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.

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