The Prometheus Unbound of Shelley
THE DRAMA AND THE TIME.
SHELLEY’S lyrical drama, the Prometheus Unbound, is unique in the great cycle of English song. From the larger part of that song it is distinguished at once by an audacious idealism. Generalizations are dangerous; yet we may surely say that the dominant movement of our sturdy English literature has been towards realism. In the Middle Ages, the English Chaucer sings with frank and buoyant vigor of the fair green earth beneath him and the men and women at his side, while the Italian Dante penetrates with fervid passion the spiritual spheres open to mediaeval vision, and brings back strange messages from the souls of the lost and of the blessed. The Elizabethan imagination claps a girdle round the earth, but rarely soars into the heavens. It is the German genius, not the English, which centres the struggle of the human soul in a shadowy protagonist, embodiment of the symbolism of the ages, and replaces a Hamlet known to history by a legendary Faust. The idealism of Milton seems, beside that of Dante, intellectual and forced. The literature of the eighteenth century is the transcript of the life of society. Victorian literature is the transcript of the life of the soul. Everywhere our English genius tends to express itself through forms of experience and of fact.
The early poetry of the nineteenth century is a notable exception to this principle. The work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Keats and Shelley, is in tone frankly ideal. The idealism which pervades all the writings of these poets, from the Ancient Mariner to Hyperion, finds its fullest manifestation in the Prometheus Unbound, which is the supreme achievement of Shelley. Despite the wondrous nature-poetry of the drama, the whole action takes place, not on this solid earth of hill and forest, but in an unknown region which has no existence outside the soul of man. The personages are vast abstractions, dim though luminous; like wraiths of mist in morning sunlight, they drift around us, appearing, vanishing, in mystic sequence. Their deeds and words, vague to a steady gaze, now tantalize us with doubtful meanings, now flash a sudden radiance into the life of the human soul. Over the whole drama plays, though with broken and wavering lustre, the “light that never was, on sea or land,” and not once does the “poet’s dream ” change to the sober world of waking fact.
Yet to speak of the Prometheus Unbound as the highest expression of modern English idealism is hardly to justify our claim that the drama is unique. We find much contemporary poetry of the same order, although less commanding; and our English genius is, moreover, too plastic to lack entirely, at any period, the ideal element. It is in a work of the sixteenth century that we find the closest parallel to the Prometheus Unbound. Edmund Spenser, during the full dominance of Elizabethan realism, is as pure an idealist as Shelley, and the Faery Queene and the modern drama are in many ways strangely akin. At a glance, this kinship is obvious. The two poems belong alike to that highest order of imaginative work which includes the book of Job, Faust, Paracelsus, and claims as its greatest example the Divine Comedy of Dante. Both poems deal with spiritual forces, with the eternal conflict of good and evil; the action to be wrought out is in both the final redemption of the soul of man. The Faery Queene, like the Prometheus, transports us to a world where forms of visionary beauty speak to us, not of concrete human life, but of ethical and spiritual truth. Both poems, in a word, are symbolic.
Yet the more thoughtfully we read, the sooner will a radical difference between the spirit of the two poems become manifest, — a difference so great that it will force us to put the poem of Shelley quite by itself. For the Faery Queene is an allegory; the Prometheus Unbound not only deals with mythological conceptions, it is a genuine myth. In the Faery Queene, the relation of the forms to the ideas is the result of the conscious and deliberate invention of Spenser. Una. says the poet to himself, shall stand for Truth, Guyon for Temperance, Archimago for Hypocrisy. The characters, thus laden with double meaning, are made to pass through various significant adventures. Sometimes the allegory grows tedious to Spenser, and he drops it from consciousness, seeing for the time in his creations only ladies fair and lovely knights, instead of the Christian virtues; more often still it grows tedious to the reader, who gladly forgets all didactic suggestion, to wander dreamily through an enchanted land. The connection between story and meaning, not only here, but in all allegories, is arbitrary rather than essential. The distinctive mark of allegory is always the artificial invention of a correspondence between natural and spiritual.
No one can read the Prometheus Unbound without feeling a different method of conception at work. Asia, Ione, Panthea, Prometheus himself, all the actors in the drama are indeed impersonations of abstract qualities, and the whole action is spiritual in undercurrent, though on the surface natural. But the connection between natural and spiritual is no longer arbitrary. There has been no painful invention, unless in some minor details; these figures have flashed upon the inner vision of the poet in perfect unity of soul and form. Where an allegory is reasoned and labored. a myth is instinctive and spontaneous. The systematic formality of the allegory is replaced in the myth by something of the large, divinely simple significance of the very symbolism of nature. An allegory is the result of experience; a myth, of intuition. To speak of the Prometheus Un~ bound as a myth seems at first sight to contradict our idea of poetic development; for the evolution of the myth is almost entirely confined to the childhood of races. This is inevitable, since the myth is an unconscious form of art, and unconsciousness belongs to childhood. The wide-eyed and reverent wonder of the child sees in the new world of life and mystery around him spiritual creations pressing everywhere through the material veil. The instinctive faith essential to the myth cannot survive the familiarity with earthly facts, the scientific temper of maturity. Analysis has replaced intuition; wonder is lost in curiosity.
We know its name and nature ; it is given
In the dull catalogue of common things,”
mourns Keats. Thus it is in the infancy of the Aryan race, in the early days of Hellas, in the vigorous youth of the Norsemen, that we find the great myth cycles treasured by our scholars to-day, —poem-stories with the dawnlight fresh upon them. Through our own oldest epic, Beowulf, traces of the myth still shine; but they soon fade away, never to reappear, replaced by the frank and sunny naturalism of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Browning.
Never to reappear ? Not so. In the early days of our own century, when the English race had passed through many a stern experience, when it had gathered much of the bitter wisdom of maturity into its thought and speech, once more it was to dream dreams and see visions; and the fairest of these dreams was to be given to the world through the creative soul of Shelley, a genuine and beautiful myth, in the form of the Prometheus Unbound. Prometheus, Asia, lone, —their likeness is to be sought, not in a Macbeth, a Desdemona, or a Pompilia, but in Thetis the silverfooted, in Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon, in Athene, child of Zeus. The mystic action of the drama recalls, not the human stir and passion of our modern tragedy, but the solemn movement of the stories of the elder world. The Prometheus Unbound is no mere retelling of an ancient tale, like the Greek poems of William Morris; it is in all essentials an original conception. The drama starts, indeed, from the Æschylean story, but the development of the action, the personages, the mode of treatment, are absolutely the poet’s own. Like the tales of gods and heroes in the Homeric cycle, even more like the treatment of these stories with a fuller spiritual consciousness in the work of the Greek tragedians, are the great imaginings of Shelley.
The age of Pope and the age of Tennyson are both times of peculiar self-consciousness and elaboration. Be1 ween these two ages reappears for one brief moment the myth. In the whole history of English song there is no stranger paradox than this. By virtue of its idealism, the Prometheus Unbound is already unusual in English verse; it is not only unusual, it is also unique, for it is our one instance of genuine reversion to the art-form of the childhood of the world. Such a paradox challenges our attention at once. If we wish to understand it, we first turn instinctively to the great poetry which comes within the same period as the Prometheus.
The drama was written in 1819; thus it belongs to the greatest cycle of English song since the Elizabethan age. Within the years 1590—1630 falls the chief work of Spenser, of the Elizabethan lyrists, of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. Within the years 1790—1830 falls the finest work of Blake and Burns, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Byron, Keats, and Shelley. We know that those years at the beginning of our century were great indeed; we know that the poems sung in them hold their own even beside the great poetry of the age of Elizabeth. Now, if we look at the poetic work of the first third of our century as a whole, we shall be struck by its great variety; yet we shall also be struck, in the midst of all the variety, by a certain all-pervasive unity of tone. It is the tone of youth, of freshness, of exuberance of life.
The poetry of the eighteenth century was tired. It had repeated the wisdom of a worldly old age. It laid stress on etiquette, on custom, on detail ; it submitted to cautious rules; and, when not artificially lively, it displayed a sober and disillusioned strength. Close Pope or Thomson, and open Blake, Burns, Wordsworth. Strange discovery! Through this poetry, later though it be, the music of an eternal youth goes ringing. The tone of wonder, of eagerness, of fullness of life, either for joy or pain, is the great quality which distinguishes the outburst of song at the first of our century from the exhausted verse of the preceding age. It is impossible to tell all the different manifestations of this new youthfulness. The very cadence, the outward form of verse, have cast aside the grave restrictions imposed by a self-conscious period, and move with the buoyant and varied grace of adolescence; the literal child appears for the first time in Burns and Blake and Wordsworth; the restless and passionate speculation of youth glances through the poems of Byron, Coleridge, and Shelley. Finally, the mythopoeic faculty is by no means confined to the Prometheus Unbound, though it finds fullest expression there. There is no evidence of this faculty in the poetry of the eighteenth century or of the Victorian age; but poetry from Blake to Keats is veined with it. In Blake, indeed, it is dominant, but fails to reach its full effect, because his imaginings, though mighty, are broken and obscure. We find clear traces of the myth in the poems of Coleridge, notably the Ancient Mariner. Keats is not sensitive to the spiritual possibilities of the myth, but so far as aesthetic instinct will carry him he has the true myth - creating power; gods, nymphs, and Titans breathe in livingbeauty in the pages of Endymion and Hyperion. To Shelley, as to the ancient Greeks, the myth is the expression of worship, and the mythopoeic faculty appears, disciplined, free, and triumphant, in the Prometheus Unbound.
How shall we explain the bright youthfulness of all this poetry ? We must explain it by studying the historic period from which it sprang. For poetry strikes its roots deep into the soil of national life, and it is in the passions and ideals of history that we must find the inspiration of our poets. English verse at the beginning of the century is great because it is the expression and outcome of a great period. No sooner do we study the period than the distinctive qualities of the poetry are explained. Its renewed joy and freedom in living are but the expression of the new life that was pulsing through the veins of the earth. For this is the great period of the birth of the modern world.
We may best understand the Prometheus Unbound if we recognize it as the supreme expression in imaginative form of the new spirit of democracy. The ideas which inspire it first found dynamic power in the Revolution of 1789. It is a drama of the liberation of humanity. A hatred of oppression, a yearning after freedom, a belief in the possibility of universal love, — these are its informing passions. They are uplifted by the swift imagination and soaring faith of the poet into the highest poetic region of symbol or of myth. Thus the significance of our paradox is revealed. For myths belong to the dawn; and the beginning of our century witnessed the dawn of a new cosmic day. We may say in sober reverence that not since the coming of Christ had so vital a renovating power entered human life as entered it one hundred years ago. It is natural and beautiful that this new beginning should be heralded by the return of the spirit of childhood, and that the wondering faith of the time should once more, as in the days of old, find expression through concrete symbol. At one moment, and one only, in the evolution of English song since the time of Beowulf, was possible the formation of a myth; and at this moment appeared the man to create it. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, only by the man Shelley, could the Prometheus Unbound have been written.
This view of the Prometheus Unbound will, it is true, be challenged by a whole school of critics. The drama is woven of dreams, they will tell us; it is a maze of color and music, devoid of definite structure. Shall we turn the most ethereal of poets into a doctrinaire ? What relation has poetry like this, of imagination all compact, to theories of life? Above all, what relation can it bear to that democracy which is all around us, practical, blatant, vulgar? The eternal value of the Prometheus Unbound — thus perhaps say most of the readers of the drama — lies in its poignant melody, its exquisite imagery, the beauty of fragments scattered here and there through the poem. These are immortal. But the intellectual conceptions of Shelley were simply the accidents of his youth, to be forgotten if we would read his poetry aright; and for the underlying thought of the drama, for its unity of structure, for the meaning of Prometheus and Demogorgon and Panthea and the other shadowy mouthpieces of matchless verse, not one whit will the enlightened critic care.
To speak thus is to deny all scientific conceptions of literature; for it is to deny the connection of the poet with his age. Much, indeed, is crude and weak in the verse of Shelley; much is held in his immature intellect, and is never fused by his imaginative passion into art; but the very warp and woof of his noblest poetry are in subtle and secret ways determined by that faith which aesthetic cynics would teach us to ignore. Shelley would never have been the greatest lyric poet of England, would never have written the Ode to the West Wind nor the choruses to Hellas, had he been an aristocrat and a conservative. The passion for freedom and the aspiration towards a universal love sway his thought as they sway his form.
In order, then, to understand the Prometheus Unbound, we must look more fully at the place held by England and by Shelley in the evolution of the democratic idea. It was by France that the idea was first given to the world in deeds, — deeds stormy, passionate, marked by the horror of bloodshed. France, most impetuous of nations, France, maddened by centuries of oppression, received the trust of working out the historic revolution. But this was only half of the work to be accomplished. To express the democratic idea in brief historic act was the work of France; to express it in eternal art was the work of England. All poetry, says Wordsworth, is the product of emotion recollected in tranquillity. France, absorbed in fierce and exhausting struggle, could not stop to write poetry; yet the idea of democracy, like all really vital ideas, had to find expression in art before it could become a precious possession forever to the nations. Here came in the work of England. Her noblest children, touched to high emotion by the great days in which they lived, were yet sufficiently remote from the struggle to possess their souls in that serenity which is the necessary condition of all great art. To the poets of England, from Burns and Blake to Shelley, belongs the glory of having first given to the democratic idea an embodiment of undying power.
Very diverse is the influence of the new ideal upon their work, very different are the aspects which they reflect. Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two older poets, were contemporaries of the historic Revolution. In the eager days of their youth they lived through the swift revolutionary drama, with its changes from rapturous hope to terror and despair. Absorbed in the turmoil of the time, there is small wonder that they were unable to distinguish the absolute from the local, or that in sober middle life they passed through a reaction from the ardor of their democratic faith. The effect of democracy in the work even of W ordsworth is indirect, although profound, and shows itself by leading the imaginative love of the poet to the noble life of the simple and the poor rather than by inflaming him with enthusiasm for the abstract ideas of the Revolution. The few poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge which treat directly of the new faith are occasional in theme. We must seek a point of view which affords a farther perspective, if we desire a vision of the democratic faith in its fullness, freed from the dominance of incidental detail.
Such a point of view is to be found in the second decade of our century. Three men, in this decade, hold the supreme honors of English song,— Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Of these, Keats represents the aesthetic reaction from the passion for humanity which had possessed the soul of the race for over twenty years. Through his verse sweeps the fragrance of the world of dreams; redolent of beauty, it nowhere breathes suggestion of allegiance to a hard-won truth, nor of feeling for actual human need. Byron, on the other hand, is distinctly a poet of the Revolution, but of the Revolution mainly on its inferior and destructive side. His verse rings with rebellion and despair. The historic Revolution had failed: its ardent faith, its glowing hopes, were despised, during the hollow years of the Empire, by all children of the world. A child of the world was Byron; and for him and his fellows nothing was left at the heart of life but the cynical and arrogant individualism which forms the negative and evil aspect of the democratic idea.
The children of the world had lost courage; but for the children of light the glory of the new ideal had never faded. Hardly affected by the practical failure of the Revolution, freed from the interference of historic outward detail, the intellectual and spiritual conception of the young democracy shone clear in the cloudless heaven for whosoever should behold. The man to behold it was Shelley. His soul, pure as crystal, clear as flame, held and fused the vital elements both of strength and weakness in the democratic ideal. At the close of the second decade of our century he conceived the Prometheus Unbound.
The student who tries to translate the fleeting symbolism of the drama into a logical sequence of abstract truths will be grievously disappointed. Such a translation is impossible. The union of soul and form, meaning and expression, is too close to be severed. It has to be seized, not by the analytical reason, but by an intuition akin to that of the poet. Through the entire poem, the imagery wavers; now parting to show a hidden thought, now closing with inscrutable radiance. We are tempted to describe the myth in Shelley’s own words: —
Through the vest which seems to hide them
As the radiant lines of morning
Through thin clouds, ere they divide them ;
And this atmosphere divinest
Shrouds thee wheresoe’er thou shinest.”
To conceal while it reveals is always the characteristic of the myth. The drama transports us to the very confines of the world of sense, where material semblance trembles into spiritual truth; but the limit is never crossed, the reticence of the image is never forfeited. “As dew-stars glisten, then fade away, ” gleams of spiritual meaning flash and vanish through the poem. The imagination everywhere suggests what the intellect cannot define.
We must acknowledge another reason for the obscurity of many passages in the Prometheus. The drama is uneven both in form and thought; and one is sometimes tempted to linger in search of hidden depth of meaning, when true wisdom would recognize a passage as impenetrable simply because shallow. It is because of this twofold difficulty in logical interpretation that many, even among the lovers of Shelley, give up the attempt to trace the evolution of any theme, and enjoy the drama simply as a succession of shining pictures and lovely melodies. Yet in reality the drama is a highly organized whole, conceived with the greatest care and with elaborate fullness of meaning. We know, on Mrs. Shelley’s authority, that Shelley wrote every detail of the poem with distinct intention. His sensitive soul was attuned not only to harmonies of light and color, but to the severer music of the experiences of life. Such a nature is no pioneer in constructive ideas. We do not look to Shelley for the virile intellectuality, the grasp on practical problems, of Browning; but we do seek, and find, that intuitive reflection of the vital elements in contemporary life and thought which is characteristic of the seer. We shall find the Prometheus Unbound vague where the Revolution was vague, crude where the Revolution was crude,— that is, in its intellectual philosophy ; we shall find it great where the Revolution was great, — that is, in its spiritual ideal.
We see how completely the drama expresses the limitations as well as the power inherent in the new democratic conception when we recall, briefly, Shelley’s faith and attitude. Shelley is democrat and communist. His convictions are frankly, eagerly anarchical. The ruling passion of his life is the passion for liberty, and liberty to him, as to most thinkers of the time, means the absence of law. Shelley hates authority with a deadly hatred ; it is by the overthrow of all government, civil and religious, that he expects the happiness of humanity to be attained. This destructive political conception is of course a simple reproduction of current ideas, or at least of the ideas of ’93. On the ethical side, Shelley’s thought was formed by two amusingly different influences, — by William Godwin and by Plato. The result of this curious union was paradoxical enough. With every higher instinct Shelley springs to greet the mystic idealism of Plato; but with his conscious intellect he clings to the views of Political Justice, the book which expresses the coldest radicalism of revolutionary thought. The crudest and most unimaginative parts of the Prometheus Unbound reflect the cheap doctrinaire philosophy of Godwin,— a philosophy held in Shelley’s mind, but never in his soul. The easy optimism of Godwin, and of all revolutionary thinkers, is the phase of their thought most congenial to Shelley. To the Revolution evil is a pure accident, an external fact. It inheres in institutions,—how it got there we are never told, — and when these institutions shall be shattered, the nature of man, pure, virtuous, loving, will instantly restore the Age of Gold. This conception determines the whole form of the myth in the Prometheus Unbound. Shallow though it seems today, it served a necessary purpose. It roused men from the lethargy of despair, and inspired them with faith in man’s control over his own destiny. Like the apostolic expectation of the immediate coming of the Lord, the pathetic revolutionary optimism gave courage to an infant faith, and made men loyal to their ideals until the time should come when they could stand alone. It enabled them, in Shelley’s words,
From its own wreck, the thing it contemplates,”
There is another point in which Shelley’s attitude is one with that of his time, — his scornful rejection of Christianity. No one can read history without seeing that it was very difficult, in those days, to be both a democrat and a Christian. The Church had identified itself, in the Revolution, with the aristocrats. It had chosen to side with established evil rather than with reform which disturbed peace. It had its reward. No one familiar with the respectable worldliness of the recognized religion of England during the first of our century can wonder that many of the most vivid and religious minds of the day revolted from Christianity. Shelley, with characteristic vehemence, rushed to the very extreme. Antagonism to belief in a personal God seems to Mr. William Rossetti the chief informing purpose of the Prometheus Unbound. The purpose of the great drama is surely both wider and more constructive than this ; yet it is undoubtedly true that the poem breathes hatred to historical Christianity, while it also breathes reverence for Christ.
It is obvious, then, that Shelley is formed entirely by the democratic thought of the Revolution; he is also the exponent of its spiritual passion. So far as we have yet gone, we might have taken Byron as well as Shelley for our typical poet. Byron, too, had the frank antinomianism, the hatred of Christianity, found in the Revolution, though he lacked its buoyant optimism. But Byron was untouched by the higher elements of democratic thought which exalt the poetry of Shelley. Through the Prometheus Unbound breathes the very spirit of the religion of humanity, the passionate sympathy for suffering, the passionate love of man. The power to conceive vast abstract ideals and to render them dynamic in human life was a gift of the Revolution, in reaction from the age of common sense; and this gift created the drama. Above all, our thought of the religion of Shelley must not be limited by his antagonisms. We are to seek the expression of his faith, not in the verse of crude reaction or boyish polemic, but in the self-revelation of his highest moments. His soul cannot be labeled; it is too bright and strange and swift for that. But if some name is to suggest the order of nature to which Shelley belonged, that of pantheist is the best. His thought, conditioned here as always by the limits of his time, lacks completely that reverence for the sacredness of personality which is the noblest achievement of the century’s later years. Ignoring personality in man, it is no wonder that Shelley ignores it in God also. But the revolutionary movement was at heart a spiritual uprising. It marked the rebellion of the human soul from that mass of custom which, in a materialized society, lay upon it
Heavy as frost, and deer almost as life.”
The new passion for nature as the revelation of a Divine Spirit, the new faith in love as the law of life, made a religion far more real than the deism or the dogmatic orthodoxy of the eighteenth century. This was the religion of Shelley. From all materialism, conscious or unconscious, his soul was severed by a severance sharp as that between death and life. He sees in nature, in the human soul, the ‘‘One Spirit’s plastic stress;” and to attain perfect union with the Soul of All is his supreme desire. He worships, though he worships he knows not what. It is this “strength of flame” which has passed into the verse of Shelley.
Is framed an Image, so intensely fair
That the adventurous thoughts that wander near it
Worship, and as they kneel tremble, and wear
The splendor of its Presence, and the light
Penetrates their dreamlike frame
Till they become charged with the strength of flame.”
Such was the nature of the man who was to be the supreme exponent of the ideal of the new democracy. The crude intellectual conceptions of the Revolution enter the Prometheus Unbound and weaken it ; the spiritual sensitiveness and spiritual faith of the Revolution enter it more vitally, and mould it to an organic whole. The drama is thus singularly uneven. It forfeits at times all imaginative power; yet wherever this power diminishes, its historic suggestiveness may be said to increase. By virtue in part of its very imperfections, by virtue supremely of the love for humanity and passion for freedom and triumphant spirituality that suffuse it, it is the perfect artistic reflection of all that was most significant in the early aspects of the faith which has shaped our modern world.
Fitting it is that to Shelley, of all the hierarchy of poets then living, should have been given the mission of perfectly reflecting the dawn of the new cosmic day. Fair in undying youth, his figure stands before us, its bright and ardent purity undimmed by the breath of years. Fate seems at first bitter and cruel when, in his thirtieth year, the Italian waters which he loved so well close over his frail bark, and the poet-soul is borne darkly, fearfully, afar, into an unknown land. Yet, though he sings no longer for the sons of time, he rests, like his own Adonais, “in those abodes where the Eternal are.” Shelley’s early death is, we may almost say, the inevitable conclusion of a life whose work it was to render for us the eager thought, the ardent faith, of adolescence. The sober and practical temper of middle life, the meditative calm of age, were never to touch his buoyant spirit. He heralded the sunrise; and his task was over when he had sung his hymn of welcome.
We have said that the Prometheus Unbound is a myth; and so it is. Yet its type is widely different from that of the great stories of the elder world. In our modern days, we cannot expect, we could assuredly not desire, the perfect reproduction of an ancient poem. The Prometheus Unbound is both greater and less than the early dreams of Hellas. In some ways it is less. Inspired as a rule by spontaneous insight, it is yet beset now and again by a clogging self-consciousness, and the poetry sinks into allegory, or, lower yet, into versified didacticism. Moreover, the drama tantalizes us with an occasional vagueness and inconsistency foreign to the ancient myth. Yet if in these ways it is inferior, in others it is instinct with a deeper power. The past can never be relived. The Prometheus is truly a poem of youth, but the youth which inspires it is not that of the first childhood of the race. The world was indeed born anew, in those great years at the first of the century; but this its second birth was the birth of the spirit. The free naturalism, strong, simple, and buoyant, that breathes through the myths of Hellas had fled forever. The rapture of physical existence is replaced in all our later poetry by the rapture of a spiritual hope. Grave, with all its joyous melody, is the music of the Prometheus; the pain that sounds through the drama has a deeper note than the wistful grief of the child; in the eyes of Prometheus and Asia is seen the shadow of a suffering world. The ideal towards which the drama presses is far different from the temperate uprightness of the Greeks; it is no less than absolute union with the spirit of Divine Love. For the time when the Prometheus Unbound is written is the nineteenth Christian century, and the vision of holiness has been beheld by the world.
The century has grown old since Shelley wrote. The characteristic utterance of its central and final years has been that of men. A Rabbi Ben Ezra reviews life in memory, as a Prometheus looked forward to life in hope. Browning and Tennyson have reverted to that virile realism which is the more instinctive expression of our English genius; and this realism tends to express itself in practical rather than in aesthetic forms. That ideal which flashed upon men of old as a vision we struggle as a fact to fulfill. For them were the hours of insight; for us are the hours of gloom.
We dig and heap, pile stone on stone ;
We bear the burden and the heat
Of the long day, and wish ’t were done.”
While we wait for the “hours of light” to return, it is well for us always to remember that what we are striving to realize already exists as a vision. The dream-images of superhuman beauty, the ardent sweep of abstract enthusiasm, which we find in Shelley are in truth the source and inspiration of that stern democracy which, often in painful forms, struggles towards a future that we can still but dimly see. The economic science of to-day and the imaginative passion of the past are in aim and essence one. We can no longer console ourselves for unclean tenements by dreams of the union of Prometheus and Asia; but we may, in sober, dusty days of discouraged labor, refresh our spirits and revive our faith by turning to the glory of the morning, and steeping our eyes in the vision of an eternal prime.
Vida D. Scudder.