The Quintessential Philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Three years before his death, Shelley wrote what many consider his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound. Considering Shelley's rebellious nature, the choice of the authority defying Prometheus as hero is not surprising. For Shelley, Prometheus came to symbolize the mind or soul of man in its highest potential. Two of Shelley's favorite themes lie at the heart of Prometheus Unbound: the external tyranny of rulers, customs, or superstitions is the main enemy, and that inherent human goodness will, eventually, eliminate evil from the world and usher in an eternal reign of transcendent love. It is, perhaps, in Prometheus Unbound that Shelley most completely expresses these ideas. C.S. Lewis deemed Prometheus Unbound the best long poem written in English in the 19th century, the poem was Percy Bysshe Shelley's attempt to fulfill an ambition general to the Romantic poets: to write a great long poem(Pittock). Written in 1818-19, Prometheus Unbound was in part designed as an implicit comment on counter-revolutionary politics in Britain. However, the poem also reflects Shelley's aversion to authority in his personal life. In his seminal work, The Mirror and the Lamp, M.H. Abrams comments on this aspect of Shelley's personality asserting, Shelley's own life was a classic case history of
] primarily against the father and
deriviatively against those projected father imagos,
kings and the Diety.(254)
Therefore, both the political and personal rebellion lie at the thematic heart of the lyric drama. However, the poems greatness transcends these earthly themes. It sets itself apart with its portrayal of the eternal rather than the merely temporal struggles between the forces of tyranny and liberty in the persons of Jupiter and Prometheus. Based loosely on the legend of the Titan of Aeschylus's play, Shelley's Prometheus befriends humankind and is punished for his friendship by a jealous Jupiter. Yet, Shelley's Prometheus also bears a close relationship to Milton's Satan. Indeed Shelley juxtaposes the characteristics of Prometheus with Milton's Satan in the preface of Prometheus Unbound: The only imaginary being resembling in any degree
Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my
judgment, a more poetical character than Satan,
because, in addition to courage, and 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, interfere with the interest. (Shelley
Indeed, Shelley's hero Prometheus differs substantially from Milton's Satan. First, his hero is purged of ambition, envy, and revenge. Additionally, Prometheus ultimately succeeds in overthrowing the ruling deity, Jupiter. In his preface to Prometheus Unbound Percy Shelley admits: "I have a passion for reforming the world" (209). In his 1813 work, Queen Mab, the poet chose three epigraphs; the first of these, printed in capital letters, was Voltaire's battle cry "Erasez l'infame"-kill the monster- and the heart of the poem reflects Shelley's vision of universal regeneration through revolution (Reiman 16). However, by the time Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound in 1818 he no longer regarded social or political change as a means for inaugurating a new golden age (Cameron 589). While still zealous for reformation, Shelley's new vision for reform shifted: he now saw love as the agent of universal change. In Prometheus Unbound, internal renewal leads to external betterment. Indeed, the lyric drama is a valuable key to understanding Shelley's philosophy. It is interesting that Shelley chose the playwright, Aeschylus, rather than the philosopher, Plato, as his model. The poet did this because he wanted to do more than merely present his ideas. Shelley observed that "didactic poetry is my...
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Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.
Berthin, Christine "Prometheus Unbound, or Discourse and Its Other," Keats-Shelley Journal, 62 (1993): 128-41.
Cameron, Kenneth Neil. "Shelley as Agrarian Reactionary." Shelley 's Poetry and Prose 2nd ed. Eds. Reiman, Donald H. and Neil Fraistat. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002. 580-589.
Colwell, Frederick S. "Figures in a Promethean Landscape." Keats and Shelley Journal: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Their Circles. New York: KSJ (1996): 118-31.
Pittock, Murray G.H. "Prometheus Unbound: Overview" Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick, Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. http://80galenet.galegroup.com.researchport.umd.edu:2850/servlet/LitRC?vrsn=3&OP=contains&locID=umd_bowie&srchtp=athr&ca=2&c=4&ste=16&stab=512&tab=2&tbst=arp&ai=80701&n=10&docNum=H1420007839&ST=percy+bysshe+shelley&bConts=278191
Rajan, Tilottama. "Deconstruction or Reconstruction: Reading Shelley 's Prometheus Unbound," Studies in Romanticism, 23 (1984), 319.
Reiman, Donald H. and Neil Fraistat, eds. Shelley 's Poetry and Prose. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Prometheus Unbound. A Norton Critical Edition Shelley 's Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts Criticism 2nd ed. Eds. Reiman, Donald H. and Neil Fraistat. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002. 202-286.
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