Or, like the thief of fire from heaven,
Wilt thou withstand the shock?
And share with him, the unforgiven,
His vulture and his rock?
All was sea, sea without shore then;
the earth was wet, wet with slaughter
when one man set out—went after
the sun—taking the road he’d been
told when he was young runs like fire
down the throat of the sky: laughter
the gods themselves ignite and send
down from the palace of heaven.
He took the road to the palace
of heaven laid before him and,
defying milk that his brethren
had supplied him, climbed the highest,
up onto constellations for
what seemed centuries, denying
what joined them: their common danger—
ties of kindred, marriage, and war.
In a wood, where shade is thickest,
husband and wife stood, their cousins
and ancestors, too; seeking him
pale-faced, still, and emotionless—
waiting for him as if under
a pregnant moon he’d crack open
a god’s honeypot jaw and pour
onto them all, light they’d fought for.
Wings of wax broken, he combed down
the shores of the spheres—planets sore
from spinning ’round in their own worlds—
and revolved in his mind the one
oracle he’d held and ignored:
‘Cast behind you the bones of your
father,’ and so he hurled down stones
to vex the face of the ocean.
Beholding before him tempests
each enthroned, each cloud home to one
of the pantheon—those patrons
of nature and creation, dressed
in æther, each son and daughter
to infinity yet trembling—
he ran on, on past the winter,
sprinting across seasons, through air.
To lift the ocean, the heavens
all stood over him, forever
calling out their choruses poured
like stolen sterling on the moon;
minting for him from his effort
a new name he’d never asked for—
‘Hero,’ as if he’d go glisten
oyster-bright on the horizon.
Prison in a river, nymphs swam
the flooded yard when wanting their
liver-torn dread uplifted, sure
as wind he could give it to them—
freedom lit up like fire, like fire
no man should have—hidden desire
boiling women and kings, stolen
to singe into them reflection.
One among the vixens, temptress
strung out like holocaust mutton—
in sacrificial heat, blushing—
looked up from her sunken furnace
and he fell a prey to hunger;
wanting her then, to abandon
his mission, when up out of her
crimson lips the nymph called, ‘Thunder!’
Seeing himself in her earrings,
he trekked his solar jaunt farther
than the starry-white silk vapour
of blank space could keep her from him;
onto his knee fell the tatters
paradise’s face weeps over
heaven when men come conquering—
deities calling, ‘Come, husband!’
Alerted to their most savage
wonder, he flew from temptation
past vestiges of plundered men
less poised to carry on, much less
versed in holy noise than his ears
were; so, soaring onward and in,
heroes entered the theater
gods had painted as massacre.
Undefeated, his storm and stress
shed from her, her ivory curtain
undefiled; his destination
had been reached, all its skirts lifted,
and his quest for flame like water
to thirst gifted, filled this garden
of his with drunkenness sweeter
than any tavern could offer.
Archways of heiresses opened,
Milky Ways like molasses poured
slowly churned prophecy—spun forth
hands out of which he won; gambling
poorly, gods folded and paid more
attention to him: my vulture
and my rock, my robber husband
Prometheus, to pain condemned.
1Lord Byron, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte [sic], stanza 15 , lines 136–139; written days after the Treaty of Fontainebleau had been concluded, by which the self-crowned Emperor Napoléon I was exiled to the island of Elba, Byron’s comparison of the French military and political leader he admired to legendary Prometheus initiated a symbology Byron popularized in the Romantic age, during which many authors and artists idolized Bonaparte as the ultimate, mythical self-made hero. London: John Murray, 1814; page 14.