Misotheism and Rebellion in Lord Byron’s Ode "Prometheus" and Goethe’s Same-titled Hymn

“Now tell me how you feel about religion!”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2017 20 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1. Introduction

2. Self-empowerment in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Hymn Prometheus Reflections upon Art, Political Protest or Aesthetic Blasphemy?

3. Lord Byron’s Ode Prometheus

4. Synthesis


1. Introduction

The Literary Reception of Mythic Prometheus

For many centuries, artists have been treating the myth of Prometheus in their masterpieces, and it is this fascination with Greek mythology that has never wavered. Without doubt, “Prometheanism” (Wiebe 471) was especially a constituent element of the Romantic period in England; indeed, this mythological figure occurs repeatedly in the literary oeuvre of numerous British authors of this time (e. g. Mary Shelley or Lord Byron). Their special interest in Greek mythology is attributable to the Romantics interpreting Aeschylus’s famous tragedy Prometheus Bound. Namely, it was exactly this piece of Athenian literature that led to the various receptions of the widely-known ancient narrative of punishment and suffering: According to Aeschylus, the king of the Olympian gods punished the Titan Prometheus after he had dared to steal the heavenly fire and bring it to mankind. In the ancient story, the greatest of the gods sentenced the immortal demigod to eternal torment and chained him to a mountain in the Caucasus. Every day, Zeus’s eagle fed on Prometheus’s liver, which begun to regenerate after nightfall. In the end, Hercules rescued the Titan many years later. In spite of the Romantic enthusiasm for Prometheus one should not labour under the delusion that the fascination with the Greek culture hero has never left the British borders. On the contrary, Prometheus has been of omnipresent relevance throughout the literary histories of different nations and it is, therefore, no surprise that the Titan did not only have a marked effect and influence on Romantics, but also on plenty of writers in Germany. First and foremost, it was one German artist who also worked on the myth of Prometheus in the late eighteenth century, viz. the greatest admirer of Lord Byron, the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although his tragedy Prometheus has remained a fragment, its hymn, which is paradigmatic of Sturm und Drang literature, has become very popular. In the term paper at hand, Goethe’s famous poem Prometheus as well as Lord Byron’s same-titled ode will be taken into consideration. Both poetic works will be analysed and interpreted with regard to form, content, theme(s) and language, but – in the course of examination – priority is given to the motif of rebellion. Having investigated both poems, I shall compare them with each other in order to scrutinise what they have in common and in which points the treatments of the Prometheus myth differ from one another. At the end of this paper, it will have become clear that – despite some formal and stylistic similarities – Goethe’s and Byron’s lyric texts maximally contrast with each other, primarily when it comes to the question of how to rebel against (divine) subjugation. However, “e nough words have been exchanged – now let us see deeds!”

2. Self-empowerment in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Hymn Prometheus Reflections upon Art, Political Protest or Aesthetic Blasphemy?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetic work Prometheus, composed between 1772 and 1774, focuses on its powerful persona Prometheus who rebels against the hegemony and heteronomy of the Greek gods in order to gain absolute autonomy. With regard to form, the poem, which consists of seven stanzas of different length, does not follow a specific structure; neither do the verses rhyme nor is there a regular sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables throughout the entire work. However, it is exactly through the poet using free verse instead of common rhyme schemes or a well-defined overall metric pattern that it seems as if he composed a hymn. Yet, with reference to the content of the poem, it becomes debateable whether Prometheus is a typical hymn as it is well known from Klopstock (or rather from Horace’s misinterpretation of Pindar’s hymns) or not. For a fact, hardly has the recipient read the introductory stanza of Goethe’s poetic work when he realises that it is not a religious poem of praise to (a) God. Quite the reverse, the subjective first-person persona rises in strong opposition to the sky father and openly defies divine authority. Exactly this is the reason why one could refer to Prometheus as “anti-hymn” (cf. Reinhardt 2). At the very beginning of the poem, which parodies the Lord’s Prayer, the disrespectful speaker demands that the enraging thunder god cover heaven with misty air so that – against the Christian idea of creatio continua – the physical sphere (“immanence”) is strictly separated from the metaphysical one (“transcendence”):

Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus,
Mit Wolkendunst!
Und übe, dem Knaben gleich,
Der Disteln köpft,
An Eichen dich und Bergeshöhn; Mußt mir meine Erde
Doch lassen stehn
Und meine Hütte, die du nicht gebaut,
Und meinen Herd,
Um dessen Glut
Du mich beneidest.

In order to put stress on his command, Prometheus makes use of an exclamation mark when addressing the king of the Olympian gods directly. Whether the angry allfather is visible to the eye of the fearless persona or just his association with the approaching thunderstorm, it does not become clearly recognisable despite this invocatio dei.1 Nonetheless, the verb used in the imperative mood implies that the hubristic speaker considers himself superior to the supreme god, who is supposed to quit almost every place on earth. Indeed, the blasphemous usurper suggests that he alone rule the earth, whereas Zeus’s irrelevant sphere of control and influence is limited to Aether. This distribution of power is accentuated by an antithetic use of possessive determiners, especially “deinen Himmel” (l. 1) and “meine Erde” (l. 6). Only is Prometheus prepared to tolerate Thundering Jove at the tops of the highest mountains, which can be perceived as allusion to the smoke that rises in the course of animal sacrifice. Thus, the divine being is permitted to continue behaving like a furious child in the most peripheral areas of the world,2 but the ruler of Mount Olympus is to stay away from the central ones in which the cultural hero has settled down. There, the persona has enabled civilisation, culture and progress by building a cottage like Jonah (cf. Schulz 76). Hence, the lexemes “Hütte” (l. 8) and “Herd” (l. 10), which are emphasised by the use of alliteration, polysyndeton and parallelism, could be meant to express Prometheus’s self-foundation. The cottage can be understood as a metaphor for Prometheus’s body or self-confidence, and the glow indicates the genius’s inner fire out of which his creative work with its eternal flame is born. From this perspective, the warm light stands for the persona’s intense and passionate feelings, his strength, his philanthropic love of humanity and – last but not least – for his inherent creative spark. Significantly, these are the traits the envious as well as property- and powerless allfather obviously lacks. In the second stanza, the powerful Lord of Fire, who intends to provoke the addressee in an insulting manner, begins to level criticism against all twelve contemptible Olympians:

Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres
Unter der Sonn als euch, Götter!
Ihr nähret kümmerlich
Von Opfersteuern
Und Gebetshauch
Eure Majestät,
Und darbtet, wären
Nicht Kinder und Bettler
Hoffnungsvolle Toren.

To that end, the rebel utilises a hyperbolic simile without one single tertium comparationis to make it clear that he cannot discern any point of comparison between the major ancient Greek gods and all the other pitiful beings living under the sun. Thus, Prometheus’s misotheism has now advanced to the point that he ridicules the deities of the Greek Pantheon for being heavily reliant on cultic worship and sacrifice. Had the adherents of ancient Greek religion abandoned cult practices, the principal gods would have starved to death. According to the wrathful persona, it is only through naive, fearful and childish believers putting faith in the egocentric and merciless Olympians that they have not already become stunted. In the next climatic stanzas, the reasons for Prometheus’s blind rage become obvious since the autodiegetic speaker starts to narrate what has happened to him in an analepsis – the sorrows of young Prometheus are the following:

Da ich ein Kind war,
Nicht wußte, wo aus noch ein,
Kehrt ich mein verirrtes Auge
Zur Sonne, als wenn drüber wär
Ein Ohr, zu hören meine Klage,
Ein Herz wie mein‘s,
Sich des Bedrängten zu erbarmen.

Wer half mir
Wider der Titanen Übermut?
Wer rettete vom Tode mich,
Von Sklaverei?
Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,
Heilig glühend Herz?
Und glühtest jung und gut,
Betrogen, Rettungsdank
Dem Schlafenden da droben?

In contrast to 1 Corinthians 13, Prometheus did not receive the love of God in his infancy; quite the reverse, the sentient speaker accuses the anthropomorphised gods of being heartless tyrants (cf. Schulz 78). In his early childhood, the boy desperately begged authorities for help and support just like Goethe’s apprentice in Der Zauberlehrling. When the young speaker tells the reader that he implored sun god Helios (also known as Zeus’s eye) to help him, Prometheus exposes sun worship to ridicule. The destitute persona, who is obviously no Titan, made a plea for preventing him from slavery3 and death, but although Prometheus faced the end of life, the deaf Greek gods did not feel pity for their child.4 Nonetheless, it was already written in the Bible: “Whoever has ears ought to hear”. It is exactly this crucial event during the clash of the Titans that had a long-term effect on the ignorant believer, which was already implied by the contemptuous use of an irrealis mood.


1 It can be assumed that it is through Benjamin Franklin (also known as the “second Prometheus”) exploring electricity that the enlightener Prometheus is not scared of the heavy thunderstorm. He explains thunder, lightning and rain in rational terms (cf. Schulz 76), which is proof of scientism.

2 It attracts attention that Zeus, who is characterised by infantile behaviour, lops off the heads of thistles. On the one hand, this could be perceived as allusion to Ossian (cf. Weimar 89); on the other hand, this simile underlines that the aggressive Maker does not have creative power. In this context, it can be remarked that the clouds of mist caricature the omnipotence of the unskilful sky father.

3 Slavery could also be seen as a metaphor that stands for Prometheus’s emancipation from patronising religious strictures and dogmatism. Significantly, the English term “emancipation” – one key idea of the Enlightenment and its criticism of religion – goes back to the Latin word “mancipum” for “slave”.

4 Here, it becomes clear that Prometheus can also be perceived as a socio-political work that levels criticism against absolutism. In this case, the inactive and hard-hearted allfather could represent the aristocracy and princely rule. In this context, it is of great significance that Prometheus accuses both temporal and spiritual authority, e. g. “Opfersteuern” alludes to tithes (or to the sale of indulgences) and “Majestät” is a secular title (cf. Weber 108). The socio-critical nuances of the poem become clearer when Prometheus refers to the third estate by naming the beggars that are pauperised because of cult. In summing up, Prometheus demands what Georg Büchner will proclaim many years later: “Peace to the shacks! War on the palaces!”


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University of Marburg – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
misotheism rebellion lord byron’s prometheus goethe’s same-titled hymn



Title: Misotheism and Rebellion in Lord Byron’s Ode "Prometheus" and Goethe’s Same-titled Hymn