Missing the Vital Spark

Mark Ford

  • Prometheus by Tony Harrison
    Faber, 86 pp, £8.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 571 19753 1

The first literary appearance of the mythical figure of Prometheus (whose name means ‘foresight’) is in the writings of Hesiod. Hesiod’s Titan is something of a trickster, of ‘intricate and twisting mind’ in Richmond Lattimore’s 1959 translation, who first affronts Zeus by trying to cheat him of his sacrificial dues: Prometheus slaughters an ox, but instead of offering the meat to the father of the gods, he gives it to men, presenting Zeus only with the animal’s bones, concealed beneath a thick layer of fat. As punishment, Zeus decides to deny mankind the use of fire, but Prometheus cleverly manages to steal the sacred flame, which he smuggles down to Earth by hiding it in the hollow of a fennel stalk.

Zeus retaliates by creating the irresistibly beautiful Pandora, endowed by the various gods with all manner of attractions, but by Hermes ‘with the mind of a hussy, and a treacherous nature’. On her marriage to Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus (‘hindsight’), she unseals her jar containing all the evils that have since plagued humanity. Only the spirit of Hope remains imprisoned in the jar, unable to escape and alleviate the suffering of mortals. Meanwhile Prometheus has been shackled to a column and each day an eagle arrives to feed on his liver; every night the ravaged liver grows back to its original size, in preparation for the next day’s visitation. Eventually Heracles kills Prometheus’ tormentor and releases the Titan from his bondage, though not, we are told, without the consent of Zeus, who is at last willing to forget his anger for the sake of his son Heracles’ burgeoning glory.

Some three centuries after Hesiod, Prometheus was the subject of a connected series of dramas, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus’ Release. Only a fragment survives of Prometheus’ Release, and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer has been lost altogether. Prometheus Bound has traditionally been ascribed to Aeschylus, but there are no Festival records to confirm his authorship. The case against this attribution has been made with particular force in recent decades, most compellingly by M. Griffith in The Authenticity of ‘Prometheus Bound’ (1977). In a recent edition of the play in translation, Michael Ewans argues that ‘in dramatic style and technique, as well as language and poetic style, Prometheus is markedly different from, and inferior to, the six other dramas’ in the Aeschylean canon. Ewans dates the play to c.440-430BC, twenty years after Aeschylus’ death, and tentatively suggests the most likely author was Aeschylus’ own son, Euphorion.

In the foreword to his 1967 prose version of Prometheus Bound, Robert Lowell noted that this play is ‘probably the most lyrical of the Greek classical tragedies’, but also ‘the most undramatic – one man, a sort of demigod at that, chained to a rock, orated to, and orating at, a sequence of embodied apparitions’. Lowell, needless to say, transforms Prometheus into a self-doubting intellectual, wracked less by his chains and the eagle than by moral anxieties about his own obsessional and transgressive behaviour: ‘I think I should have been more loyal to the idiocy of things,’ he tells the Daughters of Ocean, who function as the chorus, ‘or bolder, or more careless. Yet I had no choice, such was the gravity and devotion that drew me on.’ Lowell’s Prometheus, like that of so many writers who have appropriated the myth over the centuries, is fashioned very much in his own image.

The Prometheus of drama is much nobler than his prototype in Hesiod. He presents himself as benefactor and saviour of mankind: he not only brings the primary gift of fire, but explains the mysteries of medicine, architecture, mathematics, the seasons, fortune-telling and mining. After Zeus’ victory in the war against his father, Cronus, the newly enthroned god decides to annihilate the entire human race and create a new species in its stead. ‘No one did anything against this plan,’ Prometheus laments (in Ewans’s translation)

                     except for me –
but I dared to; I freed mankind
from being totally destroyed, and sent to
                                       Hades’ halls.
That’s why I’m bent by many torments, terrible
to suffer, pitiable to see.

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