Rivalry Unbound: Shelley and the Eclipse of the Biblical God

A Word About Prometheus

Some years ago in a book aptly titled Thieves of Fire the great Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue memorably summed up the difference between Aeschylus’s and Shelley’s treatment of the figure of Prometheus: all that all we know about Prometheus comes from Aeschylus, all that we feel from Shelley. I have no quarrel with the assessment, but I would want to add that the “feeling” has something—perhaps everything—to do with the new placement of Prometheus who has a new tormenter and torturer, the biblical God who is thinly wrapped in the veil of Jupiter.

Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) is a drama about the definitive overcoming of the biblical God, whose authority is displaced onto human being who is meant to be politically and religiously free, and above all psychically free, where the latter becomes possible if and only if human beings renounce the power and violence that are the instruments of the tyrant God of Christian Scripture, and the malice and spirit of revenge that are indelible parts of his craven character.

While Shelley believes that revolt represents a legitimate option, he is alert to mimesis and the introjection of those aggressive divine qualities that precisely disqualify one as truly human and make impossible a human world. Shelley matches Blake in terms of his vehemence towards the biblical God, even if the canvas of the attack is less comprehensive and probing. Whereas Blake constructed his own mythology of Urizen, Los, Orc, and others and peopled his phantasmagoric world with specters and shades, Shelley improvised on the traditional myth of Prometheus, the cultural hero who loves humanity and who bears (if not necessarily patiently) the sadism of a Zeus whose actions reveal him to be morally bankrupt.

The classical myth took on a new lease of life in the Renaissance period, with Prometheus once again assuming the mantle of the one who brooks no prohibition when it comes to exploring the unknown and expanding the horizons of human beings, whether with a view to mapping the world or disclosing the arcana of nature. Yet as Prometheus remains a cultural hero, the figuration has shifted: as curiosity and experiment his Prometheus’s calling card, correlatively, the agon between Prometheus and Zeus or Prometheus and Jupiter is played down. Prometheus is essentially domesticated. Neoplatonic Renaissance thinkers such as Ficino and Bruno interpret him in line with their classical Neoplatonic forebears: they capture Prometheus’ daemonic status of a blend of the divine and the human by speaking of him largely in terms of the World Soul of Plotinus as well as associating him with something like a primordial Adam (Adam Kadmon) that had managed to make its way into the Christian philosophical lexicon in and through interaction with Jewish Kabbalistic material.

The Renaissance figuration was relatively determining for the eighteenth century in Germany. When Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813), German poet and playwright, features Prometheus in a play in 1770, he largely operates in the terms of accommodation put forth by the Renaissance that availed of the metaphysical map of Neoplatonism and practiced as well as endorsed the mode of allegorical interpretation that sidelined both the religious and political features that were to the surface in Aeschylus’ Prometheus cycle.

The decisive tilt towards critical use of the Prometheus figure with regard to biblical religion and Christianity occurs in Goethe’s famous poem on the figure (1776) that opened the pantheism debate that rocked a generation and continued to return in different forms in Germany over the next forty years. Although the poem is rightly taken to indicate a Goethe under the spell of Spinoza and favoring a more Greek form of religion for which the formula of hen kai pan (One and All) stands as summary, the poem has a power and immediacy that is greatly in excess of a position adopted by Lessing, Herder, and Schiller when it comes to understanding the relation between God and the world and God and human being. It is not as if the poem is advising simply a lessening of the distance between God and the world and advancing the notion of their mutual imbrication. Rather, the poem is all imprecation and rebellion: belief in this careless God indifferent to the plight of human beings must be defeated in order for human flourishing to be possible.

For Goethe, Prometheus does more than steal fire; he is the true artificer, the one who creates human beings and who is in solidarity with their suffering. In contrast, Jove, who does not seem to have the decency to allow himself to be assigned to legend, needs to be reproved now, cursed now, whatever the cost. “Jove” is anything but an academic recall. He is an obvious proxy for Jehovah, and he is being called out as something of the kenospoudos God—the immature and childish God—whom human beings have a right to fear: “he is a child-god who beheads thistles” (dem Knaben gleich/Der Disteln kopft). Goethe, of course, knew Shakespeare, but it is not clear how well in 1776, although by this point Wieland had translated him. Yet it is difficult not to recall the famous lines spoken in King Lear by the faithful Gloucester when blinded by Cornwall and Regan: “As flies to wanton boys are we to gods; they kill us for their sport.”

Compared to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Goethe’s relatively short poem (55 lines) represents a high watermark in terms of aggression towards the God of Christianity, but perhaps something of a low watermark in terms of perspicuity and comprehensiveness of attack. Goethe codes his aggression as he plays the humanism card. He fails to detail the mechanisms of enslavement, for example, the doctrines, precepts, and rites of Christianity, and above all its central text, which warrants as well as discloses the sovereign God.

More nearly than Goethe, Shelley captures the revolutionary potential latent in the myth: the Biblical God is not only the standard of all religious authority and its expressions, but also effectively the stand-in for all authority, insofar as he is the final court of appeal to legitimate repressive authority and authorize violent political authority. If Goethe’s revolutionary intent is clear in a poem that belongs his Sturm und Drang period, years later when Goethe returns to Prometheus, he is a much tamer figure, and the absolute split between Prometheus and Jupiter is no longer in play. In fact, there is a kind of reversion to Wieland’s more anodyne figuration.

One can only speculate as to why: maybe concern about censorship, perhaps a looking back at the devolution of the French Revolution from a euphoric feeling of emancipation into the nightmare of the Terror that disturbed an entire generation of German thinkers and writers. In contrast, Shelley is a child of the French Revolution with a relatively good conscience. He thinks of it as an event that indicates the end of all illegitimate authorities, whether religious or secular. Whether the good conscience is absolutely immaculate depends on how one reads the growing awareness in Prometheus (with a little help from the female personae such as Asia, Panthea, and earth spirits) of the necessity to stop the cycle of violence and counter-violence by excising or exorcising the spirit of revenge.

I will speak shortly to the way the Prometheus Unbound demands a reflexivity of Prometheus necessary to prevent him from becoming hubristic and thus making inevitable the kind of upbraiding by the chorus one finds in the Prometheus cycle that thrives on distributing fault. Displaying the mechanism of the overcoming of what René Girard calls mimetic violence is structurally possible because, unlike Goethe’s set piece of invective, which seems to echo Voltaire’s famous poem on the Lisbon earthquake (1759), its task is to improvise within the parameters set not by the Prometheus Bound cycle that was extant, but rather the lost cycle of three plays in of Prometheus Unbound (Prometheus Lyomenos) (of which only a fragment remains) in which there is a dramatization of reconciliation in which the implacable enemies confess their one-sidedness and overcome their obstinacy.

Shelley’s task is, therefore, considerably more complex than that of Goethe’s monologue. How to render the verisimilitude of a change of posture from one or other side after thousands of years of hostility, torture, and escalation of violent rhetoric? As it turns out, for Shelley, only Prometheus has the capacity to change, which capacity in turn is the capacity of being itself. In contrast, Jupiter is constituted entirely by his malicious behavior with the implied consequence that the insistence on being coextensive with the order of reality itself becomes fatally ironic. In adding the new element of self-reflective probity to Prometheus, Shelley creates a simpler, less morally ambiguous figure than found in Aeschylus.

For all the differentiation of psyche that takes place over the course of the play, the attack on the biblical God—or at least the God of the Hebrew Scriptures—is in excess of what we find in Goethe. Moreover, whatever reconciliation and forgiveness might mean, it does not involve reconciliation with the biblical God as other or totally Other or require a fundamental questioning of the essential injustice of Prometheus’s situation. Forgiveness is an inner psychic event, a form of self-healing.

Prometheus Unbound and the Death of the Biblical God

The attack on the biblical God opens in Act 1 with the depiction of Jupiter as a tyrant who enslaves, who demands worship, who transgresses the principle of equality, who is ignorant and cruel, jealous, and sadistic. Shelley leaves us in no doubt about the identity of this Jupiter whose diktats and creeds oppress human beings and encourage hypocrisy in observance rules and rituals, thereby inducing self-contempt that results in an unhealable fracture in the self. The characterological analysis of Jupiter is relentlessly pursued. As the play circles back to who Jupiter really is, as opposed to who Jupiter statutorily is, the analysis takes a psychological turn.

In Act 3 the “jealousy” of Jupiter, familiar in the Prometheus cycle of Aeschylus, is invoked. It is evident, however, that more than a simple repetition of Aeschylus is involved. In the mythic landscape of Aeschylus, “jealousy” plays something like a metaphysical role in preventing divine and human domains of reality, which are ontologically different from each other, from being confused—such confusion being a harbinger of chaos. Shelley does not have, nor can he have, this metaphysical resonance, since his is a belated improvisation on a “broken” or self-conscious myth that he feels he can invest with new meaning. In Prometheus Unbound, “jealousy” is a term of motive, an answer to the question of why Jupiter behaves as viciously and immorally as he does.

That it seems difficult to liberate “jealousy” entirely of metaphysical temperature becomes evident as the drama plumbs deeper into the motivational structure of Jupiter/Yahweh. The jealousy of Jupiter has its anchor in a chronic insecurity regarding his status and authority. This is illustrated in the opening of Act 3, in which Jupiter cannot seem to help himself bragging about his omnipotence while feeling anxious about the possibility of its demise and fending off the intimations of impotence.

Doubtless, it is possible to read Zeus as a braggart in Aeschylus, just as his depiction of jealousy at least inchoately points towards psychologization observable in Prometheus Unbound. Still, given the new identity of Jupiter as the biblical God, it should be noted that the scene of divine bragging recalls in a very close way the motif of the arrogant archon (ruler) that features prominently in Gnostic texts: there the biblical God often goes under the name of “Yaldabaoth”—a neologism that includes the Hebrew Sabaoth, who in these texts commonly gets reproved as being deluded with respect to the range, legitimacy and even the reality of his presumptive authority over human beings defined by the spiritual potential.

In bringing up a Gnostic precedent here, I do not mean to suggest that Shelley actually borrowed the idea of the bragging and deluded demiurge and lawgiver from the Gnostics. However knowledgeable with regard to esoteric sources Shelley was, this motif was not noted in the heresiological tradition made available to him and other Romantics through J. K. Mosheim, Thomas Taylor, and Joseph Priestley. In any event, as I see it, Gnosticism turns out to be the wrong taxonomic category for Shelley’s specific parsing of the constitutive rivalry between a divine humanity and the biblical God who exhibits properties that are all-too-human. While such an ascription might be plausible with regard to Blake’s mythological universe, it is highly implausible with regard to the mythic universe of Shelley.

Differences abound: differences in the relative complexity of mythic form in which the rivalry between a demiurgic-legislator God and humanity is couched, different levels of commitment to the truth of the mythic forms evinced, different measures of etiological exigence, that is, tracing rivalry back into the fathomless theogony of the divine. Blake’s excess when it comes to complexity, conviction, and etiological habit suggests that he is not simply a critic of the biblical God and the dispositions and behaviors he authorizes—that seems to be the forefront in Shelley—but that rather the problem of the constitution and existence of the world lies far back beyond the personality the God who lords it over creation.

In this new literary deployment of the figure of Prometheus, changes have obviously been rung on the figure found in Aeschylus, even if the literary justification is in place because of the legend of the lost plays of the Prometheus cycle in which both Zeus and Prometheus relent in part and become reconciled. In Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus is the figure of the sublime par excellence. From the very onset of the play, it is evident that Prometheus is as wise, generous, and kind as could possibly be imagined; indeed, he is entirely self-sacrificial. Here we can see the simplification of character, the reduction of the moral ambiguity of the original Prometheus, as well, of course, as the moral ambiguity of the original Zeus who now as Jupiter/Yahweh is entirely repugnant.

This newly minted, univocally ethical, Prometheus has been rinsed of egoism, pride, and intemperance. Relative to Aeschylus, in Prometheus Unbound, blame and exculpation have become all or none. Jupiter/Yahweh becomes blameworthy without remainder because entirely vicious and sadistic; Prometheus becomes the hero without fault, or the hero who enacts a therapy that leaves him at once integral and blameless. The exculpation of Prometheus, however, depends upon an integration that is not possible unless he overcomes the temptations of resentment and revenge. Prometheus Unbound aims to supplement what survives of the Prometheus cycle by speaking to a reconciliation rumored in the lost texts of Aeschylus.

Yet, it is obvious that reconciliation is effectively located not between the offended Jupiter and the offending Prometheus, but solely in the psyche of Prometheus, and the reality of reconciliation is to be judged solely on how successfully Prometheus integrates the feminine (Asia) and masculine elements of his self. If the principle of reconciliation has a New Testament register of “being all in all,” Shelley makes sure to play it in the Greek mythic key of Aphrodite. Love is the power of unifying opposites. It supports as well as devolves neatly into the Neo-Pythagorean idiom of musical harmonics that is a Romantic piety. In using the language of the sublime with regard to Prometheus, I called him a figure of the sublime rather than a sublime figure in order to make a space for a feature of Shelley’s depiction that marks a very definite departure from Aeschylus. Prometheus is self-consciously a poet, for this is what true man, the new corporate humanity, surely is.

Were Shelley’s Prometheus totally continuous with his rendition by Goethe, then the opposition between Prometheus and Jupiter would be reducible to the relation between humanism and/or Greek religion at its self-critical best and a tyrannical Christianity that already has disclosed itself to be moribund. There are, undoubtedly, shades of this in the death of Jupiter that the play drags out, a death which is at once a regicide as well as a deicide, but one that occurs without the agency of Prometheus and thus leaves him with clean hands. Demogorgon, functioning as the principle of necessity, at once moira and erinyes, brings Jupiter down to oblivion (Act 3), thereby revealing Jupiter’s status as both anachronistic and belonging to the order of non-being. 

Yet the opposition is not solely, or even mainly, between Christianity and another more earthly and humane religious dispensation that Christianity repressed. For Shelley, the opposition is very much internal to Christianity itself. The reason why this is the case is simple: Shelley clearly identifies Prometheus and Christ. In Act 1, the suffering Prometheus hanging on the cliff in the Caucuses is assimilated to the figure of Christ on the cross. The identification has the effect of opening up a contradiction in the Christian portrayal of the relation between Jesus Christ and the God of Hebrew Scriptures whom Jesus addresses throughout the Synoptic Gospels in the shockingly intimate form of Abba.

This relationship now has to be understood not as one primarily of harmony and solidarity (with perhaps a grace note of discordance in Mark), but a relationship of outright opposition. Christ the humanist hero is now necessarily against the God of Hebrew Scriptures who can only be construed in the most ironic fashion as Father. Here we see Shelley consolidating a lesson that Goethe drew from the Prometheus myth, namely, the view of God versus God (nemo contra Deum nisi Deus ipse). Yet Shelley puts the opposition between God and God in an even more abrasive key by Christianizing it, thereby giving the opposition not only more dramatic but also more subversive force. Christ is goodness, mercy, lack of vengefulness, the Father precisely the opposite; they are a contradictory pair; to accept one is to reject the other and vice versa. Only the choice of Christ is cogent. As the figures of Christ and the Father are now inalienably in opposition, it suggests also a division of the biblical text between Hebrew scripture and the New Testament that figure their respective characters.

A quick look at the history of Christian theology and especially biblical interpretation is instructive here. Earlier I indicated my lack of enthusiasm for a Gnostic diagnosis of the deviation of Shelley’s texts from the Christian confessional traditions. My main point was that Gnosticism is characterized by an explanatory myth that accounts not only for the opposition between a demiurgic and redeemer figure, but the genesis of all multiple divine figures that precede both. To the extent to which the opposition between Christ and the God of Hebrew Scriptures is central from a taxonomic point of view, it seems more useful to invoke the category of Marcionism. Marcionism represented a much more widespread—if not necessarily as deep a—challenge in the first centuries of the common era than Gnosticism to an emerging and consolidating Christianity.

The followers of Marcion were convinced that Christ is the definitive savior figure and not one among a set of such figures and that redemption comes through an action wrought by this savior figure rather than this figure simply reminding one of where one came from and whither one was going. Christ was the chosen representative of a God beyond this world who was qualitatively different from Yawheh or Jehovah who behaved in ways were not simply uncanny, but that were reprehensible from an ethical point of view. After Paul, Marcion was inclined to call Yahweh or Jehovah “the prince of the world.” In terms of hermeneutic, this meant that Christian scripture consisted solely of the New Testament, and even here the New Testament had to be culled of reference to Hebrew Scripture and any commitment to the creator-legislator figure of Hebrew Scripture, who is capricious at best, and inclined to violence and sheer malevolence at worst, and who establishes a set of laws whose sole function is to emphasize the difference between the transcendent sovereign and his slaves who can never worship him enough, sacrifice to him enough.

Shelley’s essays on Christianity written between 1814–1817 appear to supply plenty of evidence of the repetition of a Marcionite ideology that can be primed to play in a new, more obviously poetic key. Jesus, from whom noticeably are absent the titles of Christ and Son of God, represents a metamorphosis in sensibility. He cannot be explained by his Jewish background, indeed, he sets his face against Jewish legalism, and especially against the lex talonis—“an eye for an eye.” On Shelley’s tendentious account, no more than in Blake do accusations of legalism and violence represent misinterpretations of the Jewish God. Shelley does not hold back: the God of the Jews is a savage and retributive God, one, moreover, characterized by “inconsistency, immorality, and false pretensions”—vices all of which appear to be descriptive of Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound. This Jewish God is incapable of benevolence and of making a beneficent world supportive of human flourishing, excellence, and creativity.

Jesus represents the best that religion can offer, and this includes the Greek religions of immanence with their different figures of Pan and Venus. In these tracts, Jupiter sometimes finds positive mention, but interestingly here Shelley is speaking of a Jupiter who is not associated—as he is in Prometheus Unbound—with Yahweh/Jehovah. Shelley routinely reinforces the appeal to immanence by suggesting that Jesus essentially sums up those dispensations that have grasped the “interfusion” of Spirit in matter that is their common vision. Jesus is, in a line that will find resonance in Emerson, the “overarching Spirit of the collective energy of the moral and material world.”

The evocation of Wordsworth is obvious in the word “interfuse” which echoes the famous line in Tintern Abbey about the Spirit. Of course, his own poetry would equally well have sufficed or the poetry of Coleridge which even more directly represents a homage to Wordsworth. Jesus is divine, but divinity functions as a courtesy, for quite decidedly, Jesus is not the Godman, but a great—perhaps the greatest—moral teacher, a prophet, but equally important a visionary who grasps the invisible world. Tellingly, however, there is another title for Jesus, one that can be found in a great German Romantic poet such as Hölderlin, but certainly also in Blake: Jesus is the holy poet. Thus the holy poet—the poet for whom literature is religion and religion is literature—is the ultimate antagonist to the biblical God. It is not hard to see therefore the progression to poetic figures like Prometheus who demand that God die or admit to the decay that is the fate of all gods that emerge from time and for a while dominate it. This necessarily is the fate of the biblical God, the most misbegotten God of all who is the reason why humanity is so broken and stunted.

In his tracts on Christianity, Shelley seems explicitly to recall a kind of Marcionite construal of what is legitimate and illegitimate, living and dead in Christianity and its text. The redemption signified by Christ represents not a liberation from the world and towards the transcendent personal God, but a liberation from a despot whose rules befoul the world and lessen human beings. It represents a movement away from the violence, implicit and explicit, typical of Yahweh/Jehovah, and a focus on Christ as the divine site of non-violence. While, as intimated already, Shelley seems to invite a Girardian characterization, there is this crucial difference: Girard is anxious to keep Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament on the same plane by making the point that the movement beyond mimetic desire consummated in Christ (not Jesus) is anticipated in Hebrew Scripture, although there are strata which have not entirely moved beyond the sacrificial economy and the scapegoat mechanism. For him, it is axiomatic that no other religion—certainly no Greek religion—does better than biblical Judaism. One could say that Marcion, Shelley, and Girard are worried about the relation between religion and violence, and that all three accord Jesus a special status, but that Girard is anxious—in way the other two are not—to avoid what he regards as metaphysical and hermeneutical anti-Semitism.

When speaking of Shelley’s Marcionism it is hardly necessary to remind that repetition is necessarily non-identical. In the second century, making choices between texts of the old and new dispensation and within the battery of texts thought to supplement what is found in the old is a Christian act of definition of the most urgent and demanding kind. Some texts of the anthology of texts in play in the Christian community or communities reliably testify to a Christ who transcends the ethos of the world, its controls and expectations. Others not only do not do so quite so obviously but rather give indications of a God not worthy to be represented by Jesus Christ. The only safe defense against error is to throw out entirely Hebrew Scripture that renders such an unseemly god.

Other texts and other aspects of the text in the remaining parts of the canon—all New Testament texts—that evince connections between Christ and a dis-empowering legalist tyrant can be cut and mutilated to remove the offending connections with the creator-legislator god and his crippling rules of governance. Compared with what we know of Gnosticism, Marcionism bespeaks not only a deep connection with the figure of Christ—he is irreplaceable—but proceeds by extracting him from a larger textual environment that essentially distorts who he is. In addition, the narrative range is now extraordinarily compact, a function of subtraction rather than addition: the core is the event of redemption against the forces that would refuse it, at its center the savior figure of Christ against a demiurgic figure cast as an enemy of a redeemable humanity.

In his post-Enlightenment context, Shelley is engaged in a kind of book-keeping as to what might be useful and instructive in a Christianity that, according to him, has essentially refuted itself in its history of violence and grievous lack of humanity. In terms of content, only the figure of Christ or Jesus is salvageable, although this figure seems sufficiently plastic to proceed under different names. The entire history of Christianity, its dogmas, creeds, and moral laws can be dispatched with the prince of the world who promotes them. Prometheus stands for Jesus; Jesus stands for Prometheus. Both are figures of the sublime and each in turn can be assumed under the figure of the sublime poet.

Shelley’s tracts then are entirely consistent with the condemnations and avowals expressed in Prometheus Unbound and help us understand that, for Shelley, Jesus stands in judgment against historical Christianity and its incorrigible addiction to its Jewish roots. This allows, maybe even encourages, a change of name. Perhaps one best understands Prometheus Unbound by thinking of it as a site of christening or rechristening: Jesus enters the precincts of the holy when named Prometheus. Now, it is almost impossible to read the specific religious inclination of Prometheus Unbound without recurring to Milton in general and Paradise Lost in particular.

It is easy to imagine Milton as a Promethean and now Christ-like figure, who promotes liberty over tyranny. Indeed, this is the image of Milton with which just about all the English Romantics work. Indeed, it is by recurring to this figuration that a Romantic can with a good conscience read Milton against himself. Blake was being typical rather than exceptional when he said that Milton belonged to the devil’s party. This Romantic reversal of the express theological preferences of Paradise Lost is justified on the grounds that the glorious Lucifer’s objections to the biblical God seem at the very least to be in part persuasive and entirely consistent with Milton’s own radical politics. Similar to what one finds in Paradise Lost, with Lucifer, the sublimity of Prometheus is sustained by means of diction as well as reference. The major difference is that, if there is a progression in the character of Prometheus, it is towards a more realized self, whereas in the case of Milton’s Lucifer, the glory burns out as Lucifer decays into the parody of himself as Satan. In Prometheus Unbound, it is Jupiter or Yahweh/Jehovah who is a satanic or “malignant spirit”; he is the one who flames out.

One of the more interesting connections between Milton and Shelley concerns the deployment of apocalyptic imagery. In literary criticism, wonderful work has been done with regard to the way the book of Revelation influences Paradise Lost and provides it with its depth architecture. Yet, as also has been noted, Paradise Lost is a text without Christ, and thus a text without the Lamb. Not so with Prometheus Unbound. It is worth recalling that for Shelley the book of Revelation was the most inspiring and important text in the Bible. For someone who has an axe to grind on religiously sponsored violence, this preference likely will come across as counterintuitive.

Not only is this text firmly in the world of Jewish apocalyptic, but it might easily be thought to be in that tradition of Jewish apocalyptic (Enoch, Ezra) that figures violence and fantasizes about revenge. Indeed, this is often how the text has functioned in the Christian community, and thus functioned as a major embarrassment—if not an outright scandal. Yet this is not the way that Shelley reads the text. Revelation is the text of the counter-mimetic Lamb, that is, the Lamb that brings an end to violence rather than perpetuating and recycling it. In Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus is quintessentially the figure of the Lamb at the foundation of the world. He is the principle of love and reconciliation between the divine and human spheres, between human beings, and between human beings and the natural world.

The task of the drama is to name and to an extent perform this reconciliation symbolized by the infant child in the Chariot (Ezekiel 6), perhaps one of the most powerful images of the sublime in the Bible. The reconciliation between the Bride and the Lamb in Revelation is now also the union of heaven and earth, whose description in Act 4 brings the verse play to its gloriously joyous end. The language provides the clue to the apocalyptic substance and reinforces it. Prometheus Unbound is full of the language of seeing and vision that is necessarily sudden, of premonitions of ends and the seeing of ends, and of copious and luxurious doxologies. To affirm the presence of apocalyptic is not to deny that a considerable number of the dramatis personae are Greek figures and Shelley avails throughout the thought of Plato, and especially the Symposium and Phaedrus as these texts were filtered through more nearly theurgic forms of Neoplatonism that recognized attuned selves to have access to the invisible world and to participate in it. It can fairly be said that Neoplatonism and its commitment to an elevating form of immanence functions in Prometheus Unbound as more than a mere vehicle to apocalyptic message. Perhaps one can think of Shelley’s Neoplatonic habits as aesthetically inflecting the apocalyptic vision of salvation at the core of a verse play that emerges as a challenge to the biblical text and a rival to the way in which the biblical text sees divinity and forms selves and communities.

Coda: A Defense of Poetry and Discursive Substitution

One could think of the finale to Prometheus Unbound as the celebration of the experience of the beauty of the world and the grandness of the selves who can see and speak this world. One could say it outlines what replaces the displaced biblical God and insinuates how a non-legalistic visionary discourse can function to give order as well as freedom, serve as the ground of action, and help shape meaningful and tolerable lives. In these respects, Prometheus Unbound essentially performs what A Defense of Poetry proclaims, shows that it says. What about the proclamation and the saying?

Shelley’s apology for poetry supposes poetry’s marginal status in a world deranged by determinate aims and determinate goods, and presumes that the one thing impossible is that poetry can be justified according to a utilitarian calculus. Yet, poetry has a purpose beyond the subtle pleasure of language; it has a kind of utility beyond utility in that it is in a privileged position to repair the subject damaged by an instrumental view of reason and foster relations between persons that conduce towards the formation of community in the absence of confessional forms of Christianity providing the glue. Poetry, in both its creation and its reception, engages imagination that is as expansive as reason is narrow, as synthetic as reason is analytic, and as integrating of the self and the social whole as reason alienates and scatters. This is the epistemological side of the argument—although not without an ethical inflection—that is typical of much of Romantic poetry—and brilliantly presented by Shelley himself in such poems as Mount Blanc and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.

A Defense, however, is interested in making much broader claims, which at once require the retrieval of Christianity and its substitution. The author of The Necessity of Atheism, the writer of Prometheus Unbound, does not think that historical and confessional forms of Christianity are retrievable in the modern period. The Enlightenment critique of Christianity as obscurantist, inhumane, and pledged to violence is justified; there is no going back. Still, this leaves modern culture with the problem of social fragmentation and inner alienation. However distorted religion has turned out to be historically, one glimpses even in its manifold distortions a sense of wholeness absent in means-end logic coming into its own in the modern world in the forms of science and technology. For Shelley, to validate the Christian religion on its own terms would be at best a form of nostalgia, at worst a form of the grossest capitulation.

In the end what is truly valuable about religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is the way it intimates and participates in the original language of mankind. Of course, the claim made by Shelley is not simply historical; he is in fact convinced that metaphor and story remain the bases of language even in the modern period: thus, poetry even now is primordial language. A measure of anxiety, however, is indicated when Shelley attempts to provide some indication of what texts and who makes it into the canon understood to be the conveyer across history of primordial language that stands out from and essential judges all the fallen forms of language, religious, philosophical, political, and aesthetic.

When it comes to epic poetry, Shelley hallows the triad of Homer, Dante, and Milton. Yet the grounds on which religious poets such as Dante and Milton become rivets in the canon necessarily have to be other than religious substance. Otherwise, this would indicate a tolerance of didacticism that would be destructive to the creative and experimental nature of genuine poetry. When it comes to drama Shelley is satisfied with Romantic commonplaces of the superiority of Greek drama and Shakespeare over Latin and other vernacular forms. It is not a little interesting, however, especially given Balthasar’s valorization of the Spanish Baroque, that Shelley is so dismissive of the candidacy of Calderon, the author of La vida es Sueno. This author is too indebted to traditional Catholic beliefs to merit inclusion.

All of this is mere backdrop to the substitution of religion (Christianity) by poetry called for by Shelley because of the overlapping function of mediating wholeness and preparing for the sublime moment in which the self reaches the heights and depths that justify human existence. Poetry is the realized promise of religion; indeed poetry is what is truly religious about religions that, historically, are infected with ideology and moralism invidious to human wellbeing. The poet is the true prophet, not in the vulgar sense of predicting the future, but of providing a critique of the ideological undergirding of society and its practices and offering a hopeful vision of an alternative form of individual and communal life that removes the perceptual barrier between the natural and the supernatural and the human and the divine. Not just prophet, the poet is also priest. It is the poet who espies the spiritual in the natural and who is able to capture the pulsations of the invisible in the visible in symbolic language. Such language is necessarily sacramental. In A Defense, we are dealing with a generalized view of the symbolic and sacramental character of nature and history rather than merely with the words of institution at the Eucharist. Yeats and the Joyce of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reanimate as well as annotate this aspect of Shelley.

The poet thus plays the role of mediator and in this sense plays a role similar to Christ. Shelley effects a movement from a restricted economy in which Christ is a unique figure about whom extraordinary metaphysical claims are made, to a general economy of what we might call Christic function which devolves in turn to a mediatorial representative function. With respect to the latter, the literary figure of Prometheus can be substituted for Christ since essentially he plays the same mediatorial function, even if in fact throughout Western history the figure of Christ has proved to be extraordinarily socially generative. As human autonomy begins to take root in the modern world, Shelley is convinced that Christianity’s time is up. It can only add to the damage it has already inflicted on a nervous, addled, and broken humanity, and going forward it can only double down on its genius for distortion, repression, and oppression.

Replacing the authority of religion with the authority of poetry or literature in general necessarily involves dealing with the Bible, which in the Christian tradition is held to be incommensurable, whether the language of inspiration is to the fore or not. In a Protestant, or even post-Protestant, context the biblical text poses a larger challenge than the theological tradition to the attempt to find other sources of authority, since in part or in whole the theological tradition can be dismissed as doctrinaire and accused of serving special interests. Here Shelley follows the lead of Blake and other Romantics, who in turn followed the lead of Bishop Louth, in thinking of the Bible as literature, or more specifically the Bible as offering a trove of the linguistic sublime unmatched anywhere in the literary tradition and superior even to the Greek literary achievement.

The biblical sublime also has a literary tradition and, for Shelley, this tradition finds its plenary exemplar in Milton. The Milton vouchsafed is not, however, the Milton who advertises in the proem to Book 1 of Paradise Lost that the aim of his epic, which rivals of epics of Homer and Virgil, is that of demonstrating the ways of God to men. Rather, it is the Milton who yields to the other side, the Milton who gives us the figure of Lucifer (the Son of Light) who fights against the creator God whom he accuses of being despotic. Lucifer is the biblical sublime; he interprets Christ as much as—if not more than—Christ interprets him; and he interprets Prometheus in the modern age on the threshold of a saving metamorphosis of human beings and the transformation of individual and social conditions, as well as inner psychic makeup.

Concluding Reflections

Shelley is a representative Romantic figure in that in much of his writing, but especially the high-flown magniloquent style he adopts in Prometheus Unbound. Romanticism connotes far more than an important change in literary style, and even more than a turn to or even installation of “expression” that shifts the operative vocabulary for designating the artist from talent to genius. In fact, Romanticism is far more consequential, far more theological, and far more dangerously antinomian than we usually give it credit. Given his commitment to Enlightenment critique of Christianity proffered by the likes of Joseph Priestly and at the same time his anxieties about the prospects of reason and technology replacing religion that even at its worst managed to intimate wholeness and find a place for affection, Shelley’s question was whether literature in general and poetry in particular might prove to be not only therapeutic to a wounded mankind, but specify the conditions for individual and collective wholeness.

In an agitated modernity looking for guidance, the burning issue was whether the struggle for authority between discourses was necessarily endless, or whether poetic discourse could or should lay claim as the heir to Christianity, but precisely as the illegitimate heir whose vocation was to send it to its grave. Enlightenment critique had undermined the value system of Christianity, but there still was the looming authority of the biblical text, with its oftentimes sublime style, and its major characters, above all Yahweh and Christ, intervening in history and providing directives for human beings, overburdened, hapless, small, and afraid. For Shelley, however, ultimately the biblical text spoke against itself in the laws and rules promulgated by Yahweh, as well as his unaccountable behavior. Christ was not so much his Son as his contrary, the human who is more divine than the divine itself.

Thus, the prospect that the structural difference between these two major figures can and should be remapped into the agon between Prometheus and Zeus/Jupiter and in due course leave behind the name of Jesus. Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound is to mine a Lacanian phrase, dead without knowing it. In Prometheus Unbound Shelley lays bare the circumstances in which Jupiter/Yahweh realizes that this is so. All that was required to accelerate the process was for Prometheus to exit the scene of reaction formation and to cease to care about revenge or even justice. Once that happened, Prometheus is free of mimesis and humanity is complete, and Jupiter revealed to be what he was all along, that is, the vacuity kept in existence by human outrage. Outrage gone, he ceases to exist and human beings are on their own, but all the better for it, now flourishing, loving, uniting, and truly ascending for the first time. For the first time in history, the heavenly Jerusalem is possible.

Featured Image: Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound, 1845.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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