Prometheus (written 1774, unauthorised publication 1785, authorised publication 1789)

Written at the height of Goethe’s Sturm und Drang period in 1774, this poem presents Prometheus as a rival Creator who scorns God. According to Greek myth, Prometheus, a demigod and the son of a Titan, stole fire from the gods and created humanity from clay. When Goethe published this poem of defiance in 1789 he placed it next to ‘Ganymed’, a poem of submission. Goethe saw life as an alternating process of self-assertion (systole) and self-loss (diastole); ‘systole’ is a movement of convulsion (e.g. of the heart or lungs) and ‘diastole’ is a movement of dilation/relaxation. ‘Prometheus’ exemplifies the former, and ‘Ganymed’ the latter.

Goethe’s ‘Prometheus’ influenced P. B. Shelley (Prometheus Unbound, 1820) and Karl Marx. In the preface to his doctoral thesis (1841), Marx wrote:

‘Prometheus’s confession “in a word, I detest all Gods”, is its own confession, its own slogan against all Gods in heaven or earth who do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity.’ Source: David McLellan, Marx, Fontana Modern Masters (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1975), p. 26

For a detailed study of Goethe’s ‘Prometheus’ and the process of secularisation, see Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth [1979] (reading list below).

Further Reading

Manfred Beller, ‘The Fire of Prometheus and the Theme of Progress in Goethe, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Canetti’, Colloquia Germanica 17:1-2 (1984), 1-13

Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth [1979], trans. by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988)

E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935); (reprint: Boston, MA: Beacon Hill, 1958), section on ‘Prometheus’, pp. 85-93

K. F. Hilliard, Freethinkers, Libertines and Schwärmer: Heterodoxy in German Literature, 1750-1800 (London: igrs, 2011), pp. 148-54

Jonas Jølle, ‘“Prince Poli & Savant”: Goethe’s Prometheus and the Enlightenment’, Modern Language Review 99:2 (2004), 394-415

Edgar Landgraf, ‘Self-Forming Selves: Autonomy and Artistic Creativity in Goethe and Moritz’, Goethe Yearbook 11 (2002), 159-76

Laurence K. P. Wong, ‘Defying Zeus in German: Goethe’s “Prometheus” as a Case of Untranslatibility’, Revue Septet: Société d'Etudes des Pratiques et Théories en Traduction 1 (2007), 233-55