‘Prometheus Unbound’ – Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

Percy Bysshe
Shelley’s long poem, Prometheus Unbound, was nominated by
Jamie Callison, a sixth form student attending the Sutton Trust Summer
School in Cambridge, who admires the beauty and power of the language
and imagery, the grandness of the ideas, and the integration of language
and form.

The poem describes
the freeing from captivity of Prometheus, the Greek god who had been
punished by Jupiter for giving the gift of fire to mankind: Jupiter
had chained Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle every day to peck
out his heart.

This dialogue,
from Act 3 of the poem, describes the fall of Jupiter, immediately
before Prometheus’s release from captivity.


He fell, thou sayest, beneath his conqueror’s frown?


Ay, when the strife was ended which made dim

The orb I rule, and shook the solid stars,

The terrors of his eye illumined heaven

With sanguine light, through the thick ragged skirts

Of the victorious darkness, as he fell;

Like the last glare of day’s red agony,

Which, from a rent among the fiery clouds,

Burns far along the tempest-wrinkled deep.


He sunk to the abyss? to the dark void?


An eagle so caught in some bursting cloud

On Caucasus, his thunder-baffled wings

Entangled in the whirlwind, and his eyes,

Which gazed on the undazzling sun, now blinded

By the white lightning, while the ponderous hail

Beats on his struggling form, which sinks at length

Prone, and the aerial ice clings over it.


Henceforth the fields of Heaven-reflecting sea

Which are my realm, will heave, unstained with blood,

Beneath the uplifting winds, like plains of corn

Swayed by the summer air; my streams will flow

Round many-peopled continents, and round

Fortunate isles; and from their glassy thrones

Blue Proteus and his humid nymphs shall mark

The shadow of fair ships, as mortals see

The floating bark of the light-laden moon

With that white star, its sightless pilot’s crest,

Borne down the rapid sunset’s ebbing sea;

Tracking their path no more by blood and groans,

And desolation, and the mingled voice

Of slavery and command; but by the light

Of wave-reflected flowers, and floating odors,

And music soft, and mild, free, gentle voices,

That sweetest music, such as spirits love.


And I shall gaze not on the deeds which make

My mind obscure with sorrow, as eclipse

Darkens the sphere I guide. But list, I hear

The small, clear, silver lute of the young Spirit

That sits i’ the morning star.


Thou must away;

Thy steeds will pause at even, till when farewell.

The loud deep calls me home even now to feed it

With azure calm out of the emerald urns

Which stand forever full beside my throne.

Behold the Nereids under the green sea,

Their wavering limbs borne on the windlike stream,

Their white arms lifted o’er their streaming hair,

With garlands pied and starry sea-flower crowns,

Hastening to grace their mighty sister’s joy.
[A sound of waves is heard.]
It is the unpastured sea hungering for calm.

Peace, monster; I come now. Farewell.



Further Reading

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 and died in 1822. He was expelled from Oxford University for publishing an atheistical pamphlet, and throughout his life was a passionate campaigner for radical causes. Prometheus Unbound was published in 1821.

In Prometheus Unbound, we can see a number of subjects that Shelley explores in other poems. He was a campaigner for political freedom and liberty, a subject that he raises in his topical poem, The Mask of Anarchy. His interest in the function of poetry in the world is explored in his essay, ‘A Defence of Poetry’. also in poetry’s role in the world. He was also very interested in Greek and Latin authors and myths, and references to them appear throughout his works.

If you like Prometheus Unbound, there are a number of other things that you might like to read. John Keats was a contemporary of Shelley’s, and the two poets admired one another: Shelley wrote an elegy called ‘Adonais’ on Keats’s death. He was also very close to Byron, and the brother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, a novel that was written while Byron and the Shelleys were on holiday together. You might also be interested in John Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost, an epic poem describing the rebellion and fall of Satan: many scholars have felt that Paradise Lost was the most important influence on Shelley when he was writing Prometheus Unbound.

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