“The most unfailing herald, companion and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution is Poetry”
– Shelley, A Defence of Poetry
Percy and Mary Shelley met the Greek Prince Alexander Mavrocordato (1791-1865) in Pisa in December 1820. In the six months before his departure in June 1821 to join the struggle for Greek independence, the couple formed an intimate acquaintance with Mavrocardato (Mary’s journal from January to June documents the developing friendship—he taught Mary Greek, she taught him English). Over the course of their acquaintance the Shelleys listened often to Mavrocodato speak of his plans to liberate the Greek people from Turkish rule. In this way and in others, Percy Shelley was deeply engaged with the situation in Greece and distressed by the plight of the Greek people when he wrote Hellas. Recent scholarship suggests he began the poem as early as April 1821 and composed most of it in the first few weeks of October. Shelley sent the completed manuscript to Charles and James Ollier, his publishers in England, on the 11th of November and the poem was published early the next year. It was the last work to appear before his death in July 1822.
(Very) Brief Historical Background
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the majority of Greece lived under Ottoman rule. In 1821, Mahmud II (1789-1839) was the reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Mahmud’s reign (1808-1839) marked the beginning of the gradual collapse of the Ottoman, which was set in motion by the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832). On the 6th of March 1821 the first significant revolt, in the Danubian Principalities, was quickly suppressed by the Ottomans. Less than two weeks later, however, on the 17th of March, the Maniots in the Peloponnese declared war on the Ottomans. Some years into the hard-fought campaign for independence, the British, French and Russians offered the Greek people military help and Greece was finally recognised as an independent nation in May 1832. Shelley’s lyrical drama narrates the first of the Greek uprisings and imagines the trajectory of the Greek struggle. It is worth remembering that Shelley died in 1822, some ten years before the war came to a conclusion, in order to recognise his remarkably prescience and appreciate his keen understanding of the contemporary political situation.
Hellas: A Lyrical Drama
Like Prometheus Unbound, Hellas is modelled on a play by Aeschylus. The Persians (472 BC) narrates the defeat of Xerxes and his Persian army by the Greeks. Shelley adopts both the perspective and the narrative structure of Aeschylus’s drama: Aeschylus sets the action in the palace in Iran and focuses on the reaction of Xerxes’s mother and Shelley sets his play in the palace in Constantinople and chooses Mahmud II (the ruling Ottoman Sultan) as his protagonist. In both plays, the action (battles/insurrections) is narrated through a series of messengers who bring news from abroad. By choosing The Persians as a model, as William Ulmer observes, “Shelley can stage the Greek Revolution as a reenactment of the military struggle of classical Athens against Oriental tyranny.”
In the preface to Hellas Shelley writes, “The subject in its present state is insusceptible of being treated otherwise than lyrically, and if I have called this a drama from the circumstance of its being composed in dialogue, the license is not greater than that which has been assumed by other poets who have called their production epics, only because they have been divided into twelve or twenty-four books.” With the exception of Prometheus Unbound, Hellas is the only work Shelley designated ‘a lyrical drama’. The question, of course, as with Prometheus, is why? Why the dramatic, and the not the ‘merely’ lyrical? Why both? Shelley’s explanation that he called it a drama because it is composed in dialogue begs the question why he composed it in dialogue at all. The dynamism of drama, here intensified by the series of messengers bearing news, is apposite to the theme of ongoing political struggle: the chorus composed of captive Greek women makes explicit and visible the despotism Shelley is rallying against and the sustained focus on Mahmud allows the reader to witness, first-hand, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
The Politics of Hellas
If, as he acknowledges, Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound for “more select classes of poetical readers” then he had a rather different audience in mind for the propagandistic Hellas. Shelley wrote Hellas in order to influence public opinion, to encourage the British people to put pressure on the government to intervene in the Greek struggle for independence. His plea to his publisher to publish Hellas quickly reveals his conviction in the “timely urgency” of his work. His disdain for the inaction of the British government is apparent in the preface: “the apathy of the rulers of the civilised world to the astonishing circumstance of the descendants of that nation to which they owe their civilisation rising as it were from the ashes of their ruin is something perfectly inexplicable.” The subsequent declaration that “We are all Greeks—our laws, to literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece” is meant to further rouse the public to action. This fervent philhellenism is not unique to Shelley but in fact typical of the second-generation Romantics: Leigh Hunt published editorials in The Examiner which voiced his support for the Greek cause and, most famously, Byron, who sailed to Greece in order to join Mavrocardato and partake in the struggle, died in Missolonghi in 1824. There is much that seems immediately problematic, even conservative, about the nature of Shelley’s appeal. First, as Jerome McGann point out, Shelley’s idealist philhellenism is “open to political exploitation by Europe’s imperialist powers” and second, he is in danger of advocating for simply bourgeois nationalism. Even if both of these are true and, I would argue, they are, it is absolutely essential to understand the historical context of 1821 in order to properly grasp Shelley’s politics. In 1821, the idea of nationalism for the Greek people living under Ottoman rule was unquestionably radical. Nationalism, at this moment, was not conservative but progressive, revolutionary, unsettling. Similarly, philhellenism to further the cause of Greek nationalism should be understood as a challenge to, and not endorsement of, empire. As Mark Kipperman remarks, Shelley’s philhellenism is aligned with republican radicalism and demands the British public question whether Britain should intervene on the behalf of the Greeks.
In this sense, Shelley’s Hellas cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the historical situation in 1821. Unlike Prometheus, which deals mostly in abstract universals, Hellas is deeply grounded in political and historical reality. No doubt, there is much idealism in Hellas but there is also an acute engagement with the actual situation in Greece. If Prometheus asks, as Omar writes in a previous post, how can society (any and all societies, at any time in history) eliminate injustice and despotism without violence, Hellas imagines how the Greek people can liberate themselves from the oppression of Ottoman rule in 1821. The metaphysical idealism of Hellas is explicitly connected to a specific revolutionary struggle. It is obvious in this lyrical drama that Shelley is not, as he is sometimes accused, unconcerned with the political reality. Hellas cannot, I think, fairly be called an escapist or merely idealist piece of literature; the Greek war of independence is not incidental to Shelley’s radical utopian vision but rather an absolutely crucial step towards realising that vision. While Prometheus remains in the transcendental realm, Hellas makes apparent the connection between ideals that transcend history and actual political struggle. Kipperman summarises this neatly:
“Shelley’s idealism here is neither platonic nor escapist but argues that the very shape and realisation of human ideals like peace and equality depend on the progress of history; that struggles for liberation are founded in permanent ideals but expressed and defined only within historical contingency; and that these ideals exist as permanent possibilities of social and spiritual progress, so that even as negatives (utopia is not yet) they persist to negate the negations of imperialism with its delusions of permanent power.”
For Shelley, the Greek struggle in 1821 is independently significant as well as consequential because it is emblematic of a universal desire for liberation and signals a radical call for widespread revolution.
Red Bull/NYU 2014?
As I read and reread Hellas in the past couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but think how much easier it would be to stage than Prometheus. It is, after all, a ‘purely Greek’ drama: it observes the unities of time (24 hours), place (the Sultan’s palace) and action. Also, importantly, there are far, far fewer characters (and only one non-mortal/human appearance!) and the conversations between Mahmud and Hasan and Ahasuerus reveal distinct, coherent personalities. It is, of course, precisely the difficulty (near impossibility?) of staging Prometheus that will make Red Bull’s production on the 18th so stimulating. But, perhaps Hellas for next year’s collaboration?
-Tara K. Menon