Percy Bysshe Shelley
Prometheus Bound is a 5th century BC Greek tragedy attributed to the playwright Aeschylus. It recounts the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who defies the gods and gives fire to mankind. Prometheus is famously subjected to perpetual punishment for this kindness, becoming a precursor to rebel heroes of literature and popular culture, who stand against tyranny and suffer for the freedom of others.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Προμηθεύς, meaning “forethought”) is is credited with the creation of man from water and earth and for enabling the progress of civilization. Prometheus not only gives the gift of fire to mankind but he also teaches humanity all the civilizing arts, such as writing, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, architecture, and agriculture.
The Titans, of which Prometheus is one, were members of the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology succeeding the primordial deities born from the void of Chaos. The Greek story of creation, much of which entails the violent warring between the primordial deities such as Gaia (earth), Uranus (sky) and Chronos (time) is said to have been adapted by Hesiod from eastern creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish.
The Titan Chronos (time) wins the primordial battle and establishes the Golden Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, (Theogony, 511–616) the Golden Age was an era when:
[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.
The peace of the Golden Age was upturned when Chronos was overthrown by his son Zeus, to establish the reign of the Olympians gods or the Silver Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, the Titan Prometheus supported Zeus in his war against Chronos, however later undermined Zeus’s authority by thwarting his plan to obliterate the human race, and further helping humanity by stealing fire for them (Hesiod, Theogony, 565-566) .
Zeus sentences the Titan to eternal torment for his rebellion by ordering him to be bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the symbol of Zeus, was sent to eat his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day and forever. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, descendant of Zeus, slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from his torment (520–528).
In Hesiod’s account, Prometheus is no hero. He contributes to human suffering by gifting humanity fire and granting them independence from the gods, and loss of innocence. On the other hand, in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus is portrayed as the rebel with a conscience, whose crime – his love of the humans he created – brings not only the rage of the gods, but eternal suffering and the sympathy of the human audience.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Romantic artists admired the Promethean figure, using him a a foundation for the Romantic hero who, resisting the oppressive forms of society foresees a future in which all such repression will be overthrown. In light of the Napoleonic wars, the American war of Independence, the French Revolution and other struggles of the era, the emancipation of humanity from tyrannous rule was indeed topical and required a strong, emancipating hero.
Writers such as Byron’s saw Prometheus’ victory over the gods, in a metaphysical sense, as a refusal to submit to
‘the inexorable Heaven, / And the deaf tyranny of Fate’ (ll. 18–19),
and to go to one’s grave
‘Triumphant’ by ‘making Death a Victory’ (ll. 58–9).
As such the figure of Prometheus [bringer of fire] was compared with Milton’s defiant character Lucifer [bearer of light]for embodying the spirit of rebellion.
On the other hand, other Romantic writers saw the Promethean hero to prefigure Christ, as a divine being who suffers horrible tortures for the sake of mankind in face of the will of the gods. How then could one literary figure represent both Christ and Satan, holding qualities of both rebel and sacrificial hero?
Percy Shelley, writing Prometheus Unbound, posited that hatred narrows perception. He writes:
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
Shelley’s version of the Promethean hero focuses upon transformation, made possible by the act of forgiveness. While Byron’s retelling of the Promethean myth puts the emphasis exclusively upon defiance, Shelley’s hero forgives his oppressor, and suffers for his creation, setting in motion a process which leads to a new world, freed from oppression.
Writing to the political climate of his day, Shelley rejected the cycle within history of replacing one tyrant with another.
… until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.
As such Shelley’s Promethean hero, champions free will, goodness, hope and idealism in the face of oppression.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
What’s in a spell?
This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.
As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.
For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.
The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA, a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.
It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.
Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.
What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.
Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.
Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.
Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.
Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry”  writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does.
It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew.
It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.
Ozymandias …. by Zen Pencils
On May 26, 2015 Bear Skin posted a blog about Percy Shelley’s classic poem from 1818, “Ozymandias.” The poem captures beautifully the Romantic notion of transience and decay of what was once proud and beautiful.
Having recently liked the sublime page Zen Pencils, an illustrative blog of all things inspirational, I came across this version of an illustrated Ozymandias.
It’s too good not to share. Enjoy!
Bear Skin #90
The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was only 24 years of age when he wrote and published the autobiographical and highly emotive work, The Sorrows of Young Werther . He wrote the work in just 6 weeks and its instant success made him an international celebrity.
The novel recounts the love of sentimental young Werther who dresses in a characteristic blue coat with a yellow vest. He loves nature and is enchanted by the peasants of a rural township in Germany where he falls in love with Charlotte [Lotte]. She is a beautiful young woman who must look after her younger siblings after her parents death.
Werther’s love is thwarted however, for Lotte is betrothed to a much older man Albert. The Sorrows of Young Werther are recounted in a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm and the melancholy depths the young man reaches, affected Goethe’s readership profoundly.
So significant was the novel that it stimulated a flood of Werther merchandise including a perfume called “Eau-de-Werther”, a craze for yellow waist-coats, and at least one copy-cat suicide.
Characteristic of the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 1700s, it gained popularity for being a direct reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Roughly translated as “Storm and Stress” the movement was characterised by emotional turbulence, individuality and sentimentality.
Goethe had experienced terrible pain in love with a young woman Charlotte Buff two years earlier, who was engaged to a friend Albert Kestner. The writing of this novel was therapeutic because he admitted years later that he,
shot his hero to save himself..
…a reference to his own near-suicidal obsession over Charlotte. Moreover, an acquaintance of Goethe’s named Jerusalem who was similarly infatuated with a married woman, shot himself.
Goethe combined Jerusalum’s sufferings to his own experiences, and wrote the novel, Werther.
Goethe treated the writing of the short novel as a cathartic exercise, hoping to exorcise some of his intense feeling.
Rather than releasing him, however Goethe’s novel was to have an significant impact disproportionate to its size. It not only helped to create Romanticism, but also articulated adolescent turmoil in a manner which has continued in popular format, to this day.
There would be no Catcher in the Rye and no Rebel Without a Cause without Werther.
Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The work influenced the later Romantic period particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster finds the book in a leather portmanteau, along with two greats — Plutarch and Milton. Shelley equated Werther’s case to the monster, of one rejected by those he loved.
Goethe described the powerful impact the success of the book had on him, writing that even if Werther had been a brother of his whom he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost.
Yet he also acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther exerted on forlorn young lovers who discovered it. As he commented to his secretary in 1821,
It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.
What was he hoped, closure for him, opened a wound in Europe’s collective consciousness and effectively haunted him the rest of his days.
The Consistency of Change
Percy Bysshe Shelley first published poetry in 1810 as an 18 year old undergraduate at Oxford University and he wrote consistently until 1822 when he tragically drowned, a month short of his 30th birthday.
He is widely considered to be one of the finest of the Romantic poets.
His poem Mutability, was published in 1816 in the collection Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems. It is a poem dedicated to the only constant in life – change.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!–yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:
Shelley was a key member of a close circle of visionary writers, thinkers, philosophers and artists of his day, including Lord Byron, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, William Godwin and Godwin’s daughter and Shelley’s own second wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Shelley was influenced by other Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Shelley, an aristocrat by birth, was an iconoclast. He was famously bullied at Eton for refusing to take part in fagging and later expelled after only a year at Oxford for publications which contained anti-monarchical, anti-war and anti-religious sentiment.His thoughts on vegetarianism, social justice, the rights of the working class, feminism, and non-violent resistance influenced many who came after him.
Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.
Several months after being expelled from Oxford for atheism, at the tender age of 19, Shelley eloped with 16 year old Harriet Westbrook. After a failed relationship which ended with Harriet’s suicide, Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft, the brilliant daughter of Shelley’s idol, political philosopher, William Godwin.
More traveling yielded Shelley and Mary fruitful friendships with Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and John Keats. This fueled not only Shelley’s creativity but seemed to catalyse the creativity of others. He himself left an impressive body of lyric and epic poetry while his wagers with Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft were effective in producing their great works, Don Juan and Frankenstein respectively.
We rest.–A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.–One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:
During his life, most publishers and journals declined to publish his work for fear of being arrested for either blasphemy or sedition. As a result Shelley enjoyed little but infamy during his own lifetime. Nevertheless, his works had profound influence subsequent political and literary thinkers such as Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatmah Gandhi.
Percy and Mary lost all their young children except one to infant illness. A number of Shelley’s close friends died prematurely including Keats of whom he wrote the poem, Adonais. He himself perished tragically young.
It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
Mutability mediates on the permanence in impermanence.
The transitory and ephemeral nature of human life and the works of humanity are common in Shelley’s poetry. In life, we lack true freedom. In sleep, the mind cannot control the unconscious and in waking, the path of departure of sorrow or joy is not under our control.
Shelley’s conclusion is to embrace the truth that the only constant in life, is change.
In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that:
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
He felt that poetry and poetic language reveals the truth. His legacy and his truth have lived on long after his premature death.
Next in a series on romantic literature, this poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a classic. Published in 1818, it is one of Shelley’s most famous works.
The romantic poets were lovers of antiquities and their writings dwelt on themes such as fate and the supremacy of nature over human efforts.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Written a year after the British Museum acquired a fragment of the statue of Rameses II from the 13th century BC. The poem explores the nature of the impermanence of even the greatest of civilizations; even their legacies fade into obscurity and oblivion.