Shelley opens Prometheus Unbound with a “Preface.” He explains the Greek origins of the Prometheus story and highlights the fact that classical authors often adapted material, which had been used many times before by poets and playwrights, and that they often made changes to these stories in their own versions to better suit their aims in retelling the story. Shelley notes that in the version of the Prometheus story which he has adapted, by the classical author Aeschylus, Prometheus reaches a compromise with Jupiter, the tyrant ruler of the world. In his own version of Prometheus Unbound however, Shelley states that he has avoided “reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind” to better suit the thematic aims of his “fable.”
Shelley uses his Preface to acknowledge Aeschylus’s version of the Prometheus story, which he has adapted for his poem. He notes that classical authors often adapted the old stories, showing that there is a precedent for this in the European literary tradition and to justify himself doing so in Prometheus Unbound. Shelley was a Romantic poet, and the Romantics prized originality highly, so it makes sense that Shelley feels the need to explain why he has not created an original story. By calling his work a “fable,” Shelley suggests that Prometheus Unbound has a clear message that he wants his readers to understand. This message has to do with uncompromising resistance to oppression, which is why Shelley chooses to deviate from Aeschylus’s version of the story.
Shelley compares his hero, Prometheus, with the biblical character of Satan, whom he also calls “the Hero of Paradise Lost,” which is an epic poem by John Milton. He says that Prometheus is like Satan, but that Prometheus is a better and “more poetical” character than Satan because he is free from “the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement” which Shelley feels corrupt Satan’s personality. Prometheus, in contrast to Satan, is a moral character who has “the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.”
Paradise Lost, an epic poem by John Milton written in 1667, heavily influenced the Romantic movement and Romantic poets like Shelley. The Romantics felt that Milton’s personification of Satan in Paradise Lost framed Satan as the hero of the story because he is determined to provide humans with knowledge against the wishes of God, who is an omnipotent authority. However, while the Romantics admired Satan’s heroic qualities in Milton’s poem, Shelley recognizes that Satan is an evil character because he is envious and vengeful towards mankind and does not offer them knowledge to help them but, instead, to simply spite God. Prometheus, on the other hand, is well-meaning towards humanity and is free from the evil qualities associated with Satan.
Shelley explains that he composed his poem in Italy surrounded by beautiful landscapes, and that he was inspired by the arrival of spring in “that divinest climate.” He notes that the imagery in his poem is inspired by the internal workings of the “human mind,” which he feels is uncommon in modern poetry but is prevalent in the work of earlier, dramatic writers such as Shakespeare or Dante. He feels he is most inspired by classical, Greek writers who were able to “awaken” any type of emotion in their audience. However, he notes that people cannot help being influenced by the contemporary work they read and the age in which they live, and that while many writers may be able to imitate classical form, they may lack the talent, or the “lightning of their own mind[s],” to bring these subjects to life.
Shelley feels that beautiful landscapes provide poets with artistic inspiration. However, Shelley is also interested in representing human emotion, which he feels is best conveyed through imagery inspired by nature. The Romantics felt that pre-Enlightenment writers, like Shakespeare and Dante, were superior to Enlightenment and contemporary authors. The Romantics felt that the Enlightenment period produced bad poetry because it encouraged a rational, unemotional approach to life and preferred empirical observation of the natural world to artistic appreciation of it. Shelley uses a metaphor from nature, the “lightning of their own mind[s],” to demonstrate how effective nature is in portraying emotional experience.
Shelley notes that the great writers of the “golden age of our literature” were inspired by the “awakening of the public mind,” and that the “great writers” of his own period are also the “forerunners of some unimagined change” in society.
The “golden age” of literature that Shelley refers to is the Renaissance, which was a period of scientific, philosophical, and artistic development spanning from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century in Europe. Shelley feels that great literature is revolutionary because it rebels against established order in society and inspires real social change. He feels that society is changing around him and that “great writers” of his own age will document and encourage these changes.
Shelley describes poetry as a “mimetic art,” or an art which relies on imitation. He notes that poets are inspired by their own minds, by beautiful scenes from nature, and from beautiful descriptions of nature that they read in the work of other poets. “Every man’s mind” is “a mirror upon which all forms are reflected” and, therefore, poetical minds are inspired by everything that they see and read. There are similarities between classical authors such as Aeschylus and Hesiod, and if their beautiful works are “the result of imitation,” then Shelley is happy to admit that he has imitated while writing Prometheus Unbound.
Shelley observes that poets are inspired by everything they see and read, and that men’s minds are like “mirrors.” This suggests that Shelley is trying to justify his choice to reuse an old story, rather than invent a new one. He strengthens his justification by noting that even writers whom he greatly admires, like Aeschylus and Hesiod, were influenced by what they heard and experienced; since he is aspiring to be like them, this justifies his recycling of the Prometheus story.
Shelley confesses that he has a “passion for reforming the world” but that he abhors “didactic poetry” and wishes to inspire his readers with visions of “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence.” He feels that “until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope” then moral lessons are “like seeds cast upon the highway of life” and will be “trampled into the dust.”
Although Shelley wishes to convey a message of social change to the reader, he does not wish his poem to be “didactic,” or purely read for educational purposes. Instead, he wishes his poem to be read artistically and with an appreciation for beautiful language. He feels that people will be unable to comprehend moral teaching until they can appreciate artistic and natural beauty, so it is noble to be a poet and to inspire these emotions in people.
Shelley feels compelled to write poetry and believes that people who are driven to produce art have a duty to use their abilities. If his efforts are unsuccessful, he implores the reader to “let the punishment of an unaccomplished purpose be sufficient” and not to draw attention to his poor attempt in case this makes his work famous “which might otherwise have been unknown.”
Romantic poets, like Shelley, viewed art as extremely socially important and felt that it was an act of social duty to produce art if one had an inclination or a talent towards it. They believed that art and poetry could reform society.