Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Prince Poli & Savant': Goethe's Prometheus and the Enlightenment

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Prince Poli & Savant': Goethe's Prometheus and the Enlightenment

Article excerpt

The present reading of Goethe's 'Prometheus' sets out to examine the new work to which the myth is put in the poem. His 'Prometheus' does not stand in a modern opposition to classical accounts of the myth. The poem rather establishes itself at the forefront of a long reinterpretative tradition engaging with the Prometheus story. Often read as an agent provocateur in the German Enlightenment project, Goethe's Prometheus nevertheless argues like a rationalist critic of religion while instructing humans in social behaviour. To an extent hitherto largely ignored, the poem significantly continues the work of the Enlightenment.

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In the history of modern literature, certain classical myths seem readily to suggest themselves as figures of identification. Not mere frequency, but the cumulative significance attributed to these myths makes them constant points of reference. George Steiner thus locates the modern importance of the Antigone myth in a period between 'the 1790s and the start of the twentieth century'. After 1905, 'under pressure of Freudian reference, critical, interpretative focus had shifted to the Oedipus Rex'. (1) What may seem like a marginal change of taste from one Sophoclean tragedy to another marks rather something like a paradigm-shift. Within a canonical body of texts known as classical mythology, they each offer distinct ways of cultural and political identification.

A further and earlier such cultural identification is offered by the Prometheus myth in the (late) eighteenth century. (2) Goethe made not one but four attempts at the myth, yet all but the poem remained fragments. Other scattered references to Prometheus throughout Goethe's works speak of his sustained preoccupation with the story. Carrying an already heavy baggage of literary treatments from antiquity through the Renaissance and up to the eighteenth century, the myth offered several angles from which it could be approached. (3) Without being able to pinpoint direct responses to Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound (the only one extant of his three Prometheus tragedies) (4) in Goethe's 'Prometheus', some critics read his belated reworking as 'den zweiten grossen Gipfel der Stoffgeschichte'. (5) Retelling the old story of Prometheus, Goethe comes to stand shoulder to shoulder with Aeschylus. Although Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris is more fully developed in its retelling of the Tantalus myth and in its formal approximation of Attic tragedy, the scattered fragments make Prometheus and not Iphigenie Goethe's 'personliches Symbol', (6) as Kommerell has it, and in many ways also a central figure of identification to the late eighteenth century. (7)

This article will examine the new use to which the myth is put in Goethe's poem (and drama fragments), as a response to earlier treatments and interpretations. Denis Feeney speaks of how most contemporary readings of classical myths 'begin and end in naturalistic realism, with a token circuit en route through the divine agency, as if the divine element in the narrative is something to be read through, purged, in a reading which arrives at acute novelistic insights'. (8) This reading will try to take Prometheus and the gods at, as it were, their face value, seeing them not as embodiments of something else, but as mythological characters that can be distilled neither from the narrative nor from the history of their reception. The 'Sinn des Gedichts', as one recent critic has it (Gaier, p. 154), is not to be sought merely where the poem, on a superficial level, may contradict earlier accounts, but in its reworking and further development of the mythological tradition, at the forefront of which Goethe's poem establishes itself.

The poem stands out as the pinnacle of Goethe's early hymns that represent and engage with ancient gods. 'Prometheus', like 'Ganymed', already presents itself as a Rollengedicht, where the title establishes the main role as a mythological one. …

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