Prometheus Unbound glorifies the rebellious impulse toward freedom in the human spirit. The poem dramatizes and explains Percy Bysshe Shelley’s philosophical and religious understanding, which was individual. Prometheus Unbound is Shelley’s credo; the impulse to freedom and to rebel against authoritarian orthodoxy is one he valued highly. Shelley’s beliefs typify Romanticism. As did such Romantic poets as William Blake, Lord Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shelley wrote of the freedom of the individual and of the primacy of the imagination. Institutions, social structures, and established belief were, in these poets’ views, suspect. For them, evil lay in limitation imposed on the human spirit, which, when free, was good.
Shelley and other Romantic poets also at times did more than write about their beliefs. They were activists in the causes of liberty and reform of their times. Shelley, for example, favored vegetarianism, freedom for Ireland and for slaves, the abolition of monarchy and marriage, the overthrow of established religion, extension of voting rights, empowerment of the working class, and equality for women. He advocated these ideas in his writings, which in his time was a provocative and courageous act. While a student at Oxford he collaborated on a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism (1811) and sent copies to all the college authorities and every bishop in the Church of England. He was expelled from the university as a result.
Prometheus Unbound is a play in verse in which the poetry takes precedence over the drama. This work could not easily be brought to the stage; the reader may best realize the drama of the conflicts of gods and allegorical figures with the imagination. From Prometheus’s opening oration to the paeanlike ending, the reader is carried along with the delicacy, vivacity, thunder, or choric effect of the lines. The spacelessness of the work is its virtue, and its muted, ethereal effect is lyrically matchless. This work illustrates how well Shelley fashions not only his own invented lyric patterns but also the Pindaric ode, the fourteen-syllable line, the Spenserian stanza, couplets, and infinite variations of the Greek choral effects. Every conceivable meter can be detected; the inversions, the intricately developed rhythm patterns are numerous. A “lyrical flowering” seems an appropriate phrase for the entire work, perhaps Shelley’s greatest.
Although Shelley wrote poetry that was intended to generate controversy, and did, his poetry is unmatched in its civilized, urbane, and elegant spirit. His work is still capable of offending those whose political or religious convictions are conservative. Perhaps for this reason, his verse is sometimes wrongly described as being strident...
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