Promethean heat

The Titan god Prometheus made a similar shift to Spartacus, from Abolitionists’ hero to symbol of the proletariat. The suffering philanthropist, chained and tortured by Zeus’ eagle for eternity, in the 18th century ousted the intellectual Prometheus, derived ultimately from Hesiod, who had bestowed the light of human reason on matters obscured by religion and superstition, and been a point of identification for the European Enlightenment.7" The Abolitionist configuration of the hero in some ways harked back to the Prometheus of the Renaissance and Early Modern period, whose suffering on the rock was felt to anticipate Christ’s passion on the cross.71 But between them and the Abolitionists also lay the Romantic Prometheus of Herder and Goethe, the poet-demiurge, whose gift of fire as inspiration could remake the world anew—an aesthetic and psychological revolutionary.72

Aeschylus had not become available in any modern language, including English, until the 1770s, when the complete 1777 translation of Aeschylus by the Norfolk

C. Haydon Coffin as Diomed in A Creek Slave, reproduced from Souvenir of a Creek Slave (1898) in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 19.9 C. Haydon Coffin as Diomed in A Creek Slave, reproduced from Souvenir of a Creek Slave (1898) in Hall’s personal collection.

Abolitionist Robert Potter had made a huge impact.73 This was followed by the edition of the Greek text of Aeschylus by Richard Person (see above pp. 294-9), published in 1795 with interleaved engravings by Tommaso Piroli of illustrations by John Flaxman. Flaxman was closely associated with Josiah Wedgwood (who also produced the famous ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ cameo).74 These engravings were published separately during the same year. Prometheus Bound could now be easily read in English, and its effect in performance helpfully visualised. But the mythical reference was multivalent. Promethean liberation meant different things to different people: Byron used Prometheus to stand for homegrown Irish rebels rather than Africans in ‘The Irish Avatar’ (1821).

In 1807, a volume entitled Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade by three British authors was published in order to celebrate the passing of the 1807 Slave Trade bill. The cover is adorned with an engraved medallion depicting Hercules setting Prometheus free from his chains and the first poem, by devout Glaswegian James Grahame, is entitled ‘Prometheus Delivered’.75 The other poets were James Montgomery, an orphan and failed baker’s apprentice who became a radical journalist in Sheffield (he had been imprisoned on charges of sedition in the 1790s), and Elizabeth Benger, a feminist eccentric and aspiring dramatist, whose enthusiasm for Abolition and prison reform is evident in her novel The Heart and the Fancy (1813). But the politics of Grahame (1765-1811) outdid them in extremity. His relatives felt the need to suppress his Fragments of a Tour through the Universe, which attacked not only the oppression of workers, but the press-gang, war and the monarchy.76

‘Promethean’ politics took on a particular resonance in an era which was seeing the emergence of international socialism. The Titan’s popularity amongst radicals became assured with the publication of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in 1820, by which time this poet was beginning to attract the attention of the working classes as well as liberals higher up the social scale.77 Thomas Talfourd, a judge sympathetic to the Chartists, talked about the ‘Promethean’ heat of the class struggle palpable after the Peterloo massacre of 1819;78 the man who invented the term ‘communism’, a 19th-century Christian socialist and Chartist named John Goodwyn Barmby, in January 1842 published the first issue of his call for socialism and entitled it The Promethean; or Communitarian Apostle (Figure 19.10). Its epigraph was six lines delivered by the Chorus of Spirits in Act IV of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

And our singing shall build

In the void’s loose field

A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;

We will take our plan

From the new world of man,

And our work shall be called the Promethean.79

The first page of the first issue consists of Goodwyn Barmby’s manifesto, ‘The outlines of Communism’,80 but the remainder is replete with material which turns the author’s classical training to socialist use. One article is an address to the ‘Author-Class’, which discusses ancient poets including Homer, Anacreon, Horace and Ovid, as well as moderns from Milton onwards;81 a poem celebrates the power of women to transform the world through a complex allegorical encomium to Aphrodite and the Graces;82 further essays discuss the origins of slavery in Greek and Roman antiquity, of drama in the classical theatre of 5th-century Athens and divine inspiration in the Delphic oracle.83

The second issue includes a long article on the ancient Greek, Roman and Algonquin calendars in order to argue that the French revolutionary one, said to be closest to that of ancient Greece, should be adopted by communists.84 In the third issue, along with a discussion of ancient and Early Modern models of utopia, Goodwyn Barmby officially declares the support of his paper and the association which publishes it for the People’s Charter,85 as well as advertising another publication, The Educational Circular and Communist Apostle and a series of

Cover of The Promethean; or Communitarian Apostle issue 1, reproduced by courtesy of the British Library

FIGURE 19.10 Cover of The Promethean; or Communitarian Apostle issue 1, reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

‘Lectures on Communism’ to be delivered at the Workingman’s Hall in Circus-Street, Greenwich.86 Sadly, The Promethean, with its heady mix of feminism, Owenite socialism, slightly embarrassed admiration for the French Revolution, Chartist fervour, eccentric Christian spirituality and large dollops of classical information, lasted for less than a year.

But a fin-de-siecle spirit of Prometheus was later to fire up the UK Ethical Movement, a humanist organisation linked to socialist activism. In the late 1890s, the American Stanton Coit purchased a disused Methodist chapel on Queensway in Bayswater, renamed it The Ethical Church and commissioned Walter Crane to create the equivalent of an altarpiece. The painting is now in the Russell-Cotes Gallery in Bournemouth, but an old photograph exists of the painting in sit«.87 Crane’s design, which depicts a pagan Athenian torch-bearing relay race, such as those run at the festivals of Prometheus and Hephaestus, is now clearest in the reproduction of his original line drawing.88 The race at the Prometheia, which Pausanias describes (1.30.2), had recently attracted scholarly attention on both sides of the Atlantic.89 Crane’s recreation is the visual counterpart to a statement he made in his essay, ‘The Socialist Ideal as a New Inspiration in Art’:90

From the tragic vicissitudes of history, of race-conflict, of conquest and domination of warlike tribes and the institution of slavery, the foundation and influence of the great ancient states and empires, and their inevitable decay and fall, and the new order springing from their ruins; the tragic tale of wars and pestilence and famine, of flood and of fire and of earthquake, and yet onward still through all these perils and disasters we may see humanity marching beneath the banner of social justice to fulfil its destiny; the hero spirits still passing the torch of enlightenment and freedom from hand to hand, and as one sinks into the silence another advances towards the full flush of the new morning.91

These ancient Athenian worshippers of Prometheus, complete with their liberty caps, are here adopted as the ancestors of all who have ever fought the fight for social justice, enlightenment and freedom.92 Crane’s picture was reproduced as the frontispiece to another book for young socialists published by the author of The Children’s Plutarch, Frederick Gould (on whom see above, pp. 393-5), entitled Bright Lamps of History and Daily Life. The first story is an account of the race in ancient Athens, complete with a hymn to Prometheus and Vulcan combined.93 But the torch was not destined to be handed on, at least in that Bayswater building. Since 1954 it has been Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church, and Crane’s painting was replaced by a copy of Rubens’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ in Antwerp Cathedral.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >