Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 239-259
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Love Against Revenge in Shelley's Prometheus
THE MODERNIST PREJUDICE AGAINST SHELLEY has almost disappeared, but when I talk to friends I discover that few have ever cared for his poetry, and if they go back now to read him sometimes they reinvent the prejudice. This resistance is not indifference. Shelley can disturb one's self-knowledge and even one's idea of what self-knowledge may be; and in reaction against the unheard-of demand he routinely makes, one is apt to dismiss him as extravagant. Much of Shelley continues to be outside my range, and occasionally I feel him pulling farther away, as if his starting point were my outermost limit. The fact is shaming enough to prompt a decorous defensiveness. Yet in many of his most far-fetched poems, it seems to me, he justifies his procedures as one looks for a great artist to do. The main reason we find his poetry difficult is its difficulty.
Shelley was a member of the first generation to accept the French Revolution as an accomplished change in the world. It was, he thought, a change for the better; he considered himself a revolutionary, though the Terror and the Napoleonic wars left their chastening mark on him. A sentence from the Preface to The Revolt of Islam, of 1817, states most clearly an intuition he held as deeply a year later when he wrote the first act of Prometheus Unbound: "There is a reflux in the tide of human things which bears the shipwrecked hopes of men into a secure haven after the storms are past." 1 Humanity, by the adaptive work of thoughts and feelings, will prove to have readied itself for any great mutation that occurs in society; so that the violence of a revolution is likely to be [End Page 239] extrinsic and unnecessary. The reasons for the assurance implicit here are brought forward in the two great prose works of his last years, A Defence of Poetry and A Philosophical View of Reform. By the time any revolution happens in life, Shelley believes, it has already happened in language, with causes that are as visible as the difference between a living and a dead metaphor. Poetry—by which he means anything imaginative and man-made whose good survives the defects of its maker—"redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man." He thinks that poets (including some lawgivers and social critics) are "the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." The last phrase, from the closing paragraph of A Defence of Poetry, seemed to Shelley important enough to be used also in A Philosophical View of Reform. For him, the principle of reform in language is identical with the principle of reform in thought and action.
His doctrine belongs to the high Enlightenment, and he had accepted, more complacently, I believe, in his poetry than in his prose, the idea of the poet or thinker or man-of-mind as a bringer of light to humanity. That ideal was strong in Wordsworth too, with his conception of the poet as "the rock of defence for human nature," but in Shelley it exists in tension with another belief: that the instinct for acting and suffering at the bidding of a nature "not our own" may become as general as the appeal of the revolution now accomplished. Only in having a language for thoughts and feelings does the poet differ from other men and women. This, for Shelley, is a difference not (as it was for Wordsworth) between a speaker and a listener, but rather like that between a translator and a reader. If the poet were unique in the way a revolutionary leader is unique, he would be the protagonist of a fable of revenge that needs likewise its antagonist. Our thoughts about change go along these lines because they tend to be thoughts about contest. But in his later poetry, and in Prometheus Unbound above all, Shelley was looking at...