On This Day in 1820: P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is Published

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The BARS ‘On This Day’ Blog series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

Today, Amanda Blake Davis discusses Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound volume.

On This Day in 1820: P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems is published (14 August)

by Dr Amanda Blake Davis (University of Sheffield)

Today marks the bicentenary of the publication of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems.[1] The volume contains, in addition to the lyrical drama, the following shorter poems: ‘The Sensitive Plant’, ‘A Vision of the Sea’, ‘Ode to Heaven’, ‘An Exhortation’, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, ‘An Ode, written October, 1819, before the Spaniards had recovered their Liberty’, ‘The Cloud’, ‘To a Skylark’, and ‘Ode to Liberty’.

Textual Composition and Publication

Prometheus Unbound is the apotheosis of Shelley’s poetic achievements, lauded by the poet as ‘the most perfect of my productions’.[2] The poem’s period of textual composition runs from August 1818 in Bagni di Lucca to December 1819 in Florence, carrying through the Shelleys’ travels to Livorno, Venice, Este, Naples, and Rome in between. Shelley is famously depicted at work on the poem in Joseph Severn’s posthumous portrait, in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, described by the poet in March 1819 as ‘a scene by which expression is overpowered: which words cannot convey’.[3] It was during this period in Rome, Mary Shelley writes, ‘during a bright and beautiful spring’ that Shelley ‘gave up his whole time to the composition’ of Prometheus Unbound.[4]

Shelley Composing Prometheus Unbound in the Baths of Caracalla, Joseph Severn (1845), on long-term loan to The Wordsworth Trust.

Shelley declared Prometheus Unbound completed—in three acts—in April 1819, describing it as ‘a drama, with characters & a mechanism of a kind yet unattempted’.[5] But work continued and he later added a fourth act, finally finishing the poem in Florence in December 1819. Despite desiring Prometheus Unbound be swiftly printed, delays and miscommunication impeded its production. After much anticipation, and ‘two little papers of corrections & additions’ sent from Pisa in May,[6] the poem was published in August 1820. Although being ‘most beautifully printed’,[7] it contained numerous errors that pained and distressed Shelley. In her 1839 edition of Shelley’s poetry, Mary revised Prometheus Unbound ‘with exceptional care’,[8] but the loss of many of Shelley’s original drafts for the poem and the press transcript has caused issues to remain for modern editors.[9]

A fair copy page from Act 4 of Prometheus Unbound in The Shelley-Godwin Archive, MS. Shelley e.1, 2r. Retrieved from The Shelley-Godwin Archive. Neil Fraistat describes the fair copy contained in notebooks e.1-e.3 as ‘the latest extant holograph version of Prometheus Unbound, providing a focal point for understanding the vexed textual situation of the poem’, BSM IX, p. lxiii.

Inspiration and Influence

Shelley seems to have been engaged in mental composition of Prometheus Unbound even earlier than August 1818. The Shelleys’ record of their route through the Alps to Italy in March 1818 includes a scene ‘like that described in the Prometheus of Aeschylus –Vast rifts & caverns in the granite precipices – wintry mountains with ice & snow above – the loud sounds of unseen waters within the caverns, & walls of topling rocks only to be scaled as he describes, by the winged chariot of the Ocean Nymphs’.[10] Taking its cue from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Shelley’s lyrical drama expands to include a range of literary influences and allusions—including Herodotus, Plato, Boccaccio, and Milton—while harmonising periods of Wordsworthian blank verse with distinctly Shelleyan lyrical effusions. 

Prometheus and the Oceanid Nymphs (from Prometheus Bound), 12 January 1795, After John Flaxman, RA.

‘[W]hile at the Bagni di Lucca’, Mary writes, ‘[Shelley] translated Plato’s Symposium. But, though he diversified his studies, his thoughts centred in the Prometheus’.[11] Mary’s editorial note emphasises the intellectual overlap between Shelley’s mental composition of Prometheus Unbound and his translation of the Symposium. Indebted to his readings and translation of the Symposium, love becomes a force for revolution in Prometheus Unbound. Love, the topic of Plato’s dialogue, is a ‘great Daemon’,[12] mediating between what is mortal and what is divine. Prometheus Unbound’s form of a ‘lyrical drama’ chimes with Shelley’s estimation of the Symposium as a ‘drama (for [so] the lively distinction of characters and the various and well-wrought circumstances of the story almost entitle it to be called)’ with his description of Plato’s ‘rare union of close and subtle logic, with the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendour and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions’.[13] At its lyrical heights, Prometheus Unbound echoes this description of Plato in verse, where Asia floats ‘Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound’, ‘In music’s most serene dominions’ (II. 84 and 86).[14] Recalling the mediating Daemon of the Symposium, Asia is guided to:

Realms where the air we breathe is love,                                           

Which in the winds and on the waves doth move,

Harmonizing this earth with what we feel above.

(II. 95-97)

A direct allusion to the Symposium occurs during the Spirits’ song in Act I, where Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill note that the Sixth Spirit’s song ‘[d]raws on Plato’s Symposium…in which Love is described as “the most delicate of all things, who touches lightly with his feet only the softest parts of those things which are softest of all”’.[15]

 Ah, sister! Desolation is a delicate thing:

It walks not on the earth, it floats not on the air,

But treads with lulling footstep, and fans with silent wing

The tender hopes which in their hearts the best and gentlest bear

(I. 772-75)

‘This is one of the most remarkable examples of the direct influence of Shelley’s reading and translation of Plato’, Timothy Webb affirms.[16] Earlier, the Fifth Spirit’s song also draws on the Symposium, from the same speech by Agathon. The Fifth Spirit describes Love as ‘Scattering the liquid joy of life from his ambrosial tresses: / His footsteps paved the world with light’ (I. 767-68). In Shelley’s translation of Agathon’s speech, Love is described as ‘moist and liquid’ and possessing a ‘liquid and flowing symmetry’ of form;[17] additionally, he is:

the ornament and governor of all things human and divine; the best, the loveliest; in whose footsteps every one ought to follow, celebrating him excellently in song, and bearing each his part in that divinest harmony which Love sings to all things which live and are, soothing the troubled minds of Gods and men.[18]

Agathon’s description of the fluidity and footsteps of Love bears a strong resemblance to the form of Love recalled by the Fifth Spirit. The allusion also recurs during the scene of amorous intermingling in Act II where Panthea communicates her dream of Prometheus to Asia. Within the dream, Prometheus’ form addresses Panthea as: ‘Sister of her whose footsteps pave the world / With loveliness’ (II. 1.68-69). Later, Panthea describes Prometheus’ voice to Asia as ‘Like footsteps of a far melody’ (II. 1.89). Shelley’s translation of the Symposium—itself a harmonising of Shelley’s thoughts and words with Plato’s own—plays a key role in inspiring Prometheus Unbound, wherein Panthea’s dream becomes an embodiment of Agathon’s description of Love, with Asia, a goddess of love, ‘pav[ing] the world’ with her light footsteps, and Prometheus following her in harmonious song.  

Amanda Blake Davis recently received her PhD from the University of Sheffield for her thesis, Shelley and Androgyny, which analyses P. B. Shelley’s uses of androgyny alongside his readings and translations of Plato. She is a Postgraduate Representative for BARS.

[1] For the dating of the volume’s publication, see Neil Fraistat’s discussion of an advertisement for Prometheus Unbound in The Examiner on 13 August 1820 in BSM IX: The Prometheus Unbound Notebooks: A Facsimile of Bodleian MSS. Shelley e.1, e.2, and e.3, ed. by Neil Fraistat (New York, NY: Garland, 1991), p. lxxviii.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), II, p. 127. Hereafter abbreviated as PBS Letters.

[3] PBS Letters, II, p. 85.

[4] Mary Shelley, Note on Prometheus Unbound in The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Mary Shelley, 4 vols (London: Edward Moxon, 1839), II, p. 132.

[5] PBS Letters, II, p. 94.

[6] PBS Letters, II, p. 201.

[7] PBS Letters, II, p. 246.

[8] The Poems of Shelley, ed. by Jack Donovan, Cian Duffy, Kelvin Everest, and Michael Rossington, founding ed. Geoffrey Matthews, 5 vols to date (New York, NY and London: Routledge, 1989-), II, p. 463. Hereafter abbreviated as Longman.

[9] See Longman, II, pp. 462-65 for a detailed account of the poem’s publication history and editorial issues. See also BSM IX.

[10] Mary Shelley, The Journals of Mary Shelley, ed. by Paula K. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), I, p. 200. The Longman editors note that this entry is in P. B. Shelley’s hand, Longman, II, p. 456.

[11] Mary Shelley, Note on Prometheus Unbound in The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, II, p. 132.

[12] Plato, Symposium, trans. by Percy Bysshe Shelley as The Banquet, quoted in The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1949), p. 441

[13] Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to The Banquet quoted in James A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1949), pp. 403 and 402.

[14] Shelley’s poetry is quoted from Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; repr. 2009).

[15] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; repr. 2009), p. 747n.

[16] Timothy Webb, Shelley: A Voice Not Understood (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), p. 117.

[17] The Banquet, p. 435.

[18] The Banquet, p. 437.