Tag Archives: Kubla Khan

“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 4 – The Sacred Work

PrometheusUnbound

Although I feel as if I could write forever about this play, I will stop at four (a nice symbolic number). In Act IV, there are two passages sung by the Chorus of Spirits which resonated deepest for me on this reading. They are somewhat lengthy, but need to be included in their entirety.

We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk, and obscene, and blind,
Now ’tis an ocean
Of clear emotion,
A heaven of serene and mighty motion

From that deep abyss
Of wonder and bliss,
Whose caverns are crystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!

From the dim recesses
Of woven caresses,
Where lovers catch ye by your loose tresses
From the azure isles,
Where sweet Wisdom smiles,
Delaying your ships with her siren wiles.

From the temples high
Of Man’s ear and eye,
Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy;
From the murmurings
Of the unsealed springs
Where Science bedews her Dædal wings.

Years after years,
Through blood, and tears,
And a thick hell of hatreds, and hopes, and fears;
We waded and flew,
And the islets were few
Where the bud-blighted flowers of happiness grew.

Our feet now, every palm,
Are sandalled with calm,
And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
And, beyond our eyes,
The human love lies
Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

The first thing that struck me about this section were the references to Coleridge’s masterpiece, Kubla Khan. The image of the caverns as “crystal palaces” conjures images of the “caves of ice” in Coleridge’s poem. And of course, the image of Paradise.

Like Coleridge, Shelley is expressing the creative power of the human consciousness, particularly those deeper realms of the subconscious represented by the caverns. All great art is an expression of this deep subconscious. But what Shelley implies, which I think is so poignant, is that it is the emotion of love which allows us to glimpse into the deeper areas of our souls, to “gaze on Paradise,” and thereby create art which captures the true divine essence of our beings.

In the next passage sung by the Chorus of Spirits, Shelley connects the creative power of the human mind with the myth of Prometheus.

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round.

We’ll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize:
Death, Chaos, and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest’s might.

And Earth, Air, and Light,
And the Spirit of Might,
Which drives round the stars in their fiery flight;
And Love, Thought, and Breath,
The powers that quell Death,
Wherever we soar shall assemble beneath.

And our singing shall build
In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

The first thing that struck me about this section is the contrast between what I’ll call the trinity and anti-trinity. While there must always be a balance in nature, and therefore a balance within ourselves, we must turn to the positive trinity if we want to create art that is spiritual and conveys the beauty of the divine. Shelley expresses the trinity that fosters creative expression as “Love, Thought, and Breath,” and the anti-trinity, which clouds the creative ability of humanity, is “Death, Chaos, and Night.”

When Shelley states that “our singing shall build / In the void’s loose field / A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield,” he is asserting that it is through artistic expression, particularly poetry, that humanity will be able to elevate itself to the level of divinity.

Finally, “our work shall be called the Promethean.” Prometheus was the god who defied authority and gave light to humanity. This then becomes the task of the poet. The poet and the artist must challenge the established authority and bring the concepts of love, spirituality, and enlightenment to all humanity. The work of the artist is the work of Prometheus. It is the only through the Love, Thought, and Breath of the poet that our civilization can overcome the powers of Death, Chaos, and Night.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are now inspired to take on the Promethean work.


 

Other Posts on Prometheus Unbound:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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“Lines to a Beautiful Spring in a Village” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Once more, sweet stream! with slow foot wand’ring near,
I bless thy milky waters cold and clear.
Escaped the flashing of the noontide hours,
With one fresh garland of Pierian flowers
(Ere from thy zephyr-haunted brink I turn)
My languid hand shall wreath thy mossy urn.
For not thro’ pathless grove with murmur rude
Then soothest the sad wood-nymph, solitude:
Nor thine unseen in cavern depths to well,
The hermit-fountain of some dripping cell!

Pride of the vale! thy useful streams supply
The scattered cots and peaceful hamlet nigh.
The elfin tribe around thy friendly banks
With infant uproar and soul-soothing pranks,
Released from school, their little hearts at rest,
Launch paper navies on thy waveless breast.
The rustic here at eve with pensive look
Whistling lorn ditties leans upon his crook,
Or starting pauses with hope-mingled dread
To list the much-loved maid’s accustom’d tread:
She, vainly mindful of her dame’s command,
Loiters, the long-filled pitcher in her hand.

Unboastful stream! thy fount with pebbled falls
The faded form of past delight recalls,
What time the morning sun of hope arose,
And all was joy; save when another’s woes
A transient gloom upon my soul imprest,
Like passing clouds impictured on thy breast.
Life’s current then ran sparkling to the noon,
Or silvery stole beneath the pensive moon:
Ah! now it works rude brakes and thorns among,
Or o’er the rough rock bursts and foams along!

Upon first reading of this poem, it appears to be a pastoral work extolling the beauty of a stream as it flows through a small village. Having visited the Lake District of England several times, I can envision the scene that Coleridge is describing. But there are several metaphors in here that lead me to believe that the stream in this poem is really a symbol for poetic inspiration, a flowing stream of consciousness that feeds his psyche with images and emotion from which his poetry springs.

The first clue appears in the second line, where he describes the stream’s water as both milky and clear. We have an oxymoron here. I suspect that he uses the image of milkiness to symbolize the nurturing effect that the stream is having upon him. As a young child being fed milk from his mother’s breast, Coleridge is being fed by his muse and nurturing milk is what causes him to develop as a poet. It also brings clarity of vision, especially his inner vision, hence the stream is also described as clear. Just like in “Kubla Khan,” the poet has drunk the milk of Paradise and received divine inspiration.

The next clue to the poem’s symbolism is the reference to Pierian flowers. This is a mythological reference to the Pierian spring which was in Macedonia and was considered sacred to the Muses. The waters from the Pierian spring were believed to provide poetic inspiration (source: English Romantic Writers – David Perkins). Here, Coleridge is establishing a connection between the stream he sees running through the village and the mythological spring which was associated with the Muses.

The rest of the poem is easy enough to interpret. The stream evokes memories of his past, both joyful and painful. He experiences an array of emotions, all of which are inspiration for his poems.

Personally, I really enjoyed this poem, enough to read it twice before drafting this post. Coleridge was truly an inspired individual and a master of crafting words. Cheers!

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