“Prometheus”: The Human Struggle
Prometheus Bound Sketch, By Howard David Johnson 1978
In the early nineteenth century, the Promethean figure became a central theme/ideal in English literature. Poets, like Lord George Gordon Byron, began writing in the revolutionary spirit of the times and using Prometheus as a symbol of protest against religion, morality, limitations to human endeavors, prejudice, and the abuse of power (Mayerson 46). “Prometheus” is one such literary work, published July 1816. Byron is using the character Prometheus to create a poem that becomes a model for rebellion.
“Prometheus” begins with the apostrophized appellation Titan and a question, “What was thy pity’s recompense?” (5). In other words, what was it that the Titan, Prometheus, gained in return for giving his attention to human suffering, “…things that gods despise” (4). The answer is the silent suffering of the rock, the vulture and the chain, for eternity. As punishment for his aid to humans, Prometheus must take on human qualities and suffering similar to that which the gods previously inflicted upon man (Dennis 145). Byron goes on to say later in the poem that the “precepts” (the principles of a course of action or conduct) turn Prometheus into a symbol/model for Man. The Titan’s response to his condition, his “precepts,”--Prometheus is silent throughout his suffering. His will not speak “…but in loneliness,” and even then, he is jealous should the sky listen in, nor will he utter a sigh for fear of the echo.
Why does Byron silence his Titan so? In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, the sentenced Titan is reprimanded by the Chorus about his far from silent speech (Dennis 145-146), “You are free of tongue, too free” (182). Ian Dennis, author of “Making Death a Victory,” believes that rebellion against power (Zeus) can be thought, but not effected (146). Prometheus’ easy tongue is an expression of his powerless situation. For example, Prometheus says, “I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do what he likes…” (938-939). Dennis goes on to say that these are futile words that are for the Chorus’s sake, and they show the speaker’s helpless submission to his oppressor, Zeus (146). In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, the active power lies in the unseen character Zeus. This is very different from Byron’s telling of the myth.
Byron’s “Prometheus”, written some two thousand years after Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, is a response from his age where power is not just rivalrous, but reciprocal (Dennis 146). The Titan has power of his own over the “Thunderer” (Zeus). That power lies in the way the Titan demonstrates his indifference to the threats of the other. The “Thunderer” takes “pleasure” in creating things that he may destroy/annihilate, but he refuses the Titan the “boon” (request) to die; there-in lies his weakness. He leaves himself open for Prometheus’ defiant refusal, and refuse he does.
Prometheus’ weapon of choice is “Silence,” and in that silence is his foe’s sentence. We see the refusal to reveal the prophecy of Zeus’s downfall from power in lines 29-31: The fate thou didst so well foresee, / But would not to appease him tell; / And in thy Silence was his Sentence. The refusal of the prophesy has power of its own as well. Dennis suggests that this power comes from the absence of expression that persuades the “Thunderer” of its accuracy (147). One could also say that this power may come from the fact that Zeus is all-knowing, yet he cannot see his own fate while Prometheus can. At the end of the second stanza of the poem, we see Zeus’s anxiety and dread for fear his “Sentence” may be real. It is a reciprocation of power. And in his Soul, a vain repentance, / And evil dread so ill dissembled, / That in his hand the lightnings trembled (32-34). We as readers get the imagery of the hand of Zeus holding a lightning bolt ‘trembling’ as his victims would once have done, which shows the exchange of power from Zeus to Prometheus.
The final stanza of the poem brings the whole ordeal to a human level. Byron wants readers to see Prometheus as he does; as one with an “impenetrable Spirit” born of patience and endurance. Prometheus now has what his oppressor lacks. Zeus, whose soul has felt vain repentance, is no longer invulnerable (Dennis 148). It was the “Thunderer’s” own actions in refusing the Titan the “boon to die” and the “wretched gift” bequeathed him, that proved victorious for his victim. Prometheus triumphs through suffering.
Lord Byron writes that we can learn a “Mighty lesson” from Prometheus. He is a sign and symbol and Man can learn from his actions and conduct as described in lines 44-46. A Mighty lesson we inherit: / Thou art a symbol and a sign / To Mortals of their fate and force.
The “boon” to Man is that if we model ourselves after Prometheus’ “precepts,” we may achieve triumph trough our suffering (Dennis 148). The poem goes on to describe the similarities between the Titan and man in lines 47-50. Man is part divine, like Prometheus, in the fact that they were both created by a divinity, and something of that resides within them. Man also has a form of foresight, like the Titan, that allows us to “foresee” our death, which eventually will come because of our mortality. Like thee, Man is part divine, / A troubled stream from a pure source; / And Man in portions can foresee / His own funereal destiny (47-50). These lines also give a description of one of the gifts Prometheus is said to have given Man, the gift of partial prophesy. The poem focuses on this gift, in the form of foreseeing our death and suffering, and the model for Man’s actions rather than focusing on Prometheus’ more well-known gift of fire. Byron is trying to bring this Promethean myth to a more human level and to focus on the human struggle, rather than the god-like gift of fire that is trivial in comparison.
A final lesson we are to learn from Prometheus is to “Make Death a Victory.” Prometheus teaches us not to want life, and thus to want less than our opponent(s) (Dennis 149). In the poem, we see this when Prometheus remains silent in his suffering while his opponent, Thunderer, demands his prophesy (to save his life). Prometheus wants less than his oppressor does. Prometheus can only demonstrate the power of death through his eternal suffering because of his immortality, and by such actions, he can pass to man the benefits of suffering. This is his message, and the message Lord Byron wants to pass on; the final lines of the poem: And a firm will, a deep sense, / Which even in torture can decry / Its own concenter’d recompense, / Triumphant where it dares defy, / And making Death a Victory (55-59).
Lord Byron’s “Prometheus” presents a different perspective than the ancient myths, with a purpose for rebellion. Take to heart the message: The Promethean Spirit, a symbol of strength for struggling humanity, a struggle worth the price of DEATH!
Grene, David and Richmond Lattimore eds. The Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus II. 2 nd Ed. “Prometheus Bound”. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Dennis, Ian. “Making Death a Victory”: Victimhood and Power in Byron’s “Prometheus” and the “Prisoner of Chillon”. Keats-Shelley Journal. L (2001): 144-150.
Mayerson, Philip. Classical Mythology in Literature, Art, and Music. Xerox Corporation, 1971.
Background credit -- Prometheus and Zeus' Attacking Eagle (1989) Artist: Gabor Peterdi (Jane Haslem Gallery -- see directly below)
Last Updated 10/23/2005