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poem. But directly they pretend to set out its secret in a logical sequence of allegory they seem to me to run the risk of becoming more dangerous than helpful.
But to return to the poem itself. Whatever its interpretation may be, the Prometheus Unbound remains probably the richest storehouse of great poetry which its poetic century produced. The poet who of all in that century, with the possible exception of Tennyson, was the best judge of his art, gave to Shelley alone among the moderns a place in the Blessed Islands among the great poets of antiquity. And when we come fresh from the Prometheus we cannot wonder at Carducci's tribute. How its splendours follow fast upon each other all through, from that superb opening speech of Prometheus to the final lyric of prophesying Love with which Demogorgon concludes it! The intellectual beauty of these things is indeed impaired by Shelley's lack of clarity: his statements, his pictures, his metaphors and similes, have a way of dissolving into each other which makes it extraordinarily difficult to follow them. But their power and beauty, alike intellectual and sensuous, moral and spiritual, is in truth inexhaustible. No poetry gains more by repeated re-reading : only that indeed can build the ladder which we ordinary men need before we can climb to the heights on which Shelley habitually lived.
The third Prometheus is again a recasting of Aeschylus so as to make the legend serve a modern interest. But the interests of Goethe and Shelley were very different, and their dramas reflect the contrast between the two men. Shelley (so far following Aeschylus) is mainly interested in the moral and political conflict between Prometheus and Jupiter ; he and his Prometheus direct their indignation almost entirely against the selfishness and cruelty of the tyrant. In Goethe's fragmentary drama, on the other hand, it is the impotence, idleness, and dullness of the life of the gods which provokes the scorn of Prometheus. Whether Goethe
conceives Prometheus as suffering physical tortures is not very clear. Nothing is said about that side of the legend. Prometheus never complains. Perhaps the physical aspect of the story would have seemed primitive and barbarous to Goethe. Anyhow he leaves it out, as well as much else which Shelley, who never saw Goethe's drama, was to retain. In Goethe's hands, in fact, the whole drama is transferred from the physical, political and moral spheres to the intellectual, aesthetic and social.
It consists, as we have it, of three very short Acts. The first shows Prometheus talking with Mercury who brings offers from Zeus which Prometheus utterly declines to consider, repudiating all obligations to Zeus (described as his father) and saying that it is Time, all-powerful Time, not his parents, who has given him the spirit and power to defy the Titans and be what he is. He claims to be no god and asks whether these all-powerful gods are so all-powerful in reality. Can they put the earth into his hand or separate him from himself? The reply is Fate ; just as in Aeschylus and in Shelley, Fate appears as something above Zeus himself. But while to Shelley the mention of Fate suggests the sublime faith that there is one thing not subject to it (to Fate, he says, ' all things are subject but eternal Love'), to Goethe the word is made the occasion of such an answer as might have come from the Satan of Milton. Then they are Fate's subjects as much as I ? I serve no slaves.' Prometheus is left with the clay figures he has made, wishing he could give them life and feeling. Epimetheus comes and advises his brother to accept the offer of the gods to share their power, but Prometheus says they may keep what is their own : he will not share anything with them; he will not surrender his own sphere which, as he proudly tells Epimetheus, in language which plainly expresses the personal feeling of Goethe, is the whole circle which his activity can fill'. He turns back to the figures into which his spirit is out
poured, in which he has set his happiness. Minerva, whom he loves, then enters, apparently hoping to induce him to submit. But he tells her his powers are his own, and he will use them at his own will, not at the bidding of the gods. He has served the gods but has been disappointed with them. He finds himself as wise, as good, nay, as eternal as they, She replies that Jupiter bids him give his figures life on condition that he accepts the terms laid down. Prometheus declines to be a slave or to make his children slaves. Minerva then abandons her attempt to persuade him and offers to defy Jupiter and show Prometheus the fountain of life which it is for Fate, not Jupiter, to give or take away. He cries in rapture that his creatures shall live and be free and Minerva shall see their gratitude in their joy.
The second Act shows Mercury reporting to. Jupiter the rebellion of Minerva. But Jupiter is not alarmed. All beings are and must be his servants : the children of Prometheus will only add to their number. Next we see Prometheus rejoicing over his human beings, a race, like himself, born both to suffer and to enjoy and to care nothing for Jupiter. The next scene shows him teaching them the arts of building and healing and others : shows them beginning to quarrel over their property and fight about it; and Prometheus healing and reconciling, and telling them that they are a mixed breed, half fool, half god. His final lesson, given to Pandora, is that of death. She has seen her sister die : and he tells her death is the fulfilment of all that we hope and fear and dream and enjoy in this varied and wonderful life : death crowns life : and apparently, (if I understand the passage aright), after all experiences have been dissolved in a storm of bliss, life renews itself again as before ; the old life of hopes and fears and desires.
The last Act consists of a single noble soliloquy of Prometheus. This was written separately, soon after the first two Acts, and was not originally intended to be connected with
them. I think the difference between them has been exaggerated. Goethe's decision to use the poem, which he had published in 1789, as the third Act of the drama which was not printed till 1830, has been treated as absurd and a mere piece of carelessness. No doubt the soliloquy, which was probably written a year or more later than the drama, scarcely appears to continue the action as the second Act had left it. It goes back to the defiance of Jupiter from which we had got away. And there seems to be no reason why Prometheus should still be creating men, as in the second Act they were evidently multiplying by natural means. Moreover, the final stage-direction about Minerva is inexplicable ; for there seems no room for further mediation. Yet one does not wonder that Goethe joined the poem to the drama, with which it is after all closely, even verbally, connected, and to which it gives a touch of sublimity wanting in the earlier Acts, and called for by the name of Prometheus and the memory of Aeschylus.
The soliloquy is addressed by Prometheus to Zeus. It treats him and the other gods with scorn and defiance. Zeus, says Prometheus, cannot touch either the houses or the hearths which Prometheus has given to men. The gods are poor pitiable creatures and would starve but for credulous fools. Why, asks Prometheus, should he honour those who never eased a burden or dried a tear ? Did you dream, he cries to Zeus, that I should hate life because not all its buds come to bloom ? No: I sit here and make more and more men in my own image, men who shall suffer, and enjoy, and live, as I live, heedless of you.
Dramatists, unless they are the very greatest, tend, like Prometheus, to make men in their own image. Even Shakespeare, some have thought, gives us the two halves of himself in Hamlet and Henry V. In any case, as the Samson of Milton is Milton himself and the Prometheus of Shelley is plainly a glorified Shelley in action, so Goethe's Prometheus
is Goethe, interested in art rather than in ethics or politics, delighting and believing in life's varied spectacle of joy and sorrow, expecting disappointments but undaunted by them, hating idleness more than sin, believing in himself, his own spirit and his power of work, as the true makers of his life, taking the world as he finds it, without any wish to escape from the real and visible and bodily to any sphere of ideal perfection. Goethe's purely intellectual temperament seems to place him in a sense midway between Aeschylus and Shelley. There is nothing in his Prometheus of the Satanic element of pride and revenge which appears in the hero of the Vinctus : and still less of the Christlike patience and goodness which pervade every utterance of Shelley's Prometheus. What interests Goethe is neither individual revenge nor universal love : it is art and life. He feels, it would seem, the dullness of so many imagined worlds of spirit and perfection, a dullness which Shelley does not altogether escape: feels that such worlds, having in them no sorrow, no struggle, and, perhaps he would have added, no sin, would inevitably be uninteresting. Their life would be static, not dynamic. The goal of his Prometheus is not the transformation of a world of tortured victims into one of blissful spirits : it is a transformation of the slaves of fear, routine and stupidity into freemen who, in their own right and of their own will, choose the activities, face the conflicts, and submit to the disappointments of their varied and interesting life.
Of other poetic handlings of the Prometheus story I have left myself little space to speak. And none certainly compares in importance with those of Aeschylus and Shelley. Byron's Hymn, written while he was with Shelley on the Lake of Geneva, is of no great importance. Mr. William Vaughan Moody's drama, The Fire Bringer, the first of a Trilogy, not yet completed, is obscure and difficult reading, though it never fails to impress one with a certain grandeur