Percy Shelley: Poems

Prometheus Unbound: Preface

[Composed at Este, September, October, 1818 (Act 1); at Rome,]

March-April 6, 1819 (Acts 2, 3); at Florence, close of 1819 (Act 4).

Published by C. and J. Ollier, London, summer of 1820. Sources of the

text are (1) edition of 1820; (2) text in "Poetical Works", 1839,

prepared with the aid of a list of errata in (1) written out by

Shelley; (3) a fair draft in Shelley's autograph, now in the Bodleian.

This has been carefully collated by Mr. C.D. Locock, who prints the

result in his "Examination of the Shelley Manuscripts in the Bodleian

Library", Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1903. Our text is that of 1820,

modified by edition 1839, and by the Bodleian fair copy. In the

following notes B = the Bodleian manuscript; 1820 = the editio

princeps, printed by Marchant for C. and J. Ollier, London; and 1839 =

the text as edited by Mrs. Shelley in the "Poetical Works", 1st and

2nd editions, 1839. The reader should consult the notes on the Play at

the end of the volume.

The Greek tragic writers, in selecting as their subject any portion of

their national history or mythology, employed in their treatment of it

a certain arbitrary discretion. They by no means conceived themselves

bound to adhere to the common interpretation or to imitate in story as

in title their rivals and predecessors. Such a system would have

amounted to a resignation of those claims to preference over their

competitors which incited the composition. The Agamemnonian story was

exhibited on the Athenian theatre with as many variations as dramas.

I have presumed to employ a similar license. The "Prometheus Unbound"

of Aeschylus supposed the reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim as

the price of the disclosure of the danger threatened to his empire by

the consummation of his marriage with Thetis. Thetis, according to

this view of the subject, was given in marriage to Peleus, and

Prometheus, by the permission of Jupiter, delivered from his captivity

by Hercules. Had I framed my story on this model, I should have done

no more than have attempted to restore the lost drama of Aeschylus; an

ambition which, if my preference to this mode of treating the subject

had incited me to cherish, the recollection of the high comparison

such an attempt would challenge might well abate. But, in truth, I was

averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the

Champion with the Oppressor 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 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 taints of

ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement,

which, in the Hero of "Paradise Lost", interfere with the interest.

The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry

which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the

former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those

who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it

engenders something worse. But 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.

This Poem was chiefly written upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths

of Caracalla, among the flowery glades, and thickets of odoriferous

blossoming trees, which are extended in ever winding labyrinths upon

its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the air. The

bright blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening

spring in that divinest climate, and the new life with which it

drenches the spirits even to intoxication, were the inspiration of

this drama.

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. This is unusual in

modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of

the same kind: Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater

success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of

awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in

the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works

(since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am

willing that my readers should impute this singularity.

One word is due in candour to the degree in which the study of

contemporary writings may have tinged my composition, for such has

been a topic of censure with regard to poems far more popular, and

indeed more deservedly popular, than mine. It is impossible that any

one who inhabits the same age with such writers as those who stand in

the foremost ranks of our own, can conscientiously assure himself that

his language and tone of thought may not have been modified by the

study of the productions of those extraordinary intellects. It is

true, that, not the spirit of their genius, but the forms in which it

has manifested itself, are due less to the peculiarities of their own

minds than to the peculiarity of the moral and intellectual condition

of the minds among which they have been produced. Thus a number of

writers possess the form, whilst they want the spirit of those whom,

it is alleged, they imitate; because the former is the endowment of

the age in which they live, and the latter must be the uncommunicated

lightning of their own mind.

The peculiar style of intense and comprehensive imagery which

distinguishes the modern literature of England has not been, as a

general power, the product of the imitation of any particular writer.

The mass of capabilities remains at every period materially the same;

the circumstances which awaken it to action perpetually change. If

England were divided into forty republics, each equal in population

and extent to Athens, there is no reason to suppose but that, under

institutions not more perfect than those of Athens, each would produce

philosophers and poets equal to those who (if we except Shakespeare)

have never been surpassed. 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. We owe Milton to the progress and development of the same

spirit: the sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a

republican, and a bold inquirer into morals and religion. The great

writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, the companions

and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or

the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its

collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and

opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored.

As to imitation, poetry is a mimetic art. It creates, but it creates

by combination and representation. Poetical abstractions are beautiful

and new, not because the portions of which they are composed had no

previous existence in the mind of man or in nature, but because the

whole produced by their combination has some intelligible and

beautiful analogy with those sources of emotion and thought, and with

the contemporary condition of them: one great poet is a masterpiece of

nature which another not only ought to study but must study. 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. The pretence of doing it would be a presumption in

any but the greatest; the effect, even in him, would be strained,

unnatural and ineffectual. 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 of 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 and

musicians, are, in one sense, the creators, and, in another, the

creations, of their age. From this subjection the loftiest do not

escape. There is a similarity between Homer and Hesiod, between

Aeschylus and Euripides, between Virgil and Horace, between Dante and

Petrarch, between Shakespeare and Fletcher, between Dryden and Pope;

each has a generic resemblance under which their specific distinctions

are arranged. If this similarity be the result of imitation, I am

willing to confess that I have imitated.

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. But it

is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions

solely to the direct enforcement of reform, or that I consider them in

any degree as containing a reasoned system on the theory of human

life. Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well

expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse. My

purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarise the highly refined

imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with

beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that 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. Should I live to accomplish what I purpose,

that is, produce a systematical history of what appear to me to be the

genuine elements of human society, let not the advocates of injustice

and superstition flatter themselves that I should take Aeschylus

rather than Plato as my model.

The having spoken of myself with unaffected freedom will need little

apology with the candid; and let the uncandid consider that they

injure me less than their own hearts and minds by misrepresentation.

Whatever talents a person may possess to amuse and instruct others, be

they ever so inconsiderable, he is yet bound to exert them: if his

attempt be ineffectual, let the punishment of an unaccomplished

purpose have been sufficient; 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.