What was the significance of Satan and Prometheus to Romantic period writers?

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Percy Bysshe Shelley is a key Romantic figure who wrote about Satan and Prometheus in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” and his dramatic poem “Prometheus Unbound." The Romantics admired the heroism of both Satan and Prometheus for their rebelliousness and the courage of their convictions.

John Milton, in Paradise Lost (published 1667), was both criticized and praised for his vision of Satan, and he is often credited for creating a modern version of Satan as an anti-hero. In his own day, this was not always well received. For Shelley, Milton’s interpretation of Satan was a revelation, as he discusses in “A Defense of Poetry.” The characteristics Shelley sees in Satan are precisely those of the Romantic hero.

Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in “Paradise Lost.” It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil . . . Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture.

In “Prometheus Bound,” the hero, Prometheus, has done exactly that—persevered in the excellent purpose of getting fire and sharing it with humans—and has suffered the adversity and torture of having his guts ripped open daily. He is, as well, far superior to Jupiter, his God, and possesses admirable energy and magnificence. Risking all for one’s principles and suffering for others in a noble cause were two key elements of the Romantic hero.

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During the Romantic period, the concept of man as a godlike-being began to develop in literature. During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, European intellectuals had questioned the validity of Christianity and religion in general. Though Romanticism is often seen as a reaction against the rational thinking of the Enlightenment (also often called the Age of Reason), it can also be viewed as an outgrowth, or an extension, of it, especially of its secular thinking and values. With secularism—the disbelief in organized religion—came this concept of man himself as divine, without the limitations and strictures religion had imposed upon him.

In scripture and mythology, Satan and Prometheus are two figures engaging in rebellion against God or the gods: Satan by thinking himself capable of usurping God's place as master of the universe, and Prometheus by "stealing" fire from the gods and giving it to man. For the Romantic poets, these were acts of heroism, because they were a defiance of the higher power or powers in which the nineteenth-century mind no longer believed. In the English-speaking world, Milton's Paradise Lost, at least since Dryden's time over a century earlier, had been regarded as an epic poem equalling or surpassing the works of Homer and Virgil. Paradoxically, though the Romantics continued to revere Milton, the conservative religious message of Paradise Lost was now regarded as obsolete. Poets such as Blake and Shelley thus began to see Satan as the actual "hero" of Milton's epic. Satan, to them and others, was a surrogate, or emblem, for man's unlimited, unfettered spirit as well as their own rejection of religion. Prometheus was regarded similarly, and Shelley in Prometheus Unbound celebrated the mythical figure's defiance of authority and essentially reversed the message contained in the myth regarding the punishment of that defiance.

Both Satan and Prometheus became prototypes of a new kind of hero in literature, one who strives for the impossible or devotes himself to an individuslistic, human cause in opposition to God and to the traditional constraints imposed upon man. Examples of this new heroic figure are Goethe's Faust, Byron's Childe Harold and Manfred, Mozart's Don Juan (as interpreted by the Romantic generation), Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, and many others.

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