Celebrating the Promethean Spirit of Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822)
July 8th marks the date of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s unfortunate drowning in the Bay of Lerici, Italy. Despite the considerable sea of time that separates us from the age in which Shelley lived, the poet’s significance has by no means diminished. In our age of increasing cultural chaos, aggressive censorship, and rearing social anarchy, the Promethean spirit of Shelley’s work remains alive and well.
One of Shelley’s most ambitious compositions, Prometheus Unbound (1818-1819), took
the form of a lyrical drama. Inspired by a fervent spirit of classicism, the poet revisited one of the most famous and compelling Classical Greek myths: the Titan Prometheus’ stealing of fire from the gods of Olympus and giving it to humankind.
For some, including the Greek poet Hesiod and Shelley’s own wife, Mary Shelley, the
Promethean myth was viewed as a cautionary tale about humankind’s hubris in the face of divine authority and the natural order of things. For poets like Shelley and Aeschylus, however, Prometheus did not represent any kind of utopian scientism or the creation of transhumanist Frankenstein monsters. Rather, the Titan Prometheus symbolized the rejection of oligarchical systems of control, typified by the hereditary power structures dominating the Europe of Shelley’s age in the aftermath of Congress of Vienna. Shelley elaborated a Promethean vision of the human species endowed with a unique creative spark that gave it the capacity to unearth the natural laws of the universe and harness new forms of “fire”—despite “the gods.”
In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound—the only surviving fragment of the original Greek trilogy on which Shelley modeled his Prometheus Unbound—the immortal Titan sings of the state in which he found humankind before he gave it the gift of “fire.” Prometheus speaks of having found men dwelling in “burrows of their unsunned caves,” living like “phantoms huddled in dreams, the perplexed story of their days confounded.” They possessed knowledge of neither “the fixed signs” of winter nor spring “when she comes decked with flowers.” Men remained “senseless as beasts” until the Titan showed them “the rising of the stars” and “gave them writing that retaineth all.”
For Shelley, poets and artists had a unique role to play in spreading this “fire,” in defiance of the arbitrary “gods” and their censors. Indeed, as we see with Mozart’s operas like Don Giovanni, Beethoven’s Fidelio, or the works of Friedrich Schiller, to name a few, song and poetry were a powerful means of challenging and polemicizing against some of the most entrenched and aggressive systems of control. Poetry was not merely some panegyric art made to glorify the rulers of the day, or simply an escape to some Romantic dream world. Instead, poetry was seen as the divine spark that made the birth and spread of new such “fire” possible.
This classical Promethean outlook is expressed throughout Shelley's drama in the form of songs, hymns, and dialogues among nymphs, gods, and spirits. Take a brief “Song” sung by the goddess Ione:
On a poet's lips I slept
Dreaming like a love-adept
In the sound his breathing kept;
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on the aerial kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses.
He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor heed nor see what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality!
One of these awakened me,
And I sped to succour thee.
Prometheus Unbound – Act I (737–751)
As in many of his poetic works, Shelley’s seemingly simple “Song” is imbued with a mature Platonism. He expresses the view that the poet is no mere “imitator” who simply strives to paint the world as it is—Plato’s “mimesis.” Instead, after weaving a few sensually titillating images which could on first reading be considered Romantic in nature, Shelley writes: “But from these create he can/Forms more real than living man.”
By “more real” Shelley means things beyond mere direct sensory experience—objects of the intellect—which, while not directly observable through our five senses, are intelligible as concepts by the creative mind and make the human species’ mastery of new universal principles i.e. “fire” possible.
The Promethean idea of creating something that never existed before, rather than merely reproducing or imitating that which already existed, lay at the heart of Shelley’s views on poetry and the Promethean nature of the human species. Poetry served to educate and inform the imagination, which Shelley viewed as the realm in which both good and bad, wisdom and ignorance, virtue and vice first took root.
In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley referred to poetry as “at once the centre and circumference of knowledge,” and that which “comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred,” since any new idea or concept, whether in art or science, must first be born in the creative imagination before becoming formalized into any complete or coherent deductive system. So, Shelley considered the poetic imagination “the root and blossom of all other systems of thought”—with Aeschylus' Prometheus representing the pinnacle of this outlook, recognizing man as something beyond some mere beasts to be herded and governed by the would-be “gods” of the day.
Therefore, rather than simply painting titillating sensual images, inducing catharsis, or crafting works composed purely in the spirit of “art for art’s sake,” the poet was, for
Shelley, a potentially Promethean figure. Rather than simply critiquing, poets were able to challenge systems of tyranny and ideological control in new fundamental and nonlinear ways. They did this not through didacticism or elegant trains of syllogisms, but by virtue of their unique ability to act on and transform the imagination, which shaped and colored human thought at its core.
Shelley, in the preface to Prometheus Unbound, explicitly contrasted his poetic approach with what he referred to as the “modern poetry” of his day, writing:
“The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed.” He described his approach as unusual in modern poetry, although observing that “Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind.”
Shelley referred to his imagery as representing the “operations of the human mind,” rather than direct sensory images or experience. This view ran directly contrary to the contemporary Romantic school with which he is often associated. The contrast between Shelley’s views and the Romantic ideal becomes most clear when compared with William Wordsworth’s own poetic approach, which he articulated in Romantic poetry’s de facto manifesto, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Wordsworth specifically speaks of avoiding abstractions and metaphorical ideas, preferring to keep readers in the company of “flesh and blood”:
“The Reader will find that personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes; and, I hope, are utterly rejected as an ordinary device to elevate the style, and raise it above prose. I have proposed to myself to imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men; […] I have wished to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him.”
Rather than directly painting or representing the workings of nature, Shelley sought to represent “the operations of the human mind” through the workings of nature. It was a subtle but fundamentally distinct idea in respect to not only art but life itself. Although the two approaches appeared similar and shared certain outward characteristics, in reality, they encompassed two fundamentally different universes. One universe was characterized by the primacy of sense experience and emotion; the other was based on treating sensory experience and emotions as the shadows cast by something not directly observable or measurable, but for which all directly observable or measurable phenomena had to be referred. The resulting differences in content and world outlook can be seen throughout Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, as well as his other long poems, and many of his finest lyrics.
Take for example his “To a Skylark.” The poem is a nest of paradoxical images in
which the senses are constantly challenged, compelling the mind to make a series of mental and intellectual leaps to grasp the nature of what Shelley playfully refers to as a “sprite or bird.”
Many have read Shelley's lyrics with a Romantic sensibility, leading them to think Shelley is talking about a literal bird. Keen readers will observe that Shelley begins by explicitly stating “Bird thou never wert”:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Shelley speaks of an “unpremeditated art” that seems free of any contrivances and flows purely from its own unmediated nature. Throughout the poem, he continuously plays with the paradoxical nature of what he refers to as this “sprite or bird,” which appears to defy any possibility of direct description:
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
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:
Alas, Shelley finds that even the most beautiful images are incapable of fully describing or accounting for the quality of song and flight embodied in this “sprite or bird.” Like a poet whose thoughts seem to be less his own and more akin to something inspired by the muses from above, so is the presence of this “sprite” deeply heard and felt, and yet remains beyond direct perception.
Each successive stanza presents new variations on the theme, each of which leads to new paradoxical states and feelings of wonder regarding something which never reveals itself directly, but always indirectly, like a “high born maiden in a palace tower” heard soothing her soul with music “in secret hour,” or the scent of a rose “by warm winds deflowered.” By exceeding the possibility of being described by any direct series of images, definitions, or formal systems, Shelley gives the greatest indication of the true nature of his subject, and how it might be best approached. The penultimate stanza reads:
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
As a poet of the highest order, rather than settling for some familiar description or preexisting word, Shelley chooses to invent an altogether new verb: “to poet.” “To poet” becomes a metaphor for genuine creation, allowing poets to “scorn the ground,” that is, to transcend the temporal and earthly realm by generating fundamentally new concepts and timeless works. Shelley’s word choice also harkens back to the original Ancient Greek “poesis,” which means creation, or the process of creation.
Shelley thus asserts the role of the greatest poets and artists as not merely imitators or
painters of delightful images, but creators and fire-bringers who enable human beings to make fundamentally new leaps in their understanding of themselves and their own nature as co-creators endowed with a divine creative spark. Poets achieve this by creating new metaphors and paradoxes that bend the pre-existing structures of language and, therefore, challenge the mind to go beyond any preconceived notion or familiar objects of experience. The result is altogether different or new conceptions about things once considered obvious or self-evident. So, Shelley in his “Defence of Poetry” writes that poetry “strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.”
While no formula for this quality of creation and the poetical imagination exists, no matter how closely or diligently one follows “the rules,” the manner in which Shelley chose to approach his subject leaves us with the greatest clue regarding how we might discover this kind of creative and poetical power within ourselves. Concluding his lyric, Shelley describes the possibility of learning to understand this “harmonious madness,” under the condition that “the world should listen then, as I am listening now.”
Indeed, it is one of the great paradoxes of life that we never find great art—great art finds us. The question becomes: will we be ready to listen? What happens when we do? What happens when such inspiration challenges our own conceptions about the world, ourselves, and our own thoughts or feelings?
Throughout his lyric, Shelley ultimately observes that no manual, rule book, or adequate description for true creativity exists, but just as a poet can and must learn to patiently and sincerely listen to his muse, so may we also learn to listen. In this way, we become humble enough to allow great art, creativity, and wisdom to find us, and flow through us, rather than chasing after our own ideas of what these things should be.
As we mark the occasion of Shelley's early, earthly departure, we may once again look forward to the immortal spirit of Shelley’s life and works spurring a new generation of artists and thinkers to discover their own unique ability “to poet” and pursue their creative visions with true Promethean “fire.”