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A life-affirming celebration of the Promethean spirit of socialist rebellion

With the forthcoming anniversary of the birth of Shelley, RICHARD BURGON reflects on a modern interpretation of Prometheus by poet Tony Harrison

THIS weekend marks the anniversary of the birth of Percy Shelley — one of the greatest poets our country has produced and, of course, someone who retains radical repute and resonance in 2018. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn often ends speeches by reading the final stanza of Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy — a poem written in response to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

“Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you / Ye are many — they are few.” 

In 1820, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound was published, in which Shelley praised the Greek mythical figure Prometheus — portrayed centuries earlier in poetry by Greek tragedian Aeschylus — as a rebellious hero. 

Shelley explained that, for him, “Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.” 
Prometheus broke the “class divide” between divine and mortal by stealing the secret of fire from his fellow gods and giving it to humanity as a gift. 

For attempting to destroy class in this way, Zeus — the King of the Gods on his seat on Olympus — tied Prometheus to a rock for all eternity. And every day, an eagle sent by Zeus devoured Prometheus’s liver. 

And Zeus decreed that Prometheus’s liver grew back after each eagle-feast so that it could again be agonisingly ripped again from his living tissue the next day and the next day until the end of time.

For Shelley, Prometheus was a revolutionary archetype. And in his Prometheus Unbound, Shelley wrote of Prometheus escaping his torture and imprisonment and the rule of Zeus is overthrown. 

As Shelley’s birthday approaches, I’ve been reflecting upon a much more recent exploration of Prometheus as a radical, socialist figure. 

In 1998, Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison — considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest living poets — released Prometheus, an incredibly ambitious film poem which starts with a scene about the reaction of an old miner wracked with emphysema to the closure of the last coal mine in Yorkshire, then proceeds to explore the genocidal horrors of the Holocaust, the destruction of the environment, the bombing of Dresden and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In the film, Hermes — the messenger of Zeus, King of the Gods — comes to Earth, outraged at the rebellions of humanity and charged by Zeus with taking revenge. 

Hermes adopts various human guises during the film, from the boss at the mine to the line manager at a local fish factory. He is accompanied by Kratos (Greek god of force) and Bia (Greek god of violence), who act as his cruel henchmen against humanity. 

Hermes sets about trying to destroy and debunk the image of rebellious, socialist class warrior Prometheus, saying: “That play with its rebel views in / needs spin-doctoring and defusing. / And that’s where my slick skills come in. / I’m employed to give Zeus spin. And making statutes is the way / I’ve chosen to defuse that play.” 

To this end, Hermes mixes the remains of dead Yorkshire miners slaughtered by Kratos and Bia into a golden statue of Prometheus and tours the statue around sites showcasing both the horrors perpetrated through the means of the fire that Prometheus gifted to humanity and the failures of revolutions that had been infused with the rebellious Promethean spirit. 

Hermes is particularly pleased when, after throwing bundles of dollars at workers, they then starting throwing dirt on the statue of Prometheus. Hermes laughs: “Isn’t it frightening a few notes / can make Prometheans turn their coats? / For a few dollars they’ll shout abuse / that gladdens the god’s ears of Zeus. / And that’s especially because / here, if anywhere, Prometheus was patron saint of Copsa Mica, / industrial Utopia seeker. / The power-to-the-people fist / made him the gilded socialist. / Now look at all these “socialists” / with dollars bills in their clenched fists.” 

Hermes is contemptuous of humanity and sneers at his adversary, the old miner from Yorkshire, dying from emphysema, saying: “History spat you out like phlegm / shop steward of the NUM.” 
Hermes triumphantly describes himself as “The god of free trade to be hailed, / now that socialism’s failed. / As god of free trade I endorse / the factory’s new free-trade course. / Once they aimed at work for all, / now the weak go to the wall.”  

But the Promethean spirit cannot be forever extinguished. One of the film’s most moving scenes is when, later on, workers turn on Hermes and start chanting the name of “Pro-me-the-us! / Pro-me-the-us!” And the dying Yorkshire miner attacks Hermes, saying: “I commit you, Hermes, in the name / of Prometheus to the power of flame” as the film scrip directions say that the old man “rises in revolutionary triumph over burning Hermes.” 

While it transpires that the attack fails and the God Hermes lives and the old miner dies, the old miner’s indefatigable Promethean spirit is inspiring. And throughout the film poem, the working-class characters disobey Hermes’s orders to speak in the prose of proletarians rather than poetry used by Gods (“Constant theft! First fire, now this — / pinching poetic artifice! / How can Olympus stay intact / if poetry comes to Pontefract?”).  

The film poem ends on the bleakest of notes. The final scene is the grandson of the old miner, cycling through a post-industrial Yorkshire landscape shouting for his mum who, like his father and grandfather, have been killed by Hermes’s henchmen Kratos (Force) and Bia (Violence), as Hermes’s voice is heard to say: “And at his back he’ll always hear / the boots of Kratos and Bia!” 

But for me and many others, Harrison’s masterful film poem nevertheless remains a life-affirming celebration of the Promethean spirit of anti-Establishment, socialist rebellion and class solidarity in the toughest of times and the hugest of odds.     

I consider Prometheus to not only be the finest achievement of Harrison’s poetic life to date but one of the greatest ever poetic achievements in the English language. And I’m not alone in my high opinion of the significance of Prometheus.

The eminent literary critic Edith Hall wrote that this film poem is “the most important adaptation of classical myth for a radical political purpose for years” and is, in fact, “the most important artistic reaction to the fall of the British working class” at the end of the 20th century.

As socialists, we of course believe that “the fall” in the advance of the working class, caused by the triumph of neoliberalism, is temporary, not permanent. Prometheus may have been bound and tortured but, as depicted in Shelley’s poetry, he will become unbound and the cruel rule of Zeus will come to an end and, as depicted in Harrison’s film poem, the Promethean spirit always fights back.

And, in the words of the defiant old miner in Harrison’s Prometheus: “But I know that it’ll come, / the new socialist millennium.”

Richard Burgon is shadow justice secretary. This column appears fortnightly.

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