels the behavior of Victor in Frankenstein. Like Victor, Beatrice adopts the ego-centrism of Oceanus in communication with Prometheus. Namelessness in Frankenstein emphasizes the controlling force of the narrator’s perceptions and psychology.^ Here, like the wisdom that Oceanus serves to the suffering Prometheus, Beatrice offers an externalized, universalized psychological abstraction to her step-mother. No one has suffered what she has suffered. And if anyone has, she could not have named her suffering either. Oceanus’s speech in Prometheus Bound teaches Athenians how not to speak with a person suffering in punishment. Beatrice speaks to her beloved step-mother statements much like those of Oceanus. Other characters in The Cenci give Beatrice’s statements the authority of compelling, impersonal truth.

While story-seeking in the Prometheus Bound mimics low-status practices, story-seeking in The Cenci is meant to create lofty melodrama. In Prometheus Bound, Io, the Oceanides, and Prometheus haggle over story-telling using the low-level morality of gift and exchange. The intense suffering in the ensuing stories contrasts sharply with the low moral circumstances of their production. In The Cenci, refusing to tell a story has great moral significance and substitutes for telling of suffering. When her friend and suitor Orsino enters, Beatrice says to him:

Welcome, Friend!
I have to tell you that, since we last met,
I have endured a wrong so great and strange,
That neither life nor death can give me rest.
Ask me not what it is, for there are deeds
Which have no form, sufferings which have no tongue.^

This highly rhetorical greeting, which differs greatly from that of a real person suffering a terrible psychological wound, naturally prompts Orsino to ask questions about the wrong. Beatrice responds with much poetical expression. But she refuses to describe the wrong she has suffered. Orsino concludes:

For it is such, as I but faintly guess,
As make remorse dishonour, and leaves her
Only one duty, how she may avenge

Orsino then hints of killing Beatrice’s father. Beatrice’s mother forthrightly asks whether they should devise her husband’s death. Beatrice declares yes, they should kill her father “suddenly,” being “brief and bold.”

The “unutterable,” “expressionless” wrong that Beatrice suffered creates a story with such moral power that it signifies without Beatrice having to speak. Subsequent to that wrong, Beatrice displays excellent reasoning, high verbal skill, and great emotional control. Compared to Beatrice’s verbal performances after her father’s decisive wrong to her, Prometheus’s verbal performances in Prometheus Bound are much less controlled. Prometheus’s words vary greatly in emotional level, verbal texture, and topical and situational coherence. Beatrice’s refusal to speak about the wrong she suffered is a third-personal rhetorical strategy of moral domination. Prometheus’s insistent, incoherent speaking is affective second-personal communication. Prometheus’s second-personal communication better serves personal accountability and justice in truth.

Third-Personal Standpoint in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound

face of a prisoner

Shelley’s early nineteenth-century drama Prometheus Unbound refigures the second-personal communication of the ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound. Written in competition for acclaim, the ancient Greek Prometheus Bound insists on second-personal communication with Prometheus suffering in punishment. Prometheus Bound’s imperative to Athenian citizens was to act in administering justice with the experience that Prometheus Bound provided to each of them. Prometheus Unbound, in contrast, backgrounds personal agency. It rejects personal striving in competition for attention in early nineteenth-century England. In Prometheus Unbound, third-personal poetic utterances echoing throughout the cosmos bring about justice without personal agency.

Prometheus Unbound and Shelley’s play The Cenci have some obvious connections. Shelley wrote The Cenci in 1819. He was then also writing Prometheus Unbound. Each work contains a preface envisioning the work’s production, purpose, and addressees. Both prefaces have a similar style and tone. Both dramas concern rebellion against an unjust order and the effects of that rebellion. Both dramas incorporate clear textual relations to the ancient Greek Prometheus Bound.

Nonetheless, Shelley’s designs for these two works differed significantly. Shelley created The Cenci as a tragedy that would play successfully on a popular London stage. Prometheus Unbound he wrote as a lyrical drama for elite personal reading.^ Shelley described the dramatic interest in The Cenci as “the restless and anatomizing casuistry” that Beatrice evoked. In Prometheus Unbound, he sought to create a Prometheus who didn’t evoke “pernicious casuistry.”^ In the preface to The Cenci, Shelley claimed to have “endeavored as nearly as possible to represent the characters as they probably were” and to have “avoided with great care … what is commonly called mere poetry.” In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley stated that he drew imagery “from the operations of the human mind” and that he sought to present to poetic readers “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence.”

The epigraph to Prometheus Unbound highlights Shelley’s poetic address. The epigraph contains a line from Aeschylus’s tragedy Epigoni: “Do you hear that, Amphiaraus, hidden under the earth?” Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations gave this line to the voice of a loyal student lamenting to his dead teacher the betrayal of another of the teacher’s students.^ One of Shelley’s notebooks indicates that Shelley directed this line “To The Ghost of Aeschylus.”^ Shelley understood himself to be challenging the teaching of Aeschylus. Shelley’s position in relation to Aeschylus is thus opposite that of the loyal student in Cicero. As an epigraph for Prometheus Unbound, the speaker, addressee, and meaning of the quote from Epigoni is a matter of complex textual relations.

In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley combatively challenges Aeschylus. The preface figures Aeschylus as Shelley’s rival and predecessor. The preface refers to Aeschylus as Shelley’s model. Shelley, an ardent atheist, regarded Prometheus as more poetically worthy than Satan:

The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgement, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the Hero of Paradise Lost {here meaning Satan}, interfere with the interest. … Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.^

Available textual fragments indicate that the Prometheus Unbound historically attributed to Aeschylus reconciled Prometheus and Zeus. Shelley refused to follow that story line:

I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion {Prometheus} with the Oppressor {Zeus} of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.

The phrase “catastrophe so feeble” describes catastrophe like an art for which the grandest is most valued. The claim that the moral interest of the fable would be “annihilated” is inconsistent with Aeschylus’s historical renown for the Prometheus trilogy. Moreover, reconciling Prometheus and Zeus doesn’t necessarily imply Prometheus “quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.” The violence of Shelley’s challenge to Aeschylus signals Shelley’s intense concern to triumph over Aeschylus in competition for poetic acclaim that Shelley imagined trans-historically.

Shelley’s relation to Aeschylus is more complex than trans-historical competition for acclaim. In Prometheus Unbound’s preface, Shelley declares that an “attempt to restore the lost drama of Aeschylus” would invoke a “high comparison.” Aeschylus was highly regarded in early-nineteenth-century England. Shelley himself was a devoted reader of Aeschylus. Shelley states that Prometheus Unbound’s imagery is like that of ancient Greek poets. He asks readers to attribute this similarity to his study of Greek poetry “since a higher merit would probably be denied me.” His preface concludes with a warning in the third person:

let none trouble themselves to heap the dust of oblivion upon his efforts; the pile they raise will betray his grave which might otherwise have been unknown.

The third-personal “his” carries the reference “my,” meaning Shelley. While presenting at Athenian festivals assured Aeschylus of civic attention, Shelley had no such assurance. Lack of attention to his works deeply troubled Shelley. Shelley’s combative challenge to Aeschylus seems mainly to reflect Shelley’s anxiety about his status, the reception of his work, and competition for attention.

Shelley’s literary name-dropping is consistent with status anxiety. In his four-page preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley explicitly refers to Aeschylus, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Petrarch, Fletcher, Dryden, Pope, Plato, Bacon, Paley, and Malthus. Most of these names occur in Shelley’s discussion of imitation. That discussion begins with Shelley noting charges of imitation directed at “poems far more popular, and indeed more deservedly popular, than mine.” Shelley concludes his discussion of imitation by declaring that he has done only what these illustrious authors have done: “If this similarity be the result of imitation, I am willing to confess that I have imitated.” In his preface, Shelley avoids naming one author while questioning that author’s motivation:

Let this opportunity be conceded to me of acknowledging that I have what a Scotch philosopher characteristically terms, ‘a passion for reforming the world’; what passion incited him to write and publish his book, he omits to explain. For my part I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon, than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus.

The unnamed Scottish philosopher is Robert Forsyth. He ranked much lower than Paley and Malthus in literary fame. Shelley apparently omitted naming Forsyth, not because he particularly disliked Forsyth’s work, but because Forsyth was not notable.

Shelley’s creativity encompassed means for promoting the effects of his work. One of Shelley’s ideas was to put political ballads and broadsides into bottles, toss the bottles into the ocean, and hope that the west wind “will waft ye to some freeborn soul.”^ Shelley also attached such writings to hot-air balloons. He hoped that the writing, when it eventually fell to earth somewhere, would be:

A watch-light by the patriot’s lonely tomb,
A ray of courage to the oppressed and the poor,
A spark though gleaming on the hovel’s hearth
Which through the tyrant’s gilded domes shall roar,
A beacon in the darkness of the Earth,
A Sun which o’er the renovated scene
Shall dart like Truth where Falsehood yet has been.^

These writings, which included Shelley’s anonymously written “The Devil’s Walk: A Ballad” (1811-12) and “Declaration of Rights” (1812), strongly imagined unseen readers. They also provided rich material for their readers to imagine the author. Shelley’s anonymously written “Declaration of Rights” declared of the rights it proclaimed:

They are declared to thee by one who knows thy dignity, for every hour does his heart swell with honourable pride in the contemplation of what thou mayest attain, by one who is not forgetful of thy degeneracy, for every moment brings home to him the bitter conviction of what thou art.

Attaching writings to sea-born bottles and hot-air balloons lessened risks of persecution for distributing politically dangerous texts. These distribution strategies and the associated sonnets figure words as fire that naturally spreads and necessarily has effects in the world.

In Prometheus Unbound, Shelley took a more ambitiously literary approach to the effects of his work. The ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound begins with a silent Prometheus being bound amid two speaking characters. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound begins with a long speech from Prometheus. This opening speech ends with the decisive action of Shelley’s play: Prometheus seeks to “recall” his curse of Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus). While Prometheus in the Prometheus Bound calls upon the elements of the world – light, sky, winds, rivers, oceans, earth, sun – to see his suffering, Prometheus in the Prometheus Unbound calls upon the elements of the world – mountains, springs, air, whirlwinds – to say back to Prometheus the curse he has said. These elements in reply tell of the tremendous effects of Prometheus’s words. A voice from the springs proclaims:

Never such a sound before
To the Indian waves we bore.
A pilot asleep on the howling sea
Leaped up from the deck in agony,
and heard, and cried, ‘Ah, woe is me!’
And died as mad as the wild waves be.^

Shelley imagines Prometheus’s words as sound of unprecedented power, sound that spreads naturally throughout the world, sound effective enough to drive mad even a sailor who could sleep on a ship’s deck amid a howling sea. Prometheus Bound presents a bound body. Prometheus Unbound attributes liberating effect to a disembodied voice circulating throughout the world.

Communicative effects in Prometheus Unbound are primarily third-personal. Without direct address to them, characters experience communicative effects such as “an awful whisper rises up!”; “Obscurely through my brain, like shadows dim, / Sweep awful thoughts, rapid and thick”; “Speak the words which I would hear, / Although no thought inform thine empty voice”; “A spirit seizes me and speaks within.”^ Shelley attributes lines in the drama to voices such as “Fourth Voice (from the Whirlwinds),” “Second Echo,” “Sixth Spirit,” “Second Faun,” “Voice of Unseen Spirits,” “Chorus of Hours,” “Chorus of Hours and Spirits,” “A Voice from Above,” “A Voice from Beneath,” and “A Confused Voice.” This literary approach imagines a world of sounds, words, and ideas that exist and persist apart from their material form and their person-to-person communication. Prometheus Unbound presents “the deep music of the rolling world.”^ That music is not addressed to anyone. It simply is.

The material text of Prometheus Unbound was bound to other poems that similarly envision third-personal communication. Prometheus Unbound was first published in 1820 in a book entitled Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems. One of those other poems envisions a skylark, unseen high above. As a spirit, an “unbodied joy,” the skylark sings, unbidden, to no one in particular. The hidden bird keeps singing unbidden until the world is transformed:

Like a poet hidden
in the light of thought
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not

Shelley the poet extols and envies the skylark:

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then – as I am listening now.^

With a parallel to Shelley’s “To a Balloon, Laden with Knowledge,” Shelley’s anxiety of attention drives his poetic address to the west wind:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!^

Shelley objectifies his words as fallen leaves of a tree or fallen leaves of a manuscript. He imagines them circulating impersonally by the wind. These images, like those of the skylark and the persistent voices in Prometheus Unbound, are an imaginative solution to the challenges Shelley faced in competition for attention to his work.

Prometheus Unbound figures intimate communication with little respect for communicative standpoint. Prometheus addresses the earth as his mother:

Mother, thy sons and thou
Scorn him, without whose all-enduring will
Beneath the fierce omnipotence of Jove,
Both they and thou had vanished, like thin mist
Unrolled on the morning wind. Know ye not me,
The Titan? he who made his agony
The barrier to your else all-conquering foe?

Why answer ye not, still? Brethren!^

Here in addressing his mother, Prometheus refers to himself in the third person and describes his heroic acts. He queries whether his mother knows him. This high poetic form astonishingly resolves into second-personal, childish pestering, “Why answer ye not, still? Brethren!” Prometheus in Prometheus Unbound is a serious, elevated figure. Reading Prometheus Unbound seriously requires communicative standpoint to matter little.

The much different communicative standpoints of Hephaistos and Hermes in Prometheus Bound are conflated in Prometheus Unbound. In Prometheus Bound, Hephaistos poignantly affirms second-personal claims in communication with Prometheus. Hermes, in contrast, serves Zeus and engages in rhetorical battle with Prometheus to vindicate Zeus’s right. In Prometheus Unbound, Mercury’s communicative standpoint drifts between that of Hephaistos and Hermes:

Alas! I pity thee, and hate myself
That I can do no more – aye from thy sight
Returning, for a season, Heaven seems Hell,
So thy worn form pursues me night and day,
smiling reproach.^

Being troubled by Prometheus’s “smiling reproach” suggests Prometheus’s second-personal moral claim on Mercury. Pity, however, is typically a third-personal sentiment. Mercury subsequently shifts to place himself alongside Prometheus in relation to Jupiter. Mercury associates inflicting and receiving punishment:

Oh, that we might be spared: I to inflict,
and thou to suffer!

Mercury seeks to induce Prometheus to provide information about the period of Jupiter’s rule in exchange for freedom:

If thou might’st dwell among the Gods the while,
Lapped in voluptuous joy?

Mercury’s invocation of a heaven, like Hermes’s rhetorical thrusts in ancient Athens, is culturally contextual persuasion. Mercury’s response to Prometheus’s refusal of this other world, “Alas! I wonder at, yet pity thee,” perhaps hints at Mercury’s admiration for Prometheus’s singular ability to reject the popular enticement of heaven. Hephaistos and Hermes introduce and conclude Prometheus Bound with communicative forms that were clearly distinct and significant to Athenians. Mercury, in contrast, appears in the middle of the first act of Prometheus Unbound and has no formal distinctiveness in personal address.

In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus presents his suffering as a specific injustice personally accountable to Zeus. Prometheus insists that others see the suffering that Zeus has imposed on him specifically because he gave fire and other gifts to humankind. Prometheus describes his suffering as “a sight that does dishonor to Zeus.”^ Only in rhetorical battle with Hermes does Prometheus express indifference to Zeus’s punishment. In that rhetorical battle, Prometheus imagines increased punishment from Zeus with the verb “let him.”^ That rhetoric is a common form for expressing strength, boldness, and fearlessness in a fight.

In Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus actively seeks suffering more generally associated with the state of the world. Prometheus’s curse of Jupiter begins with a description of Prometheus’s action and then implores Jupiter to pour down suffering on “me and mine”:

Fiend, I defy thee! with a calm, fixed mind,
All that thou canst inflict I bid thee do;
Foul Tyrant both of Gods and Humankind,
One only being shalt thou not subdue.
Rain then thy plagues upon me here,
Ghastly disease, and frenzying fear;

Let thy malignant spirit move
Its darkness over those I love:
On me and mine I imprecate
The utmost torture of thy hate ^

Prometheus refuses Mercury’s pity: “{pity} Not me, within whose mind sits peace serene.” He then declares: “how vain is talk! / Call up the fiends.”^ To the Furies who approach him not for combative speeches, but like a “death-bird after battle” to “rend thee bone from bone, and nerve from nerve,” Prometheus declares:

I laugh your power, and his who sent you here,
To lowest scorn. Pour forth the cup of pain.^

Prometheus Unbound refigures Prometheus’s punishment for a specific offense into Prometheus’s masochistic protest against the whole ruling order. Prometheus in Shelley’s poetry is a new Jesus, one without personal communion.

Prometheus’s suffering in Prometheus Unbound has little imaginative force. It doesn’t break Prometheus into shrieks, chants, declarations, and songs. Instead, Prometheus most directly expresses his suffering in a formal lament, repeated nearly verbatim three times, “Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!”^ When Heracles frees Prometheus, Heracles describes Prometheus as the form that “wisdom, courage, and long-suffering love … animate.” Suffering by a form of abstract qualities lacks visceral effect. Prometheus’s first words upon being unbound are to declare to Heracles, the mighty champion of heroic deeds:

Thy gentle words
Are sweeter even than freedom long desired
And long delayed.^

That’s delicate, odorous, and daedal poetry. But most persons would prefer freedom from imprisonment to gentle words.

Across different levels of meaning, Prometheus Unbound obscures second-personal accountability for suffering. After Heracles frees Prometheus, Prometheus declares to Asia their perpetual marital union: “Henceforth we will not part.” Prometheus turns to the Spirit of the Hour and orders Ione:

Give her that curvèd shell, which Proteus old
Made Asia’s nuptial boon, breathing within it
A voice to be accomplished, and which thou
Didst hide in grass under the hollow rock.

The “voice to be accomplished” is “like lulled music sleeping” in the shell. The voice’s speaker and its addressees are obscure and irrelevant. That the shell was a gift to mark an intimate occasion (“Asia’s nuptial boon”) seems to make no corresponding claim on how Prometheus disposes of it. Prometheus orders the Spirit of the Hour:

Go, borne over the cities of mankind
On whirlwind-footed coursers: once again
Outspeed the sun around the orbèd world;
And as thy chariot cleaves the kindling air,
Thou breathe into the many-folded shell,
Loosening its mighty music; it shall be
As thunder mingled with clear echoes

Zeus with thunder intensified Prometheus’s punishment at the conclusion of Prometheus Bound. Asia’s nuptial boon is an alternative form of thunder that acts third-personally to change the world for the better. The Spirit of the Hour reports:

Soon as the sound had ceased whose thunder filled
The abysses of the sky and the wide earth,
There was a change: the impalpable thin air
And the all-circling sunlight were transformed,
As if the sense of love, dissolved in them,
Had folded itself round the spherèd world.
Willful injury no longer occurs in personal relations:
None, with firm sneer, trod out in his own heart
The sparks of love and hope, till there remained
Those bitter ashes, a soul self-consumed,
And the wretch crept a vampire among men,
Infecting all with his own hideous ill^

Prometheus Unbound reverses Victor’s creation of the monster in Frankenstein, but not Frankenstein’s communicative standpoint. In Prometheus Unbound, the necessity and practice of second-personal accountability fall away as words of Prometheus are recalled third-personally. The sound of recalling words produces third-personally a world encircled with love.

Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound has been called “one of the greatest poems in the language” and Shelley’s “major achievement.”^ It has nonetheless attracted little public attention. The world has not been encircled with love. In the U.S., an exceptionally high share of persons are literally held as prisoners. Lack of accountability for that development is in part a poetic problem of communicative standpoint.