The Empire Strikes Back

The final act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound closes with a powerful meta-prophecy of the universe’s future spoken by Demogorgon, the representation of sublime emptiness and nothingness. The tyrannical “empire” of Jupiter is overthrown in favor of a renewed “Empire” of the ever-patient Love. Shelley strongly critiques the violent French Revolution via this distinction, but why would such a distinction have any bearing on the French Revolution?

While the rhyme scheme of ABBA bookended by two couplets in each stanza could possibly imply the imprisonment of Jupiter in the “deep,” I found the contrast between capitalized words and lowercase words more interesting, mostly because the capitalized words were all abstract ideas like “Gentleness…and Endurance” (line 562). The most significant of these capitalized words is Love, whose personification escapes from its “awful throne of patient power” (line 557) to cover the world with “healing wings,” a Christian, angelic image. Prometheus, the Christ figure, does not take revenge on Jupiter but sacrifices control over to Love, who rules with a hand characterized by gentle forgiveness.

But isn’t Love’s Empire simply another rendition of Jupiter’s hateful empire? Shelley makes his distinction between these two rulers clear by separating Jupiter’s empire from Love’s Empire into the second and third stanzas, respectively. The second stanza represents what Shelley sees as the problem of cyclical revolutions like the French Revolution, which only bring more revolution and violence. For Shelley, the French Revolution did not achieve its goal of universal brotherhood and freedom. The tyrannical French monarchy was only replaced with more tyranny. This cycle is what is so significant about the painting associated with this week’s blog post. Shelley is seated in ruins, evidence of previous empires that fell only to be replaced with more tyrannical systems. The Empire of Love breaks that cycle, resulting in a “beautiful and free” world that is incapable of bringing forth oppressive tyranny.

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~ by lostinthekeys on November 1, 2012.

3 Responses to “The Empire Strikes Back”

  1. I want to first talk a little bit about the rhyme scheme you mentioned. It’s interesting that you saw it as ABBA with the two surrounding couplets. Before labeling it out, it first read to me like a series of couplets separated by an extra rhyme. For example, the second paragraph of Demogorgon’s speech read to me as AAB CCB DD. I do like the idea of the enclosed quatrain in the middle, though.

    However, when addressing the rhyme scheme in the method I used at first, an interesting trend emerges. Isolating those extra rhymes, represented by B in my AAB CCB DD reading, revealed some significant aspects of the speech. These lines seemed to be some of the most powerful in their respective stanzas. In the first stanza there is “And Conquest…” and “Of dread endurance…” (556-559). In the second stanza, the lines are “Which bars the pit…” and “The serpent…” (564-567).

    These odd-lines-out seemed to be juxtaposed in content as well as rhyme. Shelley is using these lines to throw off the rhyme scheme and cause uneasiness in the reading, as well as uneasiness in the message as these notions of the serpent, pit, and so forth are the most potent. Put simply, he has loaded his stanzas so that he really strikes the reader with this fearful imagery.

    However in the third stanza, the lines shift. He has “To defy Power…” and “Neither to change…” (572-575). Here, one can tell Shelley really wants to end on a positive note, as these distinct lines in the rhyme scheme are the ones supporting a steadfast and resolute rejection of the “Power” (whether in the French revolution or otherwise) and safeguard of joy and love.

    • Nice technical reading of the final act! Your reading of Shelley’s choices clearly maps out the direction of the piece, and the added significance of trigger phrases truly connotes his meaning. All in all, a good post.

  2. Props for the title! I enjoyed the close reading of the technical aspects of the final act of Shelley’s piece. The question that you raise after is especially adequate as Shelley’s empire of love seems to be replacing another empire, albeit an empire of tyranny. The technical description that you give, however, seems irrelevant to your main discussion and could have been reduced to a smaller sentence introducing your third paragraph. Secondly, the question you raise is very compelling yet you seem to lose direction and superficially parallel your discussion to the painting for this week’s post. A little more discussion of the ‘problem of cyclical revolution’ to connect to your final sentence about the “Empire of Love” would have been more appropriate.

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