Esoteric meaning in Shelley's metaphysical drama Prometheus Unbound. Part two of an investigation into the concealed wisdom in sublime poetry
The poem we have chosen to analyse in the second of our two articles on the concealed wisdom in sublime poetry is Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. If you have not read the first article, are unfamiliar with the poem or the mythology of Prometheus we encourage you to read our introduction. Only in this way will you reap the full benefits of our investigation. Our text is taken from The complete poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published by Oxford University Press in 1917. This edition contains all Shelley's ascertained poems and fragments of verse that have appeared in print and is the most complete and accurate collection of the Poet's work that we know.
Before we consider Shelley's great lyrical drama, we would like to share an earlier poem of his with you—The Revolt of Islam—published in 1818, two years before Prometheus Unbound. Our reason for doing so is twofold. It sets the scene for the drama to follow and powerfully expresses the mission of the Poet to bring light into this sorely-troubled world. The poem, which is divided into twelve cantos, was originally published under the title Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City. Despite this title, it is not concerned with Islam as a religion, but with the word 'slama', from which it is derived, meaning resignation, surrender, submission and the like. In the sense that Shelley uses it, the Poet revolts against the tyranny of dogma in all its religious and secular forms, not against the religion of Mohammed. As such it is a metaphysical drama of the liberation of the soul from the illusions of this world. What follows is a short extract taken from the dedication to the poem.
The Revolt of Islam
"Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass.
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep. A fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why; until there rose
From the near school-room voices that, alas!
Were but one echo from a world of woes—
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.
"And then I clasped my hands and looked around,
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground—
So without shame I spake: 'I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannize
Without reproach or check.' I then controlled
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.
"And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store
Wrought linkèd armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind;
Thus power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined."
There can be few seekers after Truth who have not felt the sentiments Shelley expresses so poignantly in these moving lines. There comes a moment for us all when we first awaken to a realisation of the shallowness and vanity of this world. Only then does the aching heart seek understanding of the vicissitudes of earthly existence; the rapacious greed of men, the oppression of the weak and helpless, the seeming punishment of the good and the reward of the wicked; the endless disasters, famines, poverty, persecutions, wars and revolutions that follow one another with relentless regularity, and no one and nothing to stop this insane rush towards the utter ruin of all that is good and true and noble in man.
Such feelings are common to many but few turn their eyes heavenwards for answers from Him who is the Source of All-Wisdom and All-Knowledge, whether we call this God, Divine Providence, or any other name men have devised for the Great Mystery which lies concealed behind and beneath that which the senses behold. Shelley hints at this when he refers to that 'secret store' which contains 'forbidden mines of lore', in other words, the occult or hidden knowledge. Forbidden only in the sense that no unworthy person has ever obtained that knowledge, for the golden gates of Truth are forever barred against the selfish or the merely curious, who would not understand it in any case. Instead, they seek for answers in the worldly knowledge of the 'tyrants' the Poet despises, whether they be actual despots wielding political power or merely tyrannical and opinionated 'experts' of all kinds, of which there has never been a shortage at any time on this earth.
Having set the scene and explained Shelley's grand purpose, let us now look at Prometheus Unbound, beginning with Act I in which we behold the Titan bound to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains as morning breaks.
Joseph Severn — Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing Prometheus Unbound —
Oil on canvas, 1845
Shelley's Prometheus Unbound unveiled
"Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O'er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair,—these are mine empire:—
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!"
This opening declamation, wrung from the suffering heart of the Titan chained to the sharp rocks of mortality, reinforces the universal view that Shelley was a notorious apostle of atheism. Nothing could be further from the truth as we discuss in our introduction. Already in these opening lines we find several occult truths. 'Sleep-unsheltered hours' is an apt metaphor for the wheel of rebirth, which consists of 'moments' (incarnations) divided by the 'keen pangs' of death. This is the life of every Prometheus on earth. Darkness—and an occasional, delusive streak of light, called 'Happiness', to make the dark more prominent. This is life on earth, incarnation after incarnation, until each lifetime has filled its purpose in fell sway of torture and pain. This is 'life' on earth, and uncountable MILLIONS assert they are 'too busy' to fight their way to the true, Eternal Light, liberation and Heavenly Bliss!
These are the 'knee-worshipping slaves' who Prometheus beholds with pity, whose reward is self-contempt and broken hearts and barren hopes so long as they are content to remain chained to the rocks of earthy illusions. In vain Prometheus calls upon his Brethren on high but they do not answer, for Earth exclaims: "They dare not." Why are they afraid to answer their Brother in distress? Because the time is not yet; his lessons have not been fully learnt. Yet is he not forsaken, for when Prometheus prays:
"Mother, let not aught
Of that which may be evil pass again
My lips, or those of aught resembling me."
"My wings are folded o'er mine ears:
My wings are crossed o'er mine eyes;
Yet through their silver shade appears,
And through their lulling plumes arise,
A Shape, a throng of sounds;
May it be no ill to thee
O thou of many wounds!
Near whom, for our sweet sister's sake,
Ever thus we watch and wake."
So does the Divine Soul watch and wake over every one of us, though helpless to prevent our agonies caused by our own errors and ignorance. Now the Furies appear and hold unholy Council, plotting how best they might torture Prometheus and hinder his high purpose. But the Titan defies them with the words:
"Pity the self-despising slaves of Heaven,
Not me, within whose mind sits peace serene,
As light in the sun, throned: how vain is talk!
Call up the fiends."
The Furies make reply:
"We are the ministers of pain, and fear,
And disappointment, and mistrust, and hate,
And clinging crime; and as lean dogs pursue
Through wood and lake some struck and sobbing fawn,
We track all things that weep, and bleed, and live,
When the great King betrays them to our will."
"Thou think'st we will live through thee, one by one,
Like animal life, and though we can obscure not
The soul which burns within, that we will dwell
Beside it, like a vain loud multitude
Vexing the self-content of wisest men:
That we will be dread thought beneath thy brain,
And foul desire round thine astonished heart,
And blood within thy labyrinthine veins
Crawling like agony?"
The Titan's reply is most significant. He answers:
"Why, ye are thus now;
Yet am I king over myself, and rule
The torturing and conflicting throngs within,
As Jove rules you when Hell grows mutinous."
Two things are especially noteworthy in these verses. Firstly, the reference to the 'great King' and the 'soul' by the Furies. For know, dear reader that the 'great King' and the beings who serve him that influence the fate and destiny of men, have no power over the Higher self—called the soul by Shelley—unless we ourselves 'betray' our God-given free-will into their hands. Secondly, Prometheus' telling statement that he is 'king' over himself. So are we all 'kings' over the citadel of our senses and the conflicting passions of our lower selves. We may choose to rule or be ruled by them. And as we choose, so shall we reap the rewards of our choices. Hence our continual insistence upon the importance of thinking only good thoughts, dwelling only upon good things and acting only for the best in our many articles. If we do attune with the principles of Life, Light and Love, then the blessed Spirits of Light who now appear in the drama will be swift to comfort and aid us in our times of trial, grief and sorrow.
CHORUS OF SPIRITS:
"From unremembered ages we
Gentle guides and guardians be
Of heaven-oppressed mortality;
And we breathe, and sicken not,
The atmosphere of human thought:
Be it dim, and dank, and gray,
Like a storm-extinguished day,
Travelled o'er by dying gleams;
Be it bright as all between
Cloudless skies and windless streams,
Silent, liquid, and serene;
As the birds within the wind,
As the fish within the wave,
As the thoughts of man's own mind
Float through all above the grave;
We make there our liquid lair,
Voyaging cloudlike and unpent
Through the boundless element:
Thence we bear the prophecy
Which begins and ends in thee!"
Here the Poet describes the good spirits who inhabit the realms surrounding our earth. Whether we call them Devas or Angels matters not at all; each and every one of them is a messenger between God and Man. Were it not for these beings, some of whom have been men and all of whom will one day be men, this world would be wholly deprived of any light, decency or goodness. The next verses tell us about the man-made 'god' of dogmatic religion, which Shelley calls 'Heaven's fell King', 'Demogorgon', the 'supreme Tyrant', 'Jove' and 'Jupiter'. All these titles mean the same and are the same, for they refer in a concealed and symbolic manner to the inferior 'gods' who created man's body, but could not give him a living soul as we discussed in our introduction.
The creation, or rather manifestation of man as a physical, psychical and spiritual being is a deep mystery which cannot be explained in a few words. Nor can any words elucidate the fullness of this mystery which is the secret of the Supreme Deity alone. Suffice it to say that there is a god of the earth—Shelley's 'Jupiter' and 'Demogorgon'—and another unknown god of the Heavens. The two are not enemies, nor is one evil and the other good. To believe this is to fall into the error of dualism. They are simply the opposite sides, or we might say faces, of one Divine Principle. Hence the well-known Kabbalistic motto 'Demon est Deus inversus,' the devil is the reverse of God. In The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky tells us that "this symbolical sentence, in its many sided forms, is certainly most dangerous and iconoclastic. . ."
This is true, for on the one hand it may be made the excuse for all manner of evil thoughts and acts, and on the other is an invitation to adopt the dangerous theological dualism which has given rise to the theological invention of the figure of Satan in all three monotheistic religions, though not in Buddhism. This is significant, for the teachings of the Buddha predate Christianity, Judaism and Islam by many centuries. Does this mean there is more truth in Buddhism than the religions of the 'Book'? We should not like to say though there is certainly less anthropomorphism in its teachings.
In Act II, Asia tackles this very question when she tries (unsuccessfully) to wrest the secret of whether God is good or evil, or both, from Demogorgon. We would add that this is one mystery that cannot be known by any man, however wise, for good and evil in their ultimate significations are beyond the comprehension of men or gods. Nevertheless, Asia tries very hard to discover the answer, as we shall see.
She first asks who made the living world, to which Demogorgon replies: "God." Next she asks: "Who made all that it contains? thought, passion, reason, will, Imagination?" The answer is subtly different: "Almighty God." She then enumerates some of the virtues of mankind and asks who made them. This time Demogorgon answers: "Merciful God." Note the qualifying adjective, for this is a clue to the hidden nature of God and gods and men, who are all threefold: body, mind and spirit. And each principle has its distinct qualities, origins and destiny. Asia now employs her feminine wiles and asks:
"And who made terror, madness, crime, remorse,
Which from the links of the great chain of things,
To every thought within the mind of man
Sway and drag heavily, and each one reels
Under the load towards the pit of death;
Abandoned hope, and love that turns to hate;
And self-contempt, bitterer to drink than blood;
Pain, whose unheeded and familiar speech
Is howling, and keen shrieks, day after day;
And Hell, or the sharp fear of Hell?"
Demogorgon's answer may surprise you. He doesn't say 'God' this time, but simply "He Reigns." Does this enigmatical answer mean that Shelley knew somewhat of the mysteries of God, gods and men we have just discussed? We have no doubt of it, but he either concealed what he knew or was not consciously aware of these truths, which came to him in a moment of supreme inspiration. In any event, not content with Demogorgon's continued prevarication, Asia finally asks:
"Utter his name: a world pining in pain
Asks but his name: curses shall drag him down."
Again Demogorgon solemnly answers: "He Reigns. . ." Asia, sensing Demogorgon's hint that there may be more than one 'god' says: "I feel, I know it: who?" To which the reply is the same: "He Reigns." The significance of these repetitive answers will not be lost on the intuitive reader, who like Asia, may well then ask:
"Who reigns? There was the Heaven and Earth at first,
And Light and Love; then Saturn, from whose throne
Time fell, an envious shadow; such the state
Of the earth's primal spirits beneath his sway,
As the calm joy of flowers and living leaves
Before the wind or sun has withered them
And semivital worms; but he refused
The birthright of their being, knowledge, power,
The skill which wields the elements, the thought
Which pierces this dim universe like light,
Self-empire, and the majesty of love;
For thirst of which they fainted. Then Prometheus
Gave wisdom, which is strength, to Jupiter,
And with this law alone, 'Let man be free,'
Clothed him with the dominion of wide Heaven.
To know nor faith, nor love, nor law, to be
Omnipotent but friendless, is to reign;
And Jove now reigned; for on the race of man
First famine, and then toil, and then disease,
Strife, wounds, and ghastly death unseen before,
Fell; and the unseasonable seasons drove,
With alternating shafts of frost and fire,
Their shelterless, pale tribes to mountain caves;
And in their desert hearts fierce wants he sent,
And mad disquietudes, and shadows idle
Of unreal good, which levied mutual war,
So ruining the lair wherein they raged.
"Prometheus saw, and waked the legioned hopes
Which sleep within folded Elysian flowers,
Nepenthe, Moly, Amaranth, fadeless blooms,
That they might hide with thin and rainbow wings
The shape of Death; and Love he sent to bind
The disunited tendrils of that vine
Which bears the wine of life, the human heart;
And he tamed fire which, like some beast of prey,
Most terrible, but lovely, played beneath
The frown of man; and tortured to his will
Iron and gold, the slaves and signs of power,
And gems and poisons, and all subtlest forms
Hidden beneath the mountains and the waves.
"He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the universe;
And Science struck the thrones of earth and heaven,
Which shook, but fell not; and the harmonious mind
Poured itself forth in all-prophetic song;
And music lifted up the listening spirit
Until it walked, exempt from mortal care,
Godlike, o'er the clear billows of sweet sound
And human hands first mimicked and then mocked,
With moulded limbs more lovely than its own,
The human form, till marble grew divine;
And mothers, gazing, drank the love men see
Reflected in their race, behold, and perish.
He told the hidden power of herbs and springs,
And Disease drank and slept. Death grew like sleep.
He taught the implicated orbits woven
Of the wide-wandering stars; and how the sun
Changes his lair, and by what secret spell
The pale moon is transformed, when her broad eye
Gazes not on the interlunar sea.
"He taught to rule, as life directs the limbs,
The tempest-wingèd chariots of the Ocean,
And the Celt knew the Indian. Cities then
Were built, and through their snow-like columns flowed
The warm winds, and the azure ether shone,
And the blue sea and shadowy hills were seen.
Such, the alleviations of his state,
Prometheus gave to man, for which he hangs
Withering in destined pain; but who rains down
Evil, the immedicable plague, which, while
Man looks on his creation like a god
And sees that it is glorious, drives him on,
The wreck of his own will, the scorn of earth,
The outcast, the abandoned, the alone?
Not Jove: while yet his frown shook heaven ay, when
His adversary from adamantine chains
Cursed him, he trembled like a slave. Declare
Who is his master? Is he too a slave?"
Demogorgon's answer is replete with hidden meaning: "All spirits are enslaved which serve things evil: thou knowest if Jupiter be such or no." Asia, with dogged persistence asks him: "Whom calledst thou God?" The answer would make a Jesuit proud. "I spoke but as ye speak, for Jove (Jupiter) is the supreme of living things." This is most significant for there is a subtle but important difference between 'living things', however 'supreme' and the Divine SOURCE of ALL from which every 'thing' has come into being. Asia senses the deep mystery behind Demogorgon's words which she muses: "So much I asked before, and my heart gave the response thou hast given; and of such truths each to itself must be the oracle."
And so they must. For as we said earlier, the mysteries of Good and Evil, of Freedom and Slavery, and of Being and Non-Being are not easily understood, nor are any of these profound truths what most people think they are. Does this mean that we are forced either to accept the emanation of good and evil from the same source, or to resign ourselves to the absurdity of believing in two eternal Absolutes? Not at all. As Blavatsky tells us in The Secret Doctrine, the French philosopher Pascal settled the difficulty when he said: "Nature has perfections, in order to show that she is the image of God: and defects, in order to show that she is only his image." Interested readers are referred to aforementioned book, Volume I, page 411 for further discussion of this question; we have neither the time nor space to go further into it in this investigation.
Ponder well Asia's speech, for in it lie concealed many occult mysteries. It tells us of the first mindless races of man described in The Secret Doctrine. Of their wanderings, vicissitudes, triumphs and disasters. Of the mystery of the descent of the 'gods' to earth who 'came in unto the daughters of men' as the Bible tells us, who, by infusing a portion of their Heavenly wisdom into brutish, animal man, raised him up from the ignorance in which he had hitherto dwelt. In these verses too lie concealed the mystery of man's dual being, partly cursed by his material nature—his to redeem and perfect if he so wills—and partly blessed by the Higher self—the Prometheus imprisoned in all of us.
Let us now pass on to Act II of this metaphysical drama, in which the Poet describes the glorious light and freedom of the soul in language which has never been equalled.
VOICE in the air, singing:
"Life of Life, thy lips enkindle
With their love the breath between them;
And thy smiles before they dwindle
Make the cold air fire; then screen them
In those looks, where whoso gazes
Faints, entangled in their mazes.
"Child of Light! thy limbs are burning
Through the vest which seems to hide them;
As the radiant lines of morning
Through the clouds, ere they divide them;
And this atmosphere divinest
Shrouds thee wheresoe'er thou shinest.
"Fair are others; none beholds thee,
But thy voice sounds low and tender
Like the fairest, for it folds thee
From the sight, that liquid splendour,
And all feel, yet see thee never,
As I feel now, lost forever!
"Lamp of Earth! where'er thou movest
Its dim shapes are clad with brightness,
And the souls of whom thou lovest
Walk upon the winds with lightness,
Till they fail, as I am failing,
Dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing!"
The next three verses describe the re-union of the human soul (Higher self in our terminology) with the true Soul from which it was seemingly separated during its many incarnations. Now the masquerade of day is done. The earthly play is over and the actor departs to finer climes, never to return to darkling earth again. We find the same Holy Marriage of Heaven and Earth described in the final chapter of The Quest of Ruru by J Michaud PhD, which proves that Shelley was acquainted with the very highest wisdom.
"My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
And thine doth like an angel sit
Beside a helm conducting it,
Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
It seems to float ever, forever,
Upon that many-winding river,
A paradise of wildernesses!
Till, like one in slumber bound,
Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
Into a sea profound of ever-spreading sound.
"Meanwhile thy spirit lifts its pinions
In music's most serene dominions;
Catching the winds that fan that happy heaven.
And we sail on, away, afar,
Without a course, without a star,
But, by the instinct of sweet music driven;
Till through Elysian garden islets
By thee most beautiful of pilots,
Where never mortal pinnace glided,
The boat of my desire is guided;
Realms where the air we breathe is love,
Which in the winds on the waves doth move,
Harmonizing this earth with what we feel above.
"We have passed Age's icy caves,
And Manhood's dark and tossing waves,
And Youth's smooth ocean, smiling to betray;
Beyond the glassy gulfs we flee
Of shadow-peopled Infancy,
Through Death and Birth, to a diviner day;
A paradise of vaulted bowers
Lit by downward-gazing flowers,
And watery paths that wind between
Wildernesses calm and green,
Peopled by shapes too bright to see,
And rest, having beheld; somewhat like thee;
Which walk upon the sea, and chant melodiously!"
No finer nor truer picture of the liberated higher self afloat in the ocean of Divine Light has ever been painted in verse, nor is ever likely to be. The liberated Higher self's body may well be compared with that enchanted boat which drifts upon an opalescent ocean of bliss, dotted with verdant island paradises, caressed by melodious winds that carry the vessel from bliss to enchantment; from glory to effulgence. Nor is there any shortage of concealed truths to be found in these glorious lines. Note the 'shadow-peopled Infancy' through which we all must pass on our long journey from ignorance to knowledge and darkness to Light. Note too the sequence of Death and Birth and not the other way around as we might expect were the Poet simply talking about earthly life, rather than the resurrection of the soul after death when it is released from the prison-house of the body.
It is in just these very subtle ways that occultists and inspired artists of all kinds have always concealed the Ancient Wisdom. It is fitting that we end our meditations upon Shelley's sublime poem with the final verse which sums up the qualities needed by the true Warrior upon the path to the Light:
"To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory."
So ends this peerless metaphysical drama. Shelley beheld Prometheus as the bringer of Light to the lower self and human body. Ensnared he is within the winding, endless, labyrinths of life in this world, so loathsome to those of high descent, so filled with those desperate in evil and full of hate, lightly held in check, transformed into a very cloud of bestiality at times, discharging its collective lightnings, followed by the crash of thunderous war and horror, like echoes from Hell. The gentler ones, who mirror and reflect the God of Light are helpless victims when such outbursts occur, and they are swept away in currents of destruction they cannot stay, despite the truth that deep within they too are gods in the making, destined to be as great as that divine sufferer upon the rock, as you may read in our occult studies course article on evolution.
If you have enjoyed and profited from this investigation, read part one: The Magic of Poetry, in which we investigate the concealed wisdom in the sublime poetry of Omar Khayyám, Shakespeare, Keats, Milton, Spenser and Dante.
© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 5 January 2017. Updated 18 February 2018.