Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound was completed, so far as the essential part of it is concerned, on April 6, 1819—that is, an even century ago—Shelley being then in Rome, and writing much of the great drama amid the ruins of the baths of Caracalla. Prometheus Unbound is not only Shelley’s greatest work—a judgment in which the best critics of pure literature concur; it is not only greater than any other work belonging to one of the greatest and richest periods of English poetry—and this means the best poetry of the modern world; it is, in a certain deep and true sense, the greatest poem, the greatest drama in the English tongue; greater than anything since Dante, and to be compared, in all literature since Homer’s day and in the Western world, with two poems only: the Divina Commedia of Dante and the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus.
These three poems stand at the head of the three great poetical literatures of Europe—Greece, Italy and England—because each one of them adequately embodies the greatest theme: the tremendous theme of the Great Initiation. Spiritual life, in the widest sense, is the real theme of poetry; though there abound poems—the psychic counterfeit of real poetry—which know nothing of spiritual life, unless it be that side, vital and real, but too often unconscious, which is expressed in beauty and the music and magic of words; for the true music of verse is always an expression—even though unconscious—of the inner music; an echo, even though distant, of the music of the spheres, “Still quiring to the young-eyed Cherubim.”
If Shakespeare, from whom this verse is taken, cannot be counted the equal of Dante. of Æschylus, of the author of Prometheus Unbound, it is because, in his dramas there is so little revelation of spiritual life; so slight a realization of it in his many-sided insight into man that the immortal is almost unknown to him. He has written comedies full of mirth and charm; in how many of them do his persons find the soul through joy? He has written tragedies full of terrible beauty; in how many of them do the victims of tragedy find the soul through pain? It is true that a Master has cited Hamlet as expressing one side of the disciple’s life; but it is the side, not of redemption, but of failure; a despondent weakness, like that of Arjuna; but a weakness over which there was no victory, like Arjuna’s victory.
And it is because Prometheus Unbound reveals not only the life of the disciple, but the trial and triumph of the Master, and this with the utmost truth and beauty, that it seems right to hold this poem not only the greatest in a great poetic epoch but the greatest in all modern poetry since the Paradiso of Dante. And in the whole cycle of Western poetry we shall find nothing to rank with these two, until we come back to Æschylus.
The Prometheus Bound of Æschylus has come to us complete, perfect in all its austere beauty. Of his Prometheus Unbound, we have only fragments. This moved Shelley, who was saturated with the spirit of Æschylus, to take in hand to write, not a conjectural completion of the lost work of the great dramatist of Athens, but rather a complement, a fulfilment, of Æschylus’ Prometheus Bound; the completed revelation of the spiritual cycle of which Prometheus Bound is a part.
The drama of Æschylus, in the very spirit of Æschylus, and with all his majesty and music, is summed up by Shelley in the speech with which Prometheus opens the new drama:
Monarch of Gods and Dremons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair-these are mine empire!
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O, Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!
Before we go further, let us try to fix the Persons of this great Drama of Initiation, with their significance. Who is Prometheus, thus nailed, a sacrificial victim, to the rock, doomed to suffer “pain, pain ever, for ever”? Who is the Zeus of Æschylus, the Jupiter of Shelley, “Monarch of Gods and Dremons, and all Spirits but One,” by whose decree the sacrificial victim was thus offered?
We may best seek the answer from Æschylus, whose symbolism—taken, we may believe, from the Mysteries which Hellas received from Mother Egypt—Shelley has used with such magnificent truth. Zeus is “the Son of Chronos,” who is the Son of Ouranos; that is, the Son of Heaven. But Chronos, identified with Saturn, is Time, and Time, for the mystic, for the Master, is, and must always be “the Great Delusion.” These three Gods: Ouranos, Time, Zeus, reigned successively over the world of gods and men; Chronos dethroning Ouranos, and in turn dethroned by usurping Zeus. These three divinities thus symbolize at once three great successive epochs in the cycle of Life which is depicted by The Secret Doctrine, and the successive powers or emanations which dominate these epochs. To put the matter in the terms of the Seven Races: Ouranos represents the early spiritual races; Chronos, God of the “Golden Age,” symbolizes the later, semi-ethereal races, not yet fallen; while Zeus stands for the period beginning with the Fall, as The Secret Doctrine depicts it: the period of the Atlanteans, which saw the formation of the hierarchy of Adepts, and, at the same time, of the hierarchy of Darkness, the “Brothers of the Shadow.”
Looked at from the side of the Principles, both cosmic and individual—both macrocosmic and microcosmic—Ouranos represents the higher sphere, the principle of Atma-Buddhi and its universal source, but still passive, not yet active and conscious; Chronos, (“Time,” the Great Delusion), represents Manas, “Slayer of the Real”; for through the activity of Manas, the illusion of Time comes into being. Zeus, then, represents the principle of Kama, and the cosmic force of which Kama is the expression, that power which Christ personified as “the Prince (Archon) of this world,” and to which he also gave the name of Satan, “the Opposer,” and of Mammon; opposing and set against the spiritual power which Christ embodied and revealed. The Adversary, Son of Time the Great Delusion, is, then, the Power which nailed Prometheus to the rock.
Who, then is Prometheus? Æschylus, in Prometheus Bound, makes this quite clear. Prometheus brought “fire” to mankind. But he had first brought fire to the gods, including Zeus himself. He is not merely an adventurous Titan who purloined a possession of the gods, and bestowed it upon mankind. He is far more and greater than that. For it was Prometheus who gave to the gods their own power, which Zeus and those who stood with him then perverted. Nor is it merely physical “fire,” appearing in the hand of Zeus as the lightning, and among mankind as the “fire on the hearth.” that Prometheus bestowed on gods and men. According to the allegory present everywhere in the great Upanishads of India (which appear to embody the still older mystic wisdom of Egypt), “fire” represents the triple power, spiritual, psychic and physical; the light of the Sun, first of the “three fires,” stands for spiritual fire; lightning, the light of the mid-world, stands for psychical fire; while “the fire on the hearth” stands for physical fire, both the vital fire of the human body, also called Prana, and actual physical fire. The “fire on the altar,” most beautifully symbolized in the religion of Zoroaster of the Parsees, is the creative fire in the human body, once perverted, but afterwards purified by sacrifice, by consecration.
But the natural “fire,” in the Sun, in lightning, in the body and en the hearth, is not merely the symbol of its spiritual counterpart; it is actually the same force, externally manifested. For there is no chasm between Spirit and Matter, but rather a fundamental identity between them. Both are manifestations of the One. The chasm between them is part of the Great Illusion. Nor is there any fundamental chasm between the spiritual fire and its lower counterpart, the passional fire of perverted creative power. The latter is the perversion of the former, not an antithetical, opposing force; not an eternal and independent Ahriman, set against Ormuzd, as in the Manichean misunderstanding of Zoroastrianism. As the passional fire is the perversion of the spiritual fire, so the redemption comes not through the annihilation of the perverted power but through its re-transformation and transmutation. Until this transformation is accomplished, the soul is chained to the rock of its desires, the divine fire entering into its perversion yet scorning it. This is at once the Great Sacrifice and the cause of that long-enduring pain, “pain forever,”—pain, that is, until the end of Time, the Great Delusion,—of which Prometheus speaks.
Prometheus, then, bestows this fire, as divine power, upon Zeus and his brothers, the “Sons of Time”; who on one side symbolize the Atlantean epoch, and on the other the middle principles of man. And when Zeus and his brothers have perverted this divine power, Prometheus then bestows it on mankind, giving them spiritual life and intellectual light. From one point of view, mankind here stands for the Fifth Race, humanity on the upward cycle of spiritual progression: mankind in process of redemption.
But to what Power does mankind in fact owe this infusion of spiritual fire? What Power is in fact working out the redemption of humanity? Surely the answer is: the Great Lodge, which is the power of the Logos—the Life and Light of the Logos—in Incarnation. Prometheus would seem, then, to stand for the White Lodge, the united Life of the hierarchy of Masters. And this should suggest, what appears to be the reality: that it is not one Master only who is crucified, but the whole Lodge of Masters, whom that one Master represents, both symbolically and in fact; that it is the White Lodge that is nailed with outstretched hands to the Rock, or to the Cross; that the fact of this Crucifixion constitutes the very being and nature of the Master—of every Master in the Lodge, and of the Lodge as a whole; the very process of Crucifixion is that which constitutes the Master, and is, in fact, the Great Initiation.
It would seem to be a fundamental error, and a highly dangerous one, to think of the Great Initiation as a gain of knowledge only, as nothing more than the revelation of mysteries of new insight, the communication of mysteries and far-reaching powers. An initiation on the side of Darkness may be this, an initiation on the Left Hand Path. But the true Initiation, the Initiation of the Right Hand Path, of the White Lodge of Masters, while it is a revelation both of wisdom and of power, is fundamentally a Sacrifice, a Crucifixion. And it is the grasping of power and knowledge without Sacrifice, which is the essence of the Left Hand Path; as, for instance, the prostitution of science to the powers of evil, the use of intellect for the purposes of evil, which was exemplified on one side in the Great War.
Not only is the true Initiation, the Initiation of a Master of the White Lodge, a Sacrifice, a Crucifixion; it is an unending Crucifixion, the acceptance of “pain, pain forever”; pain that must be borne until the end of Time, the great Delusion. Therefore it has been truly said that the wounds of the Master, the wounds of the Crucifixion, can never be healed until the wounds of humanity, our wounds, have first been healed. And this is true of all Masters. For the Master, having, through the long trials and purifications leading up to the Great Initiation which makes him a Master, through the sevenfold cycle of discipleship, completely purified his own nature, consummated all Sacrifice in himself, and restored to its pristine purity the spiritual fire within himself, then makes the supreme Sacrifice: laying aside the reward which he has fully earned, and which is justly his, he assumes a burden which is not justly his: the burden, namely, of the sins of others, “the heavy Karma of humanity.”
This, then, the heavy burden of the world’s evil Karma, would seem to be the Cross to which the Master freely allows himself to be nailed, the Rock to which Prometheus is chained. And the Sacrifice consists in this: that the Master freely assumes this burden, which is not in justice his, knowing full well that he must bear it, in all its crushing weight, until Humanity has been redeemed. He must bear his Cross, he must remain chained to the Rock, until the consummation of the ages, until “the time of the end,” until “the great day Be-with-Us,” when Humanity, purified by suffering, is re-united to the Masters’ Lodge, there to remain forever.
Two more Powers in this great Mystery Drama may be interpreted along the same lines: the Earth (or, the Spirit of the Earth) and the most mysterious Being called Demogorgon. In Act I of the drama, in answer to a question of Prometheus, the Earth speaks thus:
“I am the Earth,
Thy mother, she within whose stony veins,
To the last fibre of the loftiest tree
Whose thin leaves trembled in the frozen air,
Joy ran, as blood within a living frame,
When thou didst from her bosom, like a cloud
Of glory, arise, a spirit of keen joy!”
This is, one may say, a deeply occult description of the living Earth, which has its inner principles, its ensouling spheres, as has the microcosm of man. It is this, but it would seem also to be more: namely, Maya, as “the active power of God,” the power of manifestation, of differentiation, without which the manifested Universe could never be brought forth from the Eternal; the power without which even the Masters, as individuals, could not come into being. Just as Maya is the name given to the sinless mother of the Buddha, as Avatar, while the immaculate mother of the Western Avatar bears a name of similar import; so the Earth here, in the same mystical sense, is rightly called the mother of Prometheus. She is, in one sense, the feminine aspect of the Logos; the power called, in the Mystery Teaching of India, the feminine Viraj.
This is perfectly conformable with a later passage in the same wonderful speech of the Earth, in which that mysterious being says of the defiance uttered by Prometheus against the tyranny of Zeus:
“Aye, I heard
Thy curse, the which, if thou rememberest not,
Yet my innumerable seas and streams,
Mountains and caves and winds, and yon wide air,
And the inarticulate people of the dead
Preserve, a treasured spell. We meditate
In secret joy and hope those dreadful words,
But dare not speak them. . . . .
They shall be told. Ere Babylon was dust
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no more:
Dreams and the light imaginings of men,
And all that faith creates or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes.
There thou art, and dost hang, a writhing shade,
‘Mid whirlwind peopled mountains. All the gods
Are there, and all the powers of nameless worlds,
Vast, sceptred phantoms; heroes, men, and beasts;
And Demogorgon, a tremendous gloom;
And he, the supreme Tyrant, on his throne Of burning gold. . . . .”
Who, then, is Demogorgon? The most suggestive answer, perhaps, may be given by a simple quotation from Murray’s Dictionary: the name, literally translated, means: “terrible to the multitude.” The name is not found in the older classical writers, but appears first in the fifth century of our era, in the note of a scholiast, as “the great nether deity, invoked in magic rites”; in more modern times, Demogorgon appears in Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Gods, and from this source the name was probably derived by Ariosto. Milton, Shelley and others. From its connection with magic (this author suggests), Demogorgon may be a disguised form of some Oriental name. One more suggestion: In Keightley’s Fairy Mythology (1850) it is recorded that, according to Ariosto, “Demogorgon has a splendid temple palace in the Himalaya mountains, whither every fifth year the Fates are all summoned to appear before him to give an account of their actions”; surely a most suggestive phrase.
This Power, enthroned in a splendid temple in the Himalayas; this Power of the occult world, invoked in magic rites; this Power, which is in truth “terrible to the multitude”; which brings about the punishment of the Tyrant and the liberation of Prometheus, would seem to be none other than the great Lodge itself, which, tradition tells us, has indeed a dwelling place in the Himalaya mountains.