Shelley, Dante, and Romantic Irony
By John B. Padgett

Table of Contents    Works Cited
Copyright © 1991, 1995 by John B. Padgett

Chapter 2

The Imaginary Ideal: Prometheus Unbound

Not until Prometheus Unbound (1820) does Shelley develop a complex, mature, and thoughtful adaptation of Dantesque poetry and philosophy, and with it the first hint of a genuine romantic-ironic intent. Written over a sixteen-month period beginning in 1818, the poem depicts Shelley's first attempts at a systematic approach to imagery which would offer meaning on several levels simultaneously, including a first masterful attempt at a vast cosmological system of symbols, based in large part on the four Aristotelian elements earth, air, fire, and water, on a scale analogous to that depicted in Dante's Comedy. He acknowledged that his reading of Italian literature, and Dante in particular, had been "creatively important" in shaping his craft in this pursuit (Holmes 491).

Poetically, Prometheus has a literary forebear in Dante. At once allegorical and narrative, lyrical and dramatic, the poetry of Prometheus Unbound is similar to Dante's achievement in the Comedy of a literary medium which comprises a vast scope of human experience, ranging from the sighs and laments of Hell to the rapturous song and joy of Paradise. Thomas Bergin notes the encyclopedic nature of Dante's epic, in which Dante deals obliquely or explicitly with the entire span of human history, the political and natural sciences, religion, the history of letters, philosophy, and Dante's own autobiography (Dante's Divine Comedy 74-76). Shelley's poem, while not on as grand a historic scale as Dante's, nonetheless contains within it the attention to, if not the specific treatment of, these broad topics of human interest. More important, the characters in Shelley's drama speak in a poetic form appropriate to their personalities. Just as the populace of Dante's Comedy speak in a manner native to their earthly lives, Shelley's characters speak in a manner befitting their nature. Thus, Prometheus and Jupiter speak in a majestic blank verse reminiscent of Milton, while the more melodic lyrics are sung by lesser beings, such as spirits and choruses.

Moreover, the philosophy of Prometheus Unbound bears a marked resemblance to the vision of divine salvation depicted in the Comedy. The predominant theme of Prometheus is that if humanity chooses to shake off corruption and embrace love (represented by Prometheus's revocation of his curse against Jupiter), then reform — political, social, and religious — will necessarily follow. The poem thus "teaches," despite Shelley's assertion in the preface that "Didactic poetry is my abhorrence" (Shelley's Poetry and Prose 135), that humans possess the capacity within themselves to effect reform, beginning with the individual rejection of evil. Shelley pays particular attention to Dante's conceptions of freedom and love as depicted in the Comedy, each undergoing a transformation in Shelley's drama to pertain more aptly to Shelley's unique vision, which wavers between unbridled, idealistic optimism predicting the eventual reform of mankind and a realistic, Necessitarian skepticism about that goal's feasibility. Prometheus Unbound remains Shelley's most ingenious attempt to reconcile the opposing philosophies of Necessity and Idealism.

Critics have long noted the elements in Prometheus dependent upon Shelley's reading of Aeschylus, Milton, and passages from the Old and New Testaments.[1] Indeed, Sperry notes that Shelley chose the Prometheus myth because of the Titan's distinction as a compromise between Christ and Satan; he represents "the difficult if not contradictory balance between militancy and submission, self-assertion and dedication to others that Shelley was struggling to project" (Shelley's Major Verse 72). Aeschylus provides the structure and basic plot for Shelley's poem; Milton and the Bible furnish the characterization and a great deal of the imagery.

No critic, however, has yet noted the extent to which Dante is inherent throughout the drama. In particular, Shelley employs the specific Dantesque myths of the journey through nether regions (which Dante himself adapted from Virgil) and the apotheosis of womanhood into an imaginary ideal to symbolize the rebirth and salvation of the soul. Shelley is fully aware of his own "mythmaking" in Prometheus Unbound. What he does, in fact, is transform existing myths in order for them to better fit his vision of the world. In the preface to Prometheus Shelley defends such transformations of Aeschylus by noting that the Greek tragedians "by no means conceived themselves bound to adhere to the common interpretation or to imitate in story as in title their rivals and predecessors"; to this "arbitrary discretion" Shelley "presume[s] to employ a similar license" (Shelley's Poetry and Prose 132). According to Wasserman, part of Shelley's intellectual heritage was the eighteenth-century revitalization of mythological syncretism, a movement prompted primarily by Deists to argue for the interconvertibility of all myths. Shelley embraced this philosophy to justify his own mythopoeia: since all the details of mythology are valid, all myths are variant efforts of the mind to perceive truth (271). Such a syncretism — in which Shelley conceived a "great work ... embodying the discoveries of all ages, & harmonizing the contending creeds by which mankind have been ruled" (qtd. in Shelley 271) — lies at the heart of Prometheus Unbound. By this reckoning, Shelley's uses of existing myths appear not as something "inherited" but as "universal and eternal forms" which found specific treatment in earlier myths. They function not so much as literary allusions but, as Wasserman says, as "an efficient reverberating echo" (Wasserman 273).

Thus, a poet is not merely an assimilator of existing myths; he is a mythopoeist in his own right, "not by inventing myths, but by reconstituting the imperfect ones that already exist" (Wasserman 275). Each poem, Shelley posits in his Defence of Poetry, is a fragment of or movement toward "that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world" (493). One effect of this mythopoeia on Prometheus Unbound, Wasserman says, is the demand for the coexistence of two contradictory ways of reading the poem. At one level the reader is to view the mythical elements as mere archetypes, as if only Shelley's myth exists; while "at the other, conscious of the prior history of the myths, [the reader] is to experience the irony directed against the erroneous, evil, partial, imperfect, and distorted orderings that Shelley is reforming" (Wasserman 282).

Shelley claims explicitly in the preface that he is "reforming" Dantesque material when he indicates his poetic dependence on a Dantesque use of imagery in the poem:

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. (Shelley's Poetry and Prose 133)

In their tireless attempts to track down the "traditional" sources transformed in the poem, critics have all but ignored one source which is crucial to such a reading of the poem. In heaping such praise upon the medieval poet, Shelley alerts the reader to the significant role Dante is to play in the poem.

This passage suggests a method of narrowing one's reading of the poem. The imagery's close kinship to the "operations of the human mind" lends credence to viewing the poem as a mental drama, like Byron's Manfred, "acted" within the mind of the title character. Such an interpretation might be difficult to accept were it not for the emphasis placed on imagination throughout the poem. The drama "springs at its inception," Sperry says, "from commitment to the imagination as a moral agent and from the conviction that whatever man can desire or imagine must possess, for good or evil, potential reality" (Shelley's Major Verse 90). Earl Wasserman takes this view a step further, arguing that Shelley's metaphysical distinctions between the individual human mind and the "One Mind" are factors to be weighed in determining the "reality" of the poem. Prometheus is "a metaphysical reality, ... not a fiction abstracted from what exists, but Existence itself." Except for Demogorgon, Prometheus is "the only reality actually present in the play, and it would be short of the truth even to say that the drama takes place in his mind; he is the One Mind" (255-57).

The same may be said for the pilgrim Dante (as opposed to the poet Dante) in the Comedy. The pilgrim patterned upon the poem's author is quite literally the only reality in the poem, and even he is a fictionalized one. The entire journey takes place in the pilgrim's mind; even viewed narratively, the poem is mental drama because it is both told from the pilgrim's point of view and staged for his benefit, ranging from the ominous inscription over the gate of Hell (Inferno 3.1-9) to the redistribution of the souls in Paradise to the sphere best befitting their degree of beatitude (Paradiso 4.28-63). Granted that the poem takes place in the pilgrim's mind, even more to the point is that Dante, as both creator and created, is the One Mind. The poet Dante's act of creating the poem to start with is what allows the poet's "drama of the mind," as Lawrence Fergusson called it in his work on Purgatorio, to unfold for the pilgrim Dante.

An interpretation of Shelley's poem granting Prometheus sole reign over thought (which for Shelley was equivalent with reality) would serve to confine the "action" in the poem to that perceived by Prometheus and to narrow the personae of the poem to the one who matters most. For it is Prometheus who lies chained on the rock; it is he who enthroned Jupiter; it is he who revokes his curse; and it is he who ultimately is "unbound." As in Dante's Comedy, it is the story of a single protagonist whose actions set into motion the machinery of a grandiose plot, and it is this protagonist who surveys, physically or vicariously, all the consequences of those actions. Both Dante's and Shelley's protagonist performs at least two actions: an offstage action which results in his fall from grace and an onstage action which triggers the slow process of restoring grace. For Dante, this latter action is his attempt to escape from the dark wood; for Prometheus, it is his recantation of the curse against Jupiter.[2]

However, Dante's presence in Prometheus Unbound reminds us of an additional character who figures greatly into the maneuverings of these lone protagonists: an archetypal female figure representing love. Though the Comedy is ostensibly the story of Dante's journey through the three realms of the afterlife, the journey is centered, as Richard E. Brown suggests, on Beatrice; even though she does not appear in the Comedy until near the end of the second canticle, she is "the patroness and goal of Dante's pilgrimage" (229). Asia occupies a similar position in Shelley's poem. She does not appear at all until the second act, which is devoted entirely to her, but she is introduced almost in passing as early as Prometheus's second speech, in which he responds to the voices who refuse to utter his curse; as he addresses the "rock-enbosomed lawns and snow-fed streams," he adds, "Through whose o'er-shadowing woods I wandered once / With Asia, drinking life from her loving eyes" (I.120-23). At the end of the act, after suffering from the torment of the Furies and hearing the consolation of a chorus of spirits, Prometheus addresses Asia directly:

How fair these air-born shapes! and yet I feel
Most vain all hope but love, and thou art far,
Asia! who when my being overflowed
Wert like a golden chalice to bright wine
Which else had sunk into the thirsty dust. (I.807-11)

Through such imagery, Asia is established clearly as both a life-affirming and a loving being; the latter image of her as a "golden chalice" to Prometheus's implied "bright wine" even hints at a sexual relationship between them.

It is easy to downplay the importance of both Beatrice and Asia in their respective poems as merely idealized love figures, for neither seems at first to contribute much to the action of the acknowledged protagonists. Of course they are idealized love figures — and because idealized, imaginary — but they serve much greater roles in the poems in their active solicitation for the saving measures which set their protagonists along the path to freedom. In Inferno, when Dante finds his direct ascent up the hill out of the "dark wood" blocked by three imposing beasts, he despairs of ever reaching that summit. But then, Virgil appears and explains to Dante that Beatrice has bid him

Fly to [Dante], and with your high counsel, pity,
And with whatever need be for his good
and soul's salvation, help him, and solace me.

It is I, Beatrice, who send you to him.
I come from the blessed height for which I yearn.
Love called me here.... (2.67-72)

Hence, Beatrice establishes the specific conditions which will allow Dante to accomplish his own route to salvation. By sending Virgil to guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory, she thus effects the eventual reform which Dante will have to provide for himself in his journey.

Similarly, Asia provides the specific impetus for Prometheus's release from his fetters on the rock. Majority opinion, Frederick A. Pottle notes, has long held that there is but one significant action in the entire drama: Prometheus's recantation of his curse against Jupiter. But this recantation, far from alleviating the protagonist's torment, ironically precipitates a horrifying train of tortures from the Furies, followed by a chorus of spirits cheering him, announcing that the hope and prophecy they bear begin and end in him (Pottle 133-34).

Prometheus's recantation of the curse can be compared to Dante's mad dash up the hill only to be turned back; for both protagonists, the first attempt toward freedom is in vain. Both need the intercession of another, one who loves them and will go to great lengths to gain their eventual release.

Act I of Prometheus ends, as I have said, with a chorus of Spirits sent to console Prometheus. However, their songs are by no means devoid of sadness or despair. The Fifth Spirit claims to have seen Love "swept by on lightning-braided pinions, / Scattering the liquid joy of life from his ambrosial tresses," but the Spirit likewise witnessed "hollow Ruin yawn[ing] behind"; the Sixth Spirit joins the song by saying Love is often disguised as "the shadow Pain" (I.765-79). The chorus then promises Prometheus that "Though Ruin now Love's shadow be," Prometheus nonetheless "shalt quell this Horseman grim, / Woundless though in heart or limb" (I.780-88). As the act closes, Prometheus has realized that only through Love can he be freed; in the meantime he can only wait and endure (Pottle 134).

Therefore, like Dante, Prometheus must rely on Love's saving grace to free him. He does not summon it, just as Dante does not; as Beatrice says, "Love called me here." For Prometheus, the summons is conveyed to Asia through Panthea's dreams, resulting in Asia's descent to the Cave of Demogorgon. It is here, with Asia's question "When shall the destined hour arrive?" (II.iv.128), that the machinery of Prometheus's release is instantly started. Like Beatrice before her, Asia intercedes not directly in assisting her protagonist's release but by soliciting aid from another, greater source.

The nature of this "greater source" is but one of the many ironies resulting from Shelley's adaptation of Dantesque sources. Beatrice's greater source ultimately is God, for it is by divine grace that she can intercede on Dante's behalf. But the actual source of aid, the one to whom Beatrice entrusts her charge, is Virgil, who is consigned to Limbo in the first circle of Hell because he lived before Christianity. Virgil is to guide and protect Dante in his journey through Hell, then to accompany him in his ascent up Mt. Purgatory, instructing him along the way, until they reach the summit, at which time Virgil tells him, 

Expect no more of me in word or deed:
here your will is upright, free, and whole,
and you would be in error not to heed

whatever your own impulse prompts you to:
lord of yourself I crown and mitre you. (Purgatorio 27.139-43)

Virgil in the Comedy allegorically represents, at different times, reason, philosophy, and classical learning, all of which Dante believed were important for secular life (Bergin, Dante 259). But none of these in Dante's Christian schema was enough to gain salvation; for this reason, Virgil must spend eternity in the uppermost region of Hell and is forbidden to accompany Dante in his journeys through Paradise.

The "greater source" in Shelley's poem, however, is Demogorgon. Virgil's Limbo bears a physical resemblance to Demogorgon's cave in Prometheus Unbound. Both Demogorgon and the realm of Limbo are described as tremendous "gloom," and to describe Demogorgon's cave, the Earth tells Prometheus,

For know, there are two worlds of life and death;
One that which thou beholdest, but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them, and they part no more;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men
And all that faith creates, or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes. (I.197-99)

This description applies to Dante's Hell as well as Demogorgon's cave. Certainly the Inferno is "underneath the grave" and houses "Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes," and the "shadows" of Shelley equate well with the "shades" of Dante; even the line "Till death unite them, and they part no more" could be understood as a manifestation of the Christian Last Judgment. However, the ironic distinction between Demogorgon's cave and Dante's Hell is evident in the first line: in Shelley, there are two worlds, each encompassing both life and death, a far cry from the clear distinction in Dante of a world of life and another of death. In other words, everything that exists here in this world has a corresponding "shadow" in the other, more surrealistic world. Harold Bloom comments on a common misreading of this passage as referring uniquely to Demogorgon; it clearly is not, as that god is but one of the cave's residents. "The shadow of Demogorgon," he says, "like the shadow of Prometheus and the shadow of Jupiter, is there but, as with Prometheus and Jupiter, there is a Demogorgon in the world we behold as well" (Shelley's Mythmaking 104). It is not to the real-world Demogorgon that Asia travels but to this subterranean creature.

Herein lies a fundamental distinction between Beatrice's intercession and Asia's. Dante in the Comedy enters not into a mirror-world of our own but into the realm of the dead; implicitly, the "greater sources" for Beatrice, both God and Virgil, are residents of this post-mortem world. For Shelley, there is no such realm of the "dead"; the Demogorgon to whom Asia descends, while modeled after the residents of Dante's corresponding realm, is in fact not a shade of a dead Demogorgon but merely a "shadow" of a living Demogorgon. Sperry calls Demogorgon "the most difficult and obscure figure in Shelley's allegory"; though he is often identified as the principle of Necessity, more properly, he is

Shelley's image of infinite potentiality, a power limited only by the laws of nature, beginning with those of physical existence, and by the force of love.... [He is] the final repository of the forces and events that have shaped the universe, and contains the potential for all that may occur in the future. (Shelley's Major Verse 99)

According to this interpretation of Demogorgon, he is like Dante's God in his "infinite potentiality," but he likewise resembles Virgil in his limitation according to natural law.

Demogorgon resembles Virgil in other ways as well. If we view Asia's journey to and subsequent dialogue with Demogorgon as an imagined manifestation of Prometheus's actions (much as Dante envisioned Beatrice beckoning Virgil to come to his assistance), then we find Shelley's "tremendous gloom" fulfilling in effect the same function as Virgil does atop Mt. Purgatory. Though Demogorgon bids Asia ask what she "dar'st," his responses to her questions actually mimic what she herself believes are the correct answers, leading her to realize, "So much I asked before, and my heart gave / The response thou hast given; and of such truths / Each to itself must be the oracle" (II.iv.121-23). Dante, likewise, in his climb up Mt. Purgatory can no longer rely on Virgil's answers as ultimate truth; Virgil tells him, "As far as reason sees, / I can reply. The rest you must ask Beatrice" (Purgatorio 18.46-48). Hence Virgil, like Demogorgon, can reply to Dante's questions only so far as reason will allow. For both Shelley and Dante, the answer to life's most pressing questions, those pertaining to ultimate truth, are to be found within the imaginary ideals envisioned by the questioner — they are unanswerable by strictly human reason. As if to emphasize this idea, after Dante has completed his ascent, Virgil duly hands over all authority in such matters to Dante himself; Dante can "expect no more" from Virgil, just as Asia can expect no more answers from Demogorgon. Moreover, Virgil's crowning Dante as "lord of yourself" is mirrored in Act I of Shelley's poem by Prometheus's assertion to the Furies, "Yet am I king over myself" (I.492).

One final comparison between Virgil and Demogorgon helps elucidate the nature of Demogorgon. When Virgil first discloses his identity, Dante hails him as "my true master and first author, / the sole maker from whom I drew the breath / of that sweet style whose measures have brought me forth" (Inferno 1.82-84). Dante means, of course, a poetic and literary dependence upon Virgil, an explanation which applies as well in Prometheus's dependence upon Demogorgon. If the poem is confined to the thoughts of Prometheus, then what Prometheus truly needs from Demogorgon is the ability to put into words, specifically poetry, that which will result in his release. If the words of Prometheus's original curse are what imprisoned him, then he must somehow find the words which will unlock his bindings. The drama begins with Prometheus seeking to "recall" his curse, a word which suggests simultaneously "recant" and "remember." When the phantasm of Jupiter has spoken his original curse, Prometheus responds, "It doth repent me: words are quick and vain; / Grief for awhile is blind, and so was mine. / I wish no living thing to suffer pain" (I.303-05). This passage, usually referred to as Prometheus's recantation of the curse, suggests something so simple and innocuous that it is often overlooked: words, the building blocks of language, are "quick and vain," near spontaneous utterances which nonetheless have a power both to imprison and to liberate. In the Defence Shelley says, "language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination and has relation to thoughts alone" (483). Hence, what is called for is simply the creative power to put into words what needs be said; it is the power of poetry to effect change.

Such a view of the power of poetry is perhaps best illustrated in the song of the Fourth Spirit who consoles Prometheus after the Furies' torment: 

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 i' 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! (I.737-49)

The power of the poet is to observe, neither heeding nor seeing what things truly are, and then to shape or create living forms more real than living man because they are immortal. Works of art, Prometheus states in Act III, are "the mediators / Of that best worship, love, by him and us / Given and returned" (III.iii.58-60). Hence, what Demogorgon represents in the poem is simply the elemental force, the "sole maker" Virgil is to Dante whose interaction allows for the articulation of true poetry. His realm of shadows is the home of poetry; the "Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes" are nothing other than poems seeking a voice in the real world.

This idea about the birthplace of poetry corresponds closely with Shelley's own thoughts concerning the composition of poetry. It is not, he argues in the Defence, a rational power to be willed or determined:

A man cannot say, "I will compose poetry." The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. (503-04)

Demogorgon, thus, is this "invisible influence," arising from within the poet, unconsciously. He is described by Panthea in terms of darkness and shapelessness:

      I see a mighty Darkness
Filling the seat of power; and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from a meridian Sun,
Ungazed upon and shapeless — neither limb
Nor form — nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living Spirit. (II.iv.2-7)

Her description fits the Defence's description of poets as "the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not" (508). Demogorgon lies in the cave as poetry not yet written, its potentiality yet to be conceived and ordered by a poet. As Wasserman puts it, the poetic imagination is a revolutionist and reformer — a view befitting Prometheus's role of overthrowing tyranny — "first shaking 'Thought's stagnant chaos' (IV.380), shattering false and imperfect arrangements of thought, and then striving to rearrange the liberated elements into the formal perfection they ought to have according to a poetics which is also an ethics." In Prometheus Unbound this doctrine of imagination, Wasserman says, "is responsible for the transformation and syncretism of the myths that constitute the body of the drama" (270).

The same is no less true for Dante, who perhaps more than any other writer composes according to poetics doubling as ethics. Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso are respectively representative of the Power of the Father, the Wisdom of the Son, and the Love of the Holy Spirit, and the one hundred cantos of the Comedy are noteworthy as the square of ten, "the perfect number, for it is composed solely of the square of the Trinity plus 1 which represents the Unity of God." Even the verse form of terza rima with its intricate interlocking rhyme scheme is symbolic of the Trinity and its bond to what came before and what comes after (MacAllister, Inferno, Introduction xxiv). Moreover, Dante chose to populate his Inferno with his own syncretistic transformations of classical myth; hence Charon ferries souls across the river Acheron, King Minos assigns the souls of the damned to their proper residence in Hell, the three-headed dog Cerberus stands guard in the third circle, and so forth. Dante, too, infuses his Comedy with a hope of reform, particularly against papal rule of the empire and against the injustices and usurpations committed by the clergy. Most important, perhaps, is the progression through the whole Comedy of three ways of perceiving the world which Shelley first articulated in the preface to Alastor. Inferno, with its immediacy of pain and torment, corresponds to Shelley's "functions of sense," while the meditation of Purgatorio matches Shelley's "intellectual faculties." Paradiso's nonrepresentational world is indicative, simply, of what Shelley terms "the imagination" (Shelley's Poetry and Prose 69). Though shades of all of Dante's canticles find light in Shelley's drama, Paradiso has the most lasting contribution to the poetics and style of Prometheus Unbound, for Paradiso attempts to represent poetically "that which is by definition beyond representation ... and has remained the ultimate aspiration of poets ever since." As MacAllister says, "The quest of Romantic poets and their successors for 'pure poetry' has for its prototype the Paradiso" (Paradiso, Introduction ix).

This quest for "pure poetry" is nowhere more evident than in Prometheus Unbound. Sperry argues the poem is not so much the story of an overthrow of tyranny or of an embracing of love but rather, as suggested in the title, "the state or condition of being unbound: how can one imagine such an experience, what does it feel like, how can one describe the sense of change?" These "seemingly naive" questions, Sperry says, "actually take one to the heart of what is at once most original and problematic in Shelley's poem." Sperry urges the psychological, imaginative, and transformational elements in the poem because they point to what is most innovative and difficult in it, namely, "a continual struggle for a revisualization of reality." This struggle constitutes in the poem "a projection of a vast millennial vision of possible perfection" (Shelley's Major Verse 69). Indeed, Sperry argues that with the possible exception of some of Blake's prophecies, Prometheus Unbound is "the most ambitious attempt at visionary creation in literature, even in the light of Dante and Milton" (Shelley's Major Verse 70).

The last act of the drama is the most visionary, occurring after Prometheus has disappeared into the cave with Asia, and it bears the closest analogy of any of the acts to Paradiso. C. S. Lewis recognized this connection, calling the fourth act "an intoxication, a riot, a complicated and uncontrollable splendour, long, and yet not too long, sustained on the note of ecstasy such as no other English poet, perhaps no other poet, has given us." It does not have the "solemnity and overwhelming realism" of the Paradiso, "but it has all its fire and light" (33). Though the act, "genetically considered," is an afterthought, "teleologically it is that for which the poem exists." Its theme is "rebirth, regeneration, the new cycle," and like all great myths its primary appeal is to the imagination, befitting each reader according to his or her individual needs (27). The entire Promethean myth, as Shelley formulated it, works because its mythology does not succumb to "the temptation to allegorize, to thrust into the story the conscious doctrines of the poet" (30); indeed, Lewis even says he believes "that no poet has felt more keenly, or presented more weightily the necessity for a complete unmaking and remaking of man, to be endured at the dark bases of his being" (33).

Hence, the fourth act completes a structure which, as Lewis says, otherwise would be imperfect (29). Like Paradiso, the fourth act completes the quest for freedom begun in Prometheus's initial act of repudiating his earlier quick, vain words. Herein, however, is another irony with the original Dantesque source. For Dante, salvation is achieved not by personal means but by divine grace. The last stanza of Shelley's poem, spoken by Demogorgon, suggests a means altogether different:

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. (IV.570-78)

"Hope," according to Dante's questioning on this cardinal virtue, "is the certain expectation / of future glory. It is the blessed fruit / of grace divine and the good a man has done" (Paradiso 25.67-69). Hope does not therefore, as Shelley asserts, create what it contemplates; as a "blessed fruit," it is more a divine gift for having lived a good life. Shelley's vision of hope creating "From its own wreck the thing it contemplates" sounds suspiciously like something uttered by a still-bound Prometheus, who has managed poetically to free himself, if only in his mind. Dante's Comedy similarly depicts a mind "freed" poetically, particularly in the last canticle, but the means of achieving this freedom differ greatly between the Comedy and Prometheus. Bloom says Shelley offers in these closing lines "a vision of a last judgment that each man passes upon himself, by his own assertion and in the cultivation of his own understanding" (The Visionary Company 315). The closest analogue to such a view in Dante is in the Purgatorio, in which each soul decides for himself when he has undergone enough penance to proceed to the next ledge and finally to Paradise proper. Thus, Shelley's vision of salvation, while maintaining the splendor and joy of Dante's version of the same, nonetheless departs from the specific means that allow the attainment of this lofty goal.

If Paradiso is the realm corresponding most closely to Shelley's vision of ultimate salvation, it is Purgatorio which best enlightens Prometheus's arduous journey to this ideal, though not without extensive transformations of Dante's work. What in Dante's poem is depicted as a physical reality, an actual realm inhabited by souls of the dead powerless to change their lot, is portrayed by Shelley primarily as an imaginary ideal, a mental drama of the way things might be if humans chose to make them so. For example, in Dante, the ideal is reached by an external, physical journey, an arduous climb up the mountain of Purgatory, after which the traveler is welcomed into the vast sphere of Paradise, whereas for Shelley the journey is an internal one, a descent to the cave of Demogorgon and the final descent into the confines of the cave of Act III. Sperry notes that Prometheus's disappearance into this other cave is emblematic of a "reversal of natural evolution," a regression back to a pre-lapsarian innocence, "unfallen and in the state of grace, to preside over the original garden of humankind" (Shelley's Major Verse 111). This inward journey, almost a journey backward to the womb, is a striking reversal of Dante's journey, which is forward towards death.

As I have indicated earlier, Prometheus is Shelley's most successful balancing between the ideal hope of the eradication of evil reminiscent of the Paradiso and the realistic assessment of the impossibility of such an endeavor, manifested to its ultimate realization in the depths of Inferno; for this reason, Prometheus as a whole seems patterned most closely upon the middle path, Purgatorio, the way poised between eternal damnation and infinite bliss, the realm most closely resembling the terrestrial world. While Prometheus's torment by the Furies seems at first more typical of the sufferings of Inferno, in fact this torment more closely approximates the suffering of the penitent in Purgatory. Prometheus's pain, unlike that of the damned souls in Hell, is temporary; like the souls in Purgatory, he merely has to wait and suffer for an unspecified period of time. Moreover, Prometheus willingly chooses to undergo this suffering, a choice indicated by his recanting of the curse against Jupiter and, for example, by his demand for the Furies to "Pour forth the cup of pain" (I.474).

Through a comparison to the Purgatorio we may come, too, to recognize a crucial element of Prometheus, its lyrical quality. Shelley subtitled the poem "A Lyrical Drama," and it has been the lyrics, perhaps at the expense of the more "philosophical" passages, that have received a wealth of critical attention. There has been some controversy over the implicit contradictions between the lyrical and dramatic sections of the poem.[3] However, by examining the intense lyricism of the Antepurgatorio cantos of Purgatorio, one can understand better how Prometheus's lyrics enhance and unify the poem.

Dante's experience in the Antepurgatorio is largely one of childlike wonder and immaturity; he has not yet begun the true path to divine wisdom. Because he does not essentially change there, the cantos are bound, Fergusson says, by "the same lyric awareness during the whole day." For that reason, it is the lyric effects we hear "that most directly present that childlike mode of being which Dante wished to show" (Fergusson 28). These lapses into a childlike poetic awareness, "the absorbed listening with the inner ear," are only one recurrent moment in the growth of the soul (Fergusson 29).

The same is true for the lyric effects in Prometheus. If, as Sperry argues, the movement of Prometheus and Asia into the cave at the end of Act III is a regression to a prelapsarian childhood, then the lyric voice which suffuses the poem serves as a verbal foreshadowing and reminder of this ultimate goal of humanity. The lyric, the "childlike wonder" with which the characters regard the reformed world, thus serves as a poetic awareness of the progress of the soul, which ironically is not "upward" to divine wisdom but rather "downward" to a state of innocence or even, one may argue, ignorance. Both Dante and Prometheus by wayward means thus arrive at a similar destination: freedom from tyranny and the yoke of evil.

The lyrical nature of Prometheus and the Comedy also is heightened by the importance of dreams in both works. The entire Paradiso has a dreamlike uncertainty; Dante says in the first canto that he lacks the "knowledge and the power to write" of what he saw there (1.6). However, his actual sleeping dreams in the more earthly Purgatorio are highly suggestive of changes Shelley would bring to his drama. In the first dream, while still in Antepurgatorio, Dante dreams of a golden eagle who descends and carries him up into a sphere of fire. The dream occurs just before dawn, and in it he compares himself to Ganymede, who while hunting with his worldly associates was snatched up by Jupiter's eagle, carried to Mt. Olympus, and thereafter served as cupbearer to the gods. However, as he wakes he compares himself to Achilles, who during the Trojan War was stolen during sleep by his mother, Thetis, and taken to Scyros, where she hid him disguised as a girl.

Significantly, in Act III of Prometheus, Jupiter's speech makes mention of both Ganymede and Thetis. After commanding Ganymede to "Pour forth Heaven's wine, Idζan Ganymede" — itself an echo of Prometheus's command to the Furies cited earlier to "Pour forth the cup of pain" — Jupiter then turns to Thetis and says, "And thou / Ascend beside me, veiled in the light / Of the desire which makes thee one with me" (III.i.25-35). There is dramatic irony in the scene, as Jupiter's words about the offspring of his rape of Thetis will turn out to be Demogorgon (poetry) coming to take him away. But there is a more subtle irony at work here as well, one dependent upon the knowledge of Dante's dream. For Dante, his dream allegorically represented his conveyance by Lucia, or "Divine Light" (as of poetry), to the gate of Purgatory, which is in effect the entrance to Heaven. Shelley, however, has transformed this allegorical vision of the power of poetry to the descent, in the Car of the Hour, of Demogorgon, who orders Jupiter to go down with him to "dwell together / Henceforth in darkness" (III.i.55-56). Shelley thus transforms Dante's dream into an ironic depiction of the poetry's power to imprison as well as to release.

Panthea's two dreams furthermore bear a striking resemblance to Dante's other two dreams during his climb up Mt. Purgatory. In the first, he dreams of a "stuttering crone, / squint-eyed, clubfooted, both her hands deformed, / and her complexion like a whitewashed stone" who at daybreak changes before Dante into a beautiful woman, a siren "whose voice is honeyed with such sweet enticements / it trances men far out to sea" (19.7-21). A Heavenly Lady then appears and summons Virgil, who rips away the fair form to expose the ugliness beneath. Panthea's first dream is of Prometheus transformed: "his pale, wound-worn limbs / Fell from Prometheus, and the azure night / Grew radiant with the glory of that form"; his voice "fell / Like music which makes giddy the dim brain / Faint with intoxication of keen joy." As Dante did in his dream with the siren, Panthea grows absorbed with this vision of Prometheus, feeling "His presence flow and mingle through my blood / Till it became his life and his grew mine" (II.i.62-81). In this ironic reworking of Dante's dream, Shelley maintains the sexual desires aroused by the dream, but whereas Virgil dispels the lust by exposing the horrors beneath (causing Dante to wake "sick with the stench that rose from there"), Shelley allows the sexual fantasy to diminish of its own accord, arousing both Panthea and Ione, but not Asia; she says, "Thou speakest, but thy words / Are as the air. I feel them not" (II.i.108-09). Panthea and Ione here seem sensory extensions of Asia, who herself is an extension of Prometheus, and therefore, like Dante, this Asia persona is allowed a brief glimpse into a sensual encounter but is ultimately denied the full pleasure of it. For both Asia and Dante, this dream serves as a harbinger of the true reunion of protagonist and ideal.

Dante's third dream is of "a maiden innocent / and beautiful, who walked a sunny field / gathering flowers, and caroling as she went": it is Leah, whose "white hands weave garlands wreath on wreath" to please her when she looks in the mirror. Her sister Rachel, however, "sits at her mirror motionless all day. / To stare into her own eyes endlessly / is all her joy, as mine is in my weaving" (27.97-107). Panthea's other dream, similarly, she cannot remember until Asia looks into her eye and sees a "shape" with "rude hair [that] / Roughens the wind that lifts it" (II.i.127-28). Panthea remembers and says,

As we sate here the flower-infolding buds
Burst on yon lightning-blasted almond tree,
When swift from the white Scythian wilderness
A wind swept forth wrinkling the Earth with frost ...
I looked, and all the blossoms were blown down;
But on each leaf was stamped — as the blue bells
Of Hyacinth tell Apollo's written grief —
O follow, follow! (II.i.133-41)

Shelley transforms Dante's dream allegorical of the Active and Contemplative life into a dream which in turn triggers both Asia's own dream and her subsequent journey to Demogorgon's lair. It is, perhaps, significant to note that in Dante's dream, the first thing Virgil tells him upon waking is, "This is the day your hungry soul shall be / fed on the golden apples men have sought / on many different boughs so ardently" (27.115-17). The harvest imagery of Dante is changed in Shelley to a last lingering look at winter about to erupt into spring, thus again ironically pitting Dante's forward progress toward death (autumn) against Prometheus and Asia's regression toward birth (spring). Moreover, the contemplation of Rachel and the gathering of Leah in Dante's dream are analogous to Prometheus's meditation on his rock and Asia's pursuit of Demogorgon and the means for Prometheus's release.

Though Shelley's complete incorporation of external myths should ideally be thought of as "self-sufficient and independent of the heritage of the myths it has transformed and absorbed, and as autonomous in consequence of having totally assimilated those myths" (Wasserman 282), there is nonetheless an irony inherent in Shelley's transformations of these myths. Shelley affirms this view when he asserts in the Defence seemingly contradictory observations about Dante: first, that the "distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton have idealized, are merely the mask and the mantle in which these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised"; and second, that "The Divina Commedia and Paradise Lost have conferred upon modern mythology a systematic form" (499). While Dante casts a "systematic form" on modern mythology, simultaneously it would seem Dante has idealized "distorted notions of invisible things." This paradoxical relationship between opposing ideals is at the heart of what Shelley tries to do in the Dantesque reformulations of Prometheus. In the original Promethean myth of Aeschylus, for example, Prometheus's sin was not just defiance of Jupiter but also an excessive love of mankind whereby he transferred to them powers beyond their due; for Shelley, of course, all such power lies within the human spirit, "which is where he locates divinity, and man's essential sin is to relinquish any of that power" (Wasserman 285). Shelley's view differs greatly from the Dantesque version, in which divinity is located apart, and is the ideal to which humanity is to aspire.

Nevertheless, Shelley achieves in his adaptations of Dante a systematic recapitulation of the lessons of the medieval poet, an awareness which simultaneously reiterates Dante's unique vision of the world and "updates" Dante to suit Shelley's own vision of the way things were in his day. The irony which results is a subjective reassessment both of Dante and of Shelley's own poetic composition, a way of ordering the chaos of the human condition as viewed through two personas, one confident of the eventual reform of mankind, the other skeptical that such reform can ever take place. As Sperry says, the imaginative and visionary story of the unbinding of Prometheus describes not what humans are but what they might be. It is of value "not so much because it prefigures the means for changing humanity as because it preserves the aspiration to do so" (Shelley's Major Verse 112). The irony in Prometheus Unbound, while not explicitly the unique form generally known as romantic irony, nonetheless adopts a self-consciousness and a balance between opposing attitudes which foreshadow Shelley's increasing dependence on such self-reflection and wavering to create romantic irony based in part on his adaptation of Dante.


1. See, in particular, Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, 261-305; Bloom, Shelley's Mythmaking, 91-147. Back to text

2. Dante's offstage error was his allowing himself to stray from the "straight road" to become lost in the dark wood. For Prometheus the offstage error can be identified either as his initial curse against Jupiter or as his crowning Jupiter in the first place; in either case, the result was his imprisonment on the rock. Back to text

3. Angela Leighton in Shelley and the Sublime (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984) says, "The 'ideal poetry' of Prometheus Unbound consists of a lyricism which pulls against the dramatic properties of the work, and tends to transpose action into the register of song." Shelley probably derives his distinction between drama and lyricism, she says, from Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, and it seems likely that Shelley's subtitle "A Lyrical Drama" is based on Schlegel's opposition between poetic and theatrical writing, "and therefore between a sublime and an empirical representation of the world" (76-77). Back to text

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