Linda Lewis. The Promethean Politics of Milton, Blake, and Shelley. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1992. xii + 223 pp. $34.95.
This readable book treats the mythic figures of Prometheus and the Titans as “political icons” in the work of Aeschylus, Dante, Milton, Blake, and Shelley. Binding Stuart Curran’s discrepant versions of Prometheus (in Shelley’s Annus Mirabilis  and “The Political Prometheus” [Studies in Romanticism 1986]), Lewis pursues a “diachronic study” of Promethean myth, tracking its modifications and new meanings, but “only inasmuch as these meanings apply to the study of power and powerlessness” (11). With something of Northrop Frye’s allusive range—minus his insights into genre—she also begin page 89 | adeptly relates literary and pictorial “iconography” in a peppy, upbeat style. Despite its two major drawbacks—ubiquitous use of the term “power” and conventional treatment of Blake—the book provides a serviceable road map for exploring the politically charged revisionism at the core of Prometheus-Titan mythology, focusing especially on Milton’s influence on Blake and Shelley.
Chapter 1 offers an interesting overview of the cultural and political context of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. Following George Thomson and Anthony Podlecki in regarding Aeschylus as a “moderate democrat,” Lewis insightfully explains how Aeschylus, hater of tyrants, inherited two distinct Promethean figures: the creative champion and the overweening malefactor of mankind. While Aeschylus draws on several sources, Hesiod’s Theogony remains the primary extant text, the one that sets the stage for interpretations of Prometheus as a benevolent soul who led a tragically misguided attack on the established authority of the Olympian regime.
Aeschylus’s shrewd changes in the received myth reveal, says Lewis, “how carefully he set out to exalt his Titan rebel,” turning Hesiod’s failed usurper into a “political radical” (21). Two key inventions indicate Aeschylus’s strategy. First, he portrays both Io and Prometheus as “victims of Zeus’s abuse of power,” turning Zeus into the antagonist. By giving Zeus the traits of tyrannical earthly sovereigns, Prometheus Bound illustrates the poet’s “revisionist view of monarch and rebel” (22). Second, Aeschylus separates the binding of Prometheus and the sending of the eagle to eat his liver, which in Hesiod are two parts of one verdict for the theft of fire. In Prometheus Bound, the binding alone is punishment for the crime; the eagle, on the other hand, is sent by Zeus because Prometheus will not recant his deed or reveal the secret of Zeus’s ultimate downfall. This “defiance” characterizes Promethean heroism and underlies the titan’s rebel legacy. The latter part of the chapter deals with Titan iconography. Although they do not make out as well as Prometheus, the Titans occupy a central place in the myth, since their “titanic nature” is feared as a threat to religious and social order. The value of the opening chapter emerges from Lewis’s demonstration that Dante and later poets inherit a complex, even contradictory, Promethean-Titan mythology.
The second background chapter, “Titanism and Dantesque Revolt,” expands discussion of the Titans by introducing the crucial Christian component that informs later treatments of the myth. By Dante’s age, Christian commentaries associate the Titans with the rebel angels of biblical lore. Where Aeschylus allegedly seeks to restore the Titans to favor with Olympus, Dante and medieval allegorists consign the Titans to hell as “political traitors.” Prometheus in turn takes on a divided role as “type” of Christ and as rebel to divine authority, a duality that penetrates to the heart of Dante’s own predicament in mid-thirteenth-century Florence.
Suffering the ignominy of exile, Dante was forced to wrestle with the vexed issue of rebellion in God’s empire. Lewis writes some effective prose explaining how Dante carefully avoids the charge of Titanic disobedience. By opposing the Pope in the Guelph and Ghibbeline struggles, Dante incurs the charge of treason; he counters that, since monarchy and empire are in fact ideal forms that can be perverted by tyranny and corruption, he has the right to exercise the independent “intellectual powers” willed to him by God. Setting up such a standard, Lewis writes, “Dante is able to separate his own behavior from Titanism” (53-54). Yet failing to integrate his intellect with the “Titanic” rebelliousness of his temperament, Dante projects Prometheus into hell with the Titans, leaving it to Milton to divine the true Christian aspect of Aeschylus’s hero.
The three major chapters that follow explore this mythic-political nexus in terms of the dual Prometheus: the light-giver and bringer of hope, associated with Christ; and the thief-rebel and bringer of despair, associated with Satan. This “iconography” is a bit simplistic and reductive, as we will see in Lewis’s discussion of Blake, but it helps Lewis to draw analogies between Milton, Blake, and Shelley on the nature of political tyranny and rebellion.
In the Milton chapter Lewis proclaims that in Paradise Lost the poet explores “the whole interrelated pattern of myth” sketched in the opening chapters, ranging from the “titanic seizure and division of power” to the “search for recapturing lost Eden” (56). A special feature of the chapter is Lewis’s engagement with the critical issue of Satan’s heroic status, situated in the context of Milton’s political activity. Like Dante, she argues, Milton must prove that his rebellion against authority—regicide—is not disobedience to God, as royalists claim, but resistance to tyranny: “He accomplishes this,” Lewis asserts, “through his double use of the Prometheus myth” (61). Lewis shows that after Satan’s degeneration following the scene on Mount Niphates in Book IV—when he announces “Evil be thou my Good”—Milton increasingly dissociates Prometheus and Satan until Satan’s heroism is exposed as a hoax, begin page 90 | a mockery of the Son of God’s genuine Prometheanism. “Christ as word and wisdom of God,” Lewis states, “usurps the positive aspects of the Prometheus myth,” negating the “phony Prometheanism of Satan” (98).
Lewis concludes that Milton’s revisioning of Promethean myth, coupled with his conception of Christian liberty, underpins his critique of Satan as a tyrant. For Milton, Christian liberty is based on God’s love and man’s free will; Satan’s rebellion, rooted in envy, force, and deceit, violates this fundamental conception. Departing from Calvin’s strict separation of civil and religious concerns, Milton reasons that since political power derives from the people, not the king, citizens have the right of independence or even rebellion in the exercise of their liberty. He further denies that kings rule in the image of God, arguing in particular that since Charles I failed to govern by love and right reason, the real image of Godly virtue in politics, Christians were duty-bound to depose him. Sadly, for Milton, the radical Puritans also fail to live up to his principles. Aiming his rebellion at the earthly not the heavenly sovereign, Milton places Charles and both his “Titanic” defenders and opponents, the irrational sectaries, in Satan’s camp, while reserving a place for Prometheus in God’s kingdom. God is the only true monarch because his rule, in contrast to all earthly kingdoms, is manifest in the Son’s “loving Prometheanism.”
Lewis applies Milton’s Promethean design to Blake’s work, claiming that Blake’s “whole constellation of meaning turns on the bad (Orc) and good (Los) versions of Prometheus.” Lewis evinces a broad familiarity with Blake’s myth from America to Jerusalem and seriously grapples with Blake’s critique of Paradise Lost. She contends that in the epic prophecies Blake “is writing against the tradition that, for him, culminates in Paradise Lost: the deceiver Prometheus/Satan unmasked and punished and Prometheus/Christ seated at the right hand of the Judeo-Christian God, reason personified” (121). Blake corrects Milton’s errors by recasting the Promethean complex: God is made a tyrant, the “Satanic fire-thief becomes the saving Messiah,” and Orc and Urizen are fused and neutralized in the apocalypse. Orc and Urizen are both tyrants because, as the romantic ideology has it, revolution turns into its opposite when defiance is not transcended by imagination and love. Blake’s seminal revision exchanges the bad for the good Prometheus, Orc for Los, who rejects political for “universal values and ideas” and thus transforms political rebellion into imaginative art (149-50).
The problem with this assessment is that it reiterates what an influential faction of Blake scholars have been saying for decades: that the Promethean Orc is not liberatory but tyrannical and that Los is called in to bring about the mental apocalypse. This view possesses a general validity, although to substantiate it Lewis makes a number of questionable moves.
First, by declaring that Blake is more faithful than Milton to the Aeschylean model, Lewis suggests a classical paradigm for Blake’s myth. She speaks to the issue on page 118, saying that despite his adverse prefatory comments in Milton, Blake “borrows freely” from classical sources: however, she argues that to be true to his “revisionist view of reality” Blake “must abandon the Greek and Roman system” (123). She then drops the point, which is unfortunate, since the collision of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian systems produces much of the creative tension in Blake’s epics. Second, Lewis shuns analysis of the formal ties between Blake’s Lambeth and epic prophecies, skirting discussion of Blake’s narrative complexity and making somewhat reductive generalizations about his characters. Urizen and Orc are bad; Los is good. Los’s self-sacrifice sets in motion the redemptive power of the epic prophecies, the “Lamb in Luvahs robes,” but the intricate relations of Orc, Luvah, Los, and the Lamb are left unexamined. Third, while she illuminates the “progress” of Blake’s myth from the rebellion of Orc to the creativity of Los, Lewis idealizes Blake’s politics. That is, Los represents the light-bearing Promethean gospel of imaginative apocalypse in which “political power and powerlessness become irrelevant issues” (141). Again, many readers will not quarrel with this position, but they may wonder whether it advances discussion.
The problem is carried over into the chapter on Shelley, in which Blake plays a pivotal role. Lewis is instructive on the political and literary models that Shelley draws on for his portrait of Prometheus. But she tends to eviscerate a realistic conception of power politics, as exposed most starkly in the semantic proliferation of the term “power” in the opening pages of the chapter.
Lewis begins with the romantic Satanist charge against Shelley, countering that to equate Prometheus and Milton’s Satan is distorted because Prometheus incorporates aspects of Adam and Christ as well as Satan. Shelley adapts the traditional myth as “subtext” but revises it to convey his political meaning. He reforms Prometheus, making him a prototype of passive forgiveness and love while defining Jupiter as both a tyrant and a rebel. Prometheus, in fact, is no rebel at all: “he is innocent of Titanism . . . and the potentiality for violence that Hesiod, Dante, and Milton condemn” (160). Further, Shelley undermines Milton’s dualistic universe, combining Prometheus and Jupiter as component parts of the soul rather than separating them, as Milton does with his Promethean Messiah and Satan (185). And he performs this feat by trumping Milton with Rousseau: the figure of Demogorgon, “grim power of the people,” Lewis claims, embodies Rousseau’s concept of “sovereignty,” the “vital force” that, united with the “mind of man (Prometheus), can remove despots from power” (187). These creative revisions turn the Aeschylean into a distinctly romantic hero: Shelley’s Prometheus unbinds himself from the begin page 91 | manacles of defiance and ushers in a “system never before tried, one based on pure love and pure idea” (181).
Despite her breadth and erudition, Lewis’s account of Shelleyan politics and power verges on the metaphysical. Ignoring the more seasoned work of Kenneth Neill Cameron and Carl Woodring, and avoiding Shelley’s overtly political poems, Lewis ensnares herself in the trap of myth criticism, concluding that “political man” and “Promethean man” are ultimately distinct (190-91). Also, by eschewing “specific political allegory” for “broader notions of power” (12), Lewis’s intertextual analyses beg some fundamental questions. For example, how does “democracy” in late eighteenth-century London differ from its appearance in fifth-century BC Athens? What role does the French Revolution, or Enlightenment philosophy, play in Blake and Shelley’s effort to “negate the God of Christianity”? How does the “post-Christian” cosmology that Shelley inherits stem from Blake’s unorthodox yet decidedly Christian cosmos? Finally, how is the romantics’ treatment of Prometheanism an advance on Milton when they too opt for a “return to Eden” solution to political power and rebellion? These questions require a more substantial historical theory than the archetypal method affords, one that can account for disparate social and political factors in the reproduction of a myth. While Lewis undoubtedly contributes to an understanding of the Promethean-Titan complex in western culture, her contribution neglects historical differences for mythological continuity. Succeeding in her quest for mythic coherence, Lewis uncritically ratifies the stubborn idealism currently under seige in Blake studies and literary theory.