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Shelley: The Modern Prometheus

By Aurangzeb Wattoo

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Shelley was born in a troubled political and historical juncture ofEurope. In 1798, Europe witnessed a storm in form of French revolution that swept the whole continental sphere in its magnanimous effects. Revolution just overthrew everything old and traditional in France but its aftershocks were felt for years after that earthquake. The whole clan of romantic generation was greatly influenced by the revolution and its aftermath but it was only Shelley who, without losing hops in human greatness, envisioned an ideal, social and political reconstruction of whole human society. Shelley, a champion of liberty of humankind, the precursor of great revolutions of modern age, stands far above than all his contemporaries for the cause of mankind. Shelley’s selfless soul suffered for the agonies of downtrodden and oppressed and he raised his voice to stand against the cruelty and tyranny. He touched the Irish shores to speak for their national cause and spoke for a pacifist struggle against occupation of his native country and he tried to revive the dead ideals of French revolution when his nation was in a war with France. Shelley wasn’t a pride and agonized Satan who stood against the tyranny of God neither he was a crusader for any nationalist cause, his heart bled with the sufferings of humankind whether it was in Greece or in the dark inns of Dublin. Shelley’s determination, loyalty and selflessness reminds Prometheus, the great hero of mankind, who stood against the tyranny of Zeus and blessed humankind with fire. Prometheus then paid a great price for his heroic act and his great rebellion invoked an eternal punishment from “the great dictator”. Prometheus stands as a symbol of revolution, liberty, rebellion, rationality and progress, the very ideals which this great romantic bard preached in his songs for all his life. Shelley discarded the traditional canonical system from his adulthood and his outbursts against the status quo made him vulnerable in a world full of rules and laws. Shelley’s prose works including On The Necessity of Atheism caused his expulsion from Cambridge while his speech for Irish cause labeled him as an anti-national. The creative energy infused with revolutionary fervor put fire in his spirit and he always yearned to break the chains of authority and oppression. The quest for revolution and reconstruction is evident in his great piece of poetry Ode to West Wind’where he dreams to destroy the old and oppressive and to preserve the new and free. Shelley’s spirit was as free as the west wind which nourishes and blesses everyone under its wings. Shelley hated the dictatorship and his songs always professed a fall of all the kings and queens who had made the people their subjects. His “Ozymandias”stands as a great piece where he warns the dictators and oppressors that their powers are mortal and they have to perish before the iron hand of time.

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains, Round the decay.

He challenges the authority and power of rulers and call for liberty of all mankind from shackles of slavery. His Prometheanspirit calls for a revolution and a large scale rebellion against autocratic system. He calls all the slaves to be united in a common hope and to get rid of darkness by lighting their own fire and to bring a just and rational order by overthrowing the existing political, moral and social system. Shelley envisions a new world of freedom and liberty in his Hellas,

Another Athens shall arise

And to remoter time

Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,

The splendor of its prime

And leave, if nought so bright may live,

All earth can take or Heaven can give.

Shelley’s idealism and vision is prophetic and his concerns are for future of mankind. His soul bears constant torment when he looks at agony of people around him and he tries to uplift them to greatness and calls for a great age. He calls the whole world to lend him ears

“The world should listen then-as I am listening now.”

Shelley challenges the tyrants and calls his generation to make a final struggle to topple the system which was based on injustice, inequality and cruelty. He had great love for progress and rationality which always made him play the role of Prometheus against the tradition and authority. Shelley was an ardent democrat, humanist and nonviolent activist whose sermons became inspiration for oppressed nations of the world. His dream of a classless and just society made him a hero among colonized world where his speeches became so popular that even Gandhi used to quote him during his struggle against British colonialism. Shelley championed the cause of oppressed but he never called for a violent and bloody revolution. He advocates a pacifist and restrained struggle and his The Masque of Anarchy became an epitome of non-violent political struggle. He teaches the revolutionaries to stay nonviolent and determined in face of trial.

Stand ye calm and resolute

Like a forest close and mute

He teaches them to show restraint if tyrants unleash their weapons upon them. Shelley’s philosophy of passive resistance reminds us of Prometheus the great grand-father of human civilization that stood firm and faced the cruel punishment for thousands of years. This Promethean soul inspired Gandhi for his Satyagarah movement in such verses,

And if then the tyrants dare,

Let them ride among you there.”

He asks his followers to resist the cruelty and tyranny with a restraint and never react with anger and fear. Shelley advised them to let the tyrants feel shame and guilt on their crimes and that would be the true revolution. Shelley detested the idea of revenge and self-glorification which ruined the true spirit of French revolution. He speaks against the cult of personality and authority whether it is worldly or divine. He considers Divine rulers and system responsible of human plight and asks for a renaissance in human mind. Shelley calls for a reawakening of human mind and endeavors to light fire in darkness. He doesn’t believe in Satan like struggle against the Divine, yet he dreams of a Promethean revolution which is selfless and devoid of any personal cause. Byron rightly calls him the selfless soul and least “worldly-minded person” in a sense that Shelley never submitted his ideals before worldly gains but he used his genius for the regeneration and purification of mankind. Shelley kept the fire alive and tried to lead the strayed mankind on a journey towards purgation. The young Prometheus “Shelley” paid a heavy price for his ambitions and he was ostracized from the respected society of his times. The state and its system which has replaced the omnipotent Zeus inflicted curses on his tormented soul and his trial was not less than his ideal Prometheus. Prometheus was not merely a mythological hero for Shelley, he took him as great savior of mankind and he attached the symbols of liberty freedom and love of mankind with him.Shelley’s soul speaks through Prometheus,

The nations thronged around, and cried aloud,

As with one voice, Truth, liberty and love.

Shelley doesn’t find refuge in some enchanted lands when he faces odds in life but he stands firm and resolute before the hostile forces and chant his slogan of a greater future for mankind. Shelley’s poetry is intrinsically a reaction of the external influences which he receives from the world of reality. His poetry is veiled in symbols and i9mages which brilliantly correspond the ideals which he wants to apply on an upcoming age. The conception of that age is not a utopian idea but it exists in very concrete terms in mind of modern “Prometheus” of England. He proclaims in Hellas

The world’s great age begins new,

The golden years return.

It was his unquestionable will, his fiery spirit, his devotion with his greater cause that after facing great turmoil and trials in his personal, political, social, intellectual and emotional life, he remained loyal to Promethean ideals. Shelley was expelled from his university; he was ostracized, declared an agent of blasphemy and deserted by his closest relations. He faced persecution and humiliation from society but stood adamant and followed his impulse. He kept criticizing the institutions and system which was operating as tool of oppression and tyranny. Under the influence of William Godwin and ideals of French Revolution, he supported Irish nationalist movement for emancipation of Irish land from occupying English state. He addressed Irish patriots in his An Address to Irish People andadvised them for a political and pacifist struggle against British rule. In his The Revolt of Islam, he creates a mythical story of rebellion and revolution and calls it a story produced by sustained enthusiasm and emotions. According to Mary Shelley, he chooses a hero who is nourished in dream of youth and liberty and always stands against general opinions of the world but fundamentally humane and savior of mankind. His irresistible spirit of freedom just opens itself in verses of The Revolt of Islam

For, where the irresistible storm had cloven,

That fearful darkness, the blue sky was seen

Fretted with many a fair cloud interwoven

Most delicately, and the ocean green.

Shelley’s hero is a manifestation of his revolutionary self and his self is always under the shadow of his idol Prometheus who always strives for lightning. His lines shows the epic struggle of darkness and lightning in his poetry,

Such is the conflict-When mankind doth strive

With its oppressors in a strife of blood

Or when free thoughts, like lightnings are alive;

And in each bosom of the multitude.

Shelley speaks like a prophet and his sermons concern whole human civilization and his vision is universal. His subject is always man and he believes in universal good of whole human race. The questions which he asks in his poetry are philosophical and fundamental for existence of human race. Shelley’s answers to the questions of existence are also unique and of universal importance. He guides the clan in these prophetic words,

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night

The Promethean energy stands far above than any other idealand seems an all pervasive spirit in his verses. He asks for a valiant struggle to defy all kinds of dictatorship and tyranny. He encourages the mankind to reject the authority of God and all other idols that are prime cause of human suffering and perversion. He calls human beings to believe in this worldliness and defy the fake ideals of other worldliness which exist only in imagination. Shelley tried to deconstruct the whole epistemological structure which has caused great harm to humankind. He thinks that all that system is only to keep the human beings from fulfillment of its great ideals and to support the status-quo. Shelley thus, demands resistance to defy the oppression,

To defy power this seems omnipotent;

To love and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates

Shelley’s firm belief and faith in progress of humankind is matchless and everlasting. He draws energy from his Promethean-self and believes in natural goodness of human beings. Shelley’s optimism never dies and he always establishes hope for eternal fulfillment of human generation. Shelley believes in transitory nature of human life and his outlook is always positive and affirmative. He answers the questions existential dilemma in Promethean voice,

Life may change, but it may fly not;

Hope may vanish, but can die not;

Truth be veiled, but still it burneth;

Love repulsed-but it returneth.

Shelley’s spirit got its best expression in heroic struggle of ideals in words of Prometheus in his magnum opus ‘’Prometheus Unbound”. A deep study of this verse drama is enough to understand the philosophy of his entire collection of poetry. This play also has autobiographical elements where poets struggle in personal, poetic and political life has been presented by manipulating the myth of Prometheus. This play has several interpretations on different levels but it best manifests Shelley’s struggle against conventional system and institutions. The poet rebelled against conventional morality and family values in his personal life and he faced great hostilities from traditional system. His poetic achievements was never acknowledged by guardians of traditional system and a conservative paper The Courier wrote on Shelley’s death “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no. This entire struggle can be traced in this allegorical closet-drama Prometheus Unbound and he comes out triumphed. Prometheus describes the fulfillment of Shelley’s dreams in these concluding lines’

Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours

And moments aye divided by keen pangs

Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,

Scorn and despair, – these are mine empire.

More glorious far than that which thou surveyest

From thine unenvied throne, O! Mighty God!

Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame

Of thine ill tyranny,…

Shelley uses Jupiter as a symbol of system and curses it for being tyrannical and enslaving the humankind from last three thousand years. His hero challenges all the tyrants of the world that their power and rule is a cause of shame for them and it has given human beings despair and torture only. These lyrics are full of revolutionary fervor and enthusiasm and Shelley has endowed these verses with all his blood and soul .He envisions a great future after the defeat of tyrants and profess an establishment of a new order. This new order seems to be classless, free from tyranny and celebrates the virtues of equality, fraternity and love for fellow beings. Brent Steven writes in her “Delusive Flames: Self and Poetry in The Major Works Freedom for Shelley consists not in self-sovereignty or self-determination as a condition or cause in its own right, but as a force directed toward the twin aims of breaking down or beyond the present meaning of things (whether these forms are the result of laws, customs, culture or language), as well as restoring human relations to a morality based on love and equality. Shelley demands a heroic struggle and he profess a greater prize for human beings.

The loathsome mask has fallen, the Man remains,

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man:

Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king

Over himself; …

Shelley manipulates the potential of Greek myth for regeneration of humankind. He uses the figure of Prometheus and its association with structure of civilization for his poetic and political endeavors. Shelley believes that myths are very important to address the essential philosophical and existential concerns. Human history and civilization cannot stand without a structure of myths and mythological figures which helps to satisfy the human questions of existence. Shelley finds the expression of his philosophical concerns with rise of Prometheus and this vein continues throughout his great poetry. ImminentVictorian critic and poet Mathew Arnold famously called Shelley “an ineffectual angel” which is however, taken as a misrepresentation by modern scholarship, and the influence of Shelley on upcoming successive  centuries’ politics and revolutionary movements remained far more reaching and sustained even up to modern world of 21stcentury.His verses kindle an enthusiasm in dying spirits and a modern reader finds Shelley guised in Promethean robes lighting the road before human generations of today’s world. His verses in his most celebrated poem Ode to West Wind explains all his philosophy of poetry,

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

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