Shelley viewed nature as a source of poetic and spiritual inspiration, a fact reflected in his extensive use of nature imagery in Prometheus Unbound. The Romantics felt that there was a natural sympathy between emotions, imagination, and the natural world and that natural images were the most intuitive metaphors for describing emotional and psychological states. In his Preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley notes that he has composed his poem “upon the mountain ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, among the flowery glades, and thickets of odoriferous blossoming trees.” The inspiration for the poem comes from the arrival of spring in this beautiful landscape and this corresponds with the poem’s themes of “new life” and hope for mankind. Shelley continues such imagery throughout the poem, ultimately suggesting the dependence of humanity on nature and the importance of seeking reverence for rather than dominance over the natural world.
Shelley uses nature imagery and metaphors to convey imaginative sensation to the reader throughout Prometheus Unbound. In Act 1, when Prometheus hears the dead speaking but cannot understand their words, he describes the whispering sound as “tingling” through his frame the way lightening “tingles, hovering ere it strikes.” This suggests that Prometheus is on the brink of understanding the prophecy about himself but that he has not quite been struck by its true meaning. This conveys a recognisable feeling to the reader—when one can almost understand something, but full understanding is just out of reach—through a phenomenon from nature. Humans are also depicted as deeply connected with nature in Prometheus Unbound. Describing the birth of Prometheus—as one of the Titans from classical mythology, the Earth is Prometheus’s mother—the Earth says that “joy ran, as blood within a living frame” when Prometheus, the only hope for humanity, was born. This connects the human body to the planet itself and suggests a correspondence between the physical and emotional health of people and the health of nature and the Earth. The Earth is also enslaved by Jupiter, alongside humanity, describing herself as “linked to some wheel of pain” by the tyrant, which refers to the Earth’s fixed route round the sun. This furthers the metaphor of a connection between humans and their environment.
Although nature is framed as a force which corresponds with and should exist in harmony with humanity in Prometheus Unbound, Jupiter’s tyranny over the Earth has broken this bond between humans and nature and, as a result of this, humanity either struggles with its environment or seeks to destroy, consume, or control it. While Prometheus is chained (representing for Shelley the current state of humanity when he is writing) humanity is out of sync with nature and, therefore, nature presents a threat to humanity as well as a source of inspiration and joy. Since Prometheus has been chained and Jupiter has ruled the Earth, plague and famine have ravaged humanity and plants, which should nourish humans, have been mixed with “poisonous weeds.”
The potential for both beauty and destruction in nature (while Prometheus is chained) is encapsulated in the Romantic idea of the Sublime, in which nature is both an awe-inspiring and an incomprehensible force. A common Romantic metaphor for this is the image of shipwrecks which Shelly uses several times throughout Prometheus Unbound, as the image of a shipwreck symbolizes man’s helplessness in the face of a natural force like the sea. Shelley’s descriptions of “cities sinking in howling ruin” also suggest his hostility towards industrialization and urban expansion. Throughout the nineteenth century, rural agriculture declined consistently while the industrial revolution drove people to the cities where poverty and overcrowding led to disease and terrible living conditions in slums, as well as a diminishing of the surrounding countryside. Shelley’s poem suggests that humans must accept that they will never be able to fully comprehend or control nature and that their arrogance in trying, through technological advancement and industrialization, is a threat to the natural world and to their own existence within it.
Hope to bridge the gap between man and nature comes in the form of poetry, love, and the imagination in Prometheus Unbound. This union is finally achieved when Prometheus is unbound and the Spirit of the Earth runs free again, filling people with wonder at the beauty of the natural world. When Prometheus is visited by the good spirits, one tells him that she has travelled to him from a poet’s lips while he was composing an imaginative work and was immersed in nature. This suggests that the composition of poetry is a virtuous act that advances human society, especially when it is inspired by and draws the reader’s attention to the natural world. Prometheus’s release from the mountain and the fall of Jupiter represent the return of man’s communion with nature and suggests that, from that moment on, humanity will be able to flourish in nature and will no longer struggle with famine, disease, or death, which Prometheus has banished.
The personification of the sun (Apollo) and the Ocean notably rejoice in this renewed harmony between man and nature, delighted that there will be “no more” “blood and groans.” This implies that humanity and nature are profoundly linked and that, when humans mistreat each other, they also mistreat the natural world with which they are joined. This parallels the Christian idea that hurting one person means hurting all humanity, but Shelley extends this idea to the natural world as well. Through his personification of nature in Prometheus Unbound Shelley demonstrates that respect for nature and a better understanding of the natural world, rather than an over-reliance on industrial technology, will renew humanity’s bond with its environment and remind people that, to an extent, nature and humanity rely on each other to survive.
Nature, Imagination, and the Sublime ThemeTracker
Nature, Imagination, and the Sublime Quotes in Prometheus Unbound
And yet to me welcome is Day and Night,
Whether one breaks the hoar frost of the morn,
Or starry, dim, and slow, the other climbs
The leaden-coloured East; for then they lead
Their wingless, crawling Hours, one among whom
—As some dark Priest hales the reluctant victim—
Shall drag thee, cruel King, to kiss the blood
From these pale feet, which then might trample thee
If they disdained not such a prostrate slave.—
Disdain? Ah no! I pity thee.—What Ruin
Will hunt thee undefended through the wide Heaven!
How will thy soul, cloven to its depth with terror,
Gape like a Hell within! I speak in grief
Not exultation, for I hate no more
As then, ere misery made me wise.—The Curse
Once breathed on thee I would recall. […]
[…] Ye Mountains,
Whose many-voiced Echoes, through the mist
Of cataracts, flung the thunder of that spell!
Ye icy Springs, stagnant with wrinkling frost,
Which vibrated to hear me, and then crept
Shuddering through India! Thou serenest Air,
Through which the Sun walks burning without beams!
And ye swift Whirlwinds, who on poised wings
Hung mute and moveless o’er yon hushed abyss,
As thunder louder than your own made rock
The orbed world! If then my words had power
—Though I am changed so that aught evil wish
Is dead within, although no memory be
Of what is hate—let them not lose it now!
What was that curse? for ye all heard me speak.
When thou didst from her bosom, like a cloud
Of glory, arise, a spirit of keen joy!
And at thy voice her pining sons uplifted
Their prostrate brows from the polluting dust
And our almighty Tyrant with fierce dread
Grew pale—until his thunder chained thee here.—
Then—see those million worlds which burn and roll
Around us: their inhabitants beheld
My sphered light wane in wide Heaven; the sea
Was lifted by strange tempest, and new fire
From earthquake-rifted mountains of bright snow
Shook its portentous hair beneath Heaven’s frown;
Lightning and Inundation vexed the plains;
Blue thistles bloomed in cities; foodless toads
Within voluptuous chambers panting crawled;
When Plague had fallen on man and beast and worm,
And Famine,—and black blight on herb and tree,
And in the corn and vines and meadow-grass
Teemed ineradicable poisonous weeds
Draining their growth, for my wan breast was dry
With grief,—and the thin air, my breath, was stained
With the contagion of a mother’s hate
Breathed on her child’s destroyer […]
[…] Nature’s sacred watchwords—they
Were borne aloft in bright emblazonry.
The nations thronged around, and cried aloud
As with one voice, “Truth, liberty and love!”
Suddenly fierce confusion fell from Heaven
Among them—there was strife, deceit and fear;
Tyrants rushed in, and did divide the spoil.
This was the shadow of the truth I saw.
If such live thus, have others other lives
Under pink blossoms or within the bells
Of meadow flowers, or folded violets deep,
Or on their dying odors, when they die,
Or in the sunlight of the sphered dew?
Aye, many more, which we may well divine.
But should we stay to speak, noontide would come,
And thwart Silenus find his goats undrawn
And grudge to sing those wise and lovely songs
Of fate and chance and God, and Chaos old.
And love, and the chained Titan's woeful doom
And how he shall be loosed, and make the Earth
One brotherhood—delightful strains which cheer
Our solitary twilights, and which charm
To silence the unenvying nightingales.
[…] Hark! the rushing snow!
The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
Flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds
As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
Is loosened, and the nations echo round
Shaken to their roots: as do the mountains now.
First famine and then toil and then disease,
Strife, wounds, and ghastly death unseen before,
Fell; and the unseasonable seasons drove,
With alternating shafts of frost and fire,
Their shelterless, pale tribes to mountain caves;
And in their desert hearts fierce wants he sent
And mad disquietudes, and shadows idle
Of unreal good, which levied mutual war,
So ruining the lair w herein they raged.
Prometheus saw, and waked the legioned hopes
Which sleep within folded Elysian flowers,
Nepenthe, Moly, Amaranth, fadeless bloom
That they might hide with thin and rainbow wings
The shape of Death; and Love he sent to bind
The disunited tendrils of that vine
Which bears the wine of life, the hum an heart;
And he tamed fire, which like some beast of prey
Most terrible, but lovely, played beneath
The frown of man […]
Such the alleviations of his state
Prometheus gave to man—for which he hangs
Withering in destined pain—but who rains down
Evil, the immedicable plague, which while
Man looks on his creation like a God
And sees that it is glorious, drives him on,
The wreck of his own will, the scorn of Earth,
The outcast, the abandoned, the alone?—
Not Jove: while yet his frown shook Heaven, aye when
His adversary' from adamantine' chains
Cursed him, he trembled like a slave. Declare
Who is his master? Is he too a slave?
Rejoice! henceforth I am omnipotent.
All else has been subdued to me—alone
The soul of man, like unextinguished fire,
Yet burns towards Heaven with fierce reproach and doubt
And lamentation and reluctant prayer,
Hurling up insurrection, which might make
Our antique empire insecure, though built
On eldest faith, and Hell's coeval, fear.
And though my curses through the pendulous air
Like snow on herbless peaks, fall flake by flake
And cling to it—though under my wrath’s night
It climb the crags of life, step after step,
Which wound it, as ice wounds unsandalled feet,
It yet remains supreme o'er misery,
Aspiring . . . unrepressed; yet soon to fall: