Shelley’s Preface to Prometheus Unbound

Shelley’s preface to Prometheus Unbound is well worth reading in understanding the something of the nature Shelley …

It is interesting to see what he has to say about his hero Prometheus compared to Satan detailed in ‘Paradise Lost’ (Milton) …

‘… 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 and majesty and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the traits of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement, which is the hero of ‘Paradise Lost’… … Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and truest motives to the best and noblest ends.’

The only thing I can say to that … Satan can’t be perfect can he …but seriously, again we see Shelley (= Prometheus) willing to stand-up … even against omnipotence

On the imagery – ‘ … drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed’… Shelley says this is unusual in the poetry of his day … with the exception of Shakespeare and Dante (especially Dante) … he also applauds the Greek poets who had no antecedent

He pays homage to the way literature fuelled a better interpretation of the Christian Religion …

We owe the great writers of the golden age of our literature to that fervid awakening of the public mind which shook to dust the oldest and most oppressive form of the Christian Religion’

I agree that in one sense ‘poetry is a mimetic art’ … the influence of others is unavoidable … Shelley states the following generalisation …

‘A Poet, is the combined product of such internal powers as modify the nature of others, and of such external influences as excite and sustain these powers; he is not one but both. Every man’s mind is in this respect modified by all the objects in nature and art, by every word and every suggestion which he ever admitted to act upon his consciousness; it is the mirror upon which all forms are reflected, and in which they compose one form. … Poets, not otherwise than philosophers, painters, sculptors, musicians, are in one sense the creators and in another the creations of their age.’

… finding similarity between Homer with Hesiod, Aeschylus and Euripides, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Petrarch, Shakespeare and Fletcher and Dryden and Pope … and in the need to read the work of others …

‘He might as wisely and as easily determine that his mind should no longer be the mirror of all that is lovely in the visible universe, as exclude from his contemplation the beautiful which exists in the writings of a great contemporary’

Footnote …

from Wikipedia on Prometheus Unbound … Prometheus Unbound is a four-act lyrical drama by Percy Bysshe Shelley, first published in 1820.  It is concerned with the torments of the Greek mythological figure Prometheus, who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment and suffering at the hands of Zeus.

Shelley and the Moon

The moon is a feature in some of Shelley’s work … including his masterpiece ‘Prometheus Unbound’ … whether or not you know anything about Shelley and his poetry have a look at the imagery conjured by this beautiful little poem (these are two fragments that were put together after his death) …



And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east
A white and shapeless mass.


Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

… and here are some ‘transformation lines’ from Prometheus Unbound (1 see below) showing a thankful Moon in discussion with Earth …


“How art thou sunk, withdrawn, cover’d drunk up
By thirsty nothing, as the brackish cup
Drained by a Desart-troop – a little drop for all;
And from beneath, around, within, above,
Filling thy void annihilation, Love
Bursts in like light on caves cloven by the thunderball”


The snow upon my lifeless mountains
Is loosened into living fountains,
My solid Oceans flow and sing and shine
A spirit from my heart bursts forth,
It clothes with unexpected birth
My cold bare bosom: Oh! it must be thine
On mine, on mine!

Gazing on thee, I feel, I know,
Green stalks burst forth, and bright flowers grow
And living shapes upon my bosom move:
Music is in the sea and air,
Winged clouds soar here and there,
Dark with the rain new buds are dreaming of:
“Tis Love, all Love!

Prometheus Unbound Act 4 (lines 350-369)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Footnote …

1 Prometheus Unbound is based on the work of Aeschylus which dramatizes the sufferings of Prometheus, unrepentant champion of humanity, who, because he had stolen fire from Heaven, was condemned by Zeus to be chained to Mount Caucasus and to be tortured by a vulture feeding on his liver. Shelley continued the story but transformed it into a symbolic drama about the origin of evil and of overcoming it.

(Aeschylus (525-455BC) was an ancient Greek playwright … the father of tragedy … earliest of the three Greek playwrights Sophocles, Euripides.)

For those interested in Shelley’s background this is a link to an excellent bio

… and some relevant text from the above site …

During this 1818-1819 period Shelley wrote what many consider to be his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound (1820), subtitled A Lyrical Drama, perhaps to suggest a hybrid genre in the way Wordsworth and Coleridge had signalled their pioneering efforts by titling their first volume of poetry Lyrical Ballads (1798). Shelley had been developing the symbolism, imagery, and ideas for the poem for several years. For example, he states in the preface that “the imagery which I have employed will be found … to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind,” a technique he had already used in Mont Blanc. Shelley had had a longstanding interest in and familiarity with Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, even translating it for Byron, but he could not accept the idea that Aeschylus had bound the champion of mankind for eternity, or even worse, that Prometheus would have been reconciled with Jupiter in Aeschylus’s lost drama, the sequel to Prometheus Bound. As Shelley avers in the preface, “I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind.” The choice of Prometheus as his hero is not surprising, given this mythological character’s association with rebellion and isolation from his act of giving fire to man against the gods’ wishes and his reputation as a “fore-thinker” or prophet. For Shelley he came to symbolize the mind or soul of man in its highest potential.

Shelley was willing to challenge ‘the establishment’, the conventions of his day, and of more importance ‘The Gods’ (God) to establish his own internal truth.

P. B. Shelley – Philosophy from his Poetry

P. B. Shelley’s philosophy (following my previous Post on Love’s Philosophy) …

He went from an external to an internal philosophy based on humanity having the power to combat the sources of suffering based on a personal responsibility within the social framework (a micro view).

Here is his philosophy as reflected in some of his poetry … based on ‘The Norton Anthology’ –

1 … In Queen Mab

… Shelley believed that injustice and suffering can be eliminated by an external revolution that will wipe out or radically reform the sources of evil

2 … In Prometheus Unbound

… the origin of evil and the possibility of reform are the responsibility of men and women themselves. Social chaos and wars are a gigantic projection of human moral disorder and inner division and conflict, tyrants are the outer representatives of the tyranny of our baser over our better elements; hatred for others is a product of self-contempt; and successful political reform is impossible unless we have reformed our own nature at its roots, by substituting selfless love for divisive hate. Shelley incorporates into his secular myth … (i.e.  universal regeneration by an apocalypse of the moral imagination of the human race) … the ethical teaching of Christ on the Mount, as well as the highest classical morality represented in Prometheus.

Note … Prometheus Unbound (from Shelley’s preface) … is a large and intricate imaginative construction that involves premises about human nature and the springs of morality and creativity (Shelley abhorred didactic poetry).

The non-Christian poet W. B. Yeats called PU one of ‘the sacred books of the world’.

The Christian critic C. S. Lewis found in PU poetic powers matched only by Dante.

Love’s Philosophy – P. B. Shelley

Love’s Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another’s being mingle–
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;–
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

Here is a love sonnet from a romantic Shelley seeking a kiss … or using his words seeking to mingle in another’s being … very suggestive. Whether it was reciprocated is another matter. But it is more than just a love poem for his  love philosophy underlines some certain basic philosophic tenants in relation to how Shelley viewed the world.

The world is a unity and everything is connected. There is no such thing as a singularity. This is clearly stated in the first eight lines. But more over the connecting force in the way the world has been created is love. All things have come from a divine source and mingle in a natural love with ‘sweet emotion’. I went to a poetry meeting last night and one comment from a reader was ‘every thing in life reduces to emotion’ … and Shelley would have it as sweet emotion … a very positive view of the world and the way it was created and the essence of that creation. It is very much an inclusive view of life – one world. And a beautiful world.

In the last two lines of this section we see a personal plea for Shelley to mingle with some particular person … suggesting that these words were given, or read, to someone special. Another interpretation of ‘I with thine’ is a seeking of a link between Shelley and his environment … we perhaps assume that Shelley feels connected with nature … my view is that he certainly does for he expresses the beauty of the world in his poetry … but he may be seeking a deeper link.

The last six lines explore the close relationships between elements in the universe. This close connectivity is likened to ‘kissing’, moreover he now considers nature in terms of the family relationships of sister-brother … this is how the elements are joined … you may think that this is a little bit poetic in the extreme.

The last two lines say it all … please kiss me … this is what it is all about, for all this natural connectivity has no value unless he is connected likewise.

Perhaps those that have had an intense spiritual experience can equate the experience with a feeling of great love for nature … a greater awareness of the beauty in nature … and on the same basis as that expressed by Shelley.

(I have this vague memory of Prince Charles talking to his plants at one stage in his life … perhaps he had been reading too much Shelley.)

Here is a link to Percy Bysshe Shelley on Wikipedia.