The Simile of the Avalanche in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0






List of Works Cited


Percy Bysshe Shelley was not the naïve dreamer as who he is often described. He did not cherish views of society that rested solely on the power of imagination. As Kenneth Neill Cameron has pointed out, his remarks on society were founded on an analysis of contemporary political conditions.[1] This was not unusual. Shelley’s approach to politics follows a general tendency of his time.

Shelley’s time is interesting in regard to how people looked at society. They no longer trusted in philosophical constructions but began to look at ‘the facts,’ that is, they began to look at society as the effect of the forces and causes that preceded it. Jeremy Bentham, with whom Shelley shared many political views,[2] can be regarded as the first political thinker (the philosophers had paved the way) in England who tried to build his social theories on empiricism; Bentham wrote his landmark essay on Evidence in 1806.[3] Those who came after Bentham were critical of him. John Stuart Mill, in his autobiography, said that he embodied the “empiricism of one who has had little experience.”[4] But nevertheless, he was indebted to him. From Bentham on, a new way of thinking about society was on the rise in England. It was carried on and developed through the decades by people like Mill and Beatrice Webb and later on received the name of ‘sociology’. Shelley, it seems to me, was connected with his own time in that he witnessed the developments in social and political thinking. Not only this: In his poetry, the arrival of empiricism in social theory can be traced. In fact, his poetry bears witness to the hour when social theory made the first efforts to become a part of science. This arrival has never been unproblematic because it conflicted with metaphysical assumptions.[5] This conflict is present in Shelley as well.

In the context I have outlined, I want to look at Shelley’s famous simile of the avalanche in Prometheus Unbound, written in 1818/19. I read the avalanche as an image that represents phenomena in different fields at the same time: the theory of knowledge, the theory of the mind, and the theory of society. More concretely, it stands for propositions about how knowledge is augmented, about how the mind works, about how the dynamic of avalanches functions and about how revolutions come into being and how they work. My focus will be on the latter meaning, for I read Prometheus’ struggle against Jupiter as the struggle of the peoples of Europe against their despots, assisted by historical evolution or necessity (embodied by Demogorgon) and helped by love (embodied by Asia).[6]

The political meaning of the avalanche is suggested by Shelley’s vocabulary. The passage runs:

--Hark! The rushing snow!

The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,

Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there

Flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds

As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth

Is loosened, and the nations echo round

Shaken to their roots: as do the mountains now.

(act 2, scene 3, 36-42)

That the “mass” of the avalanche has “gathered” flake by flake brings a mob to mind which has to grow to a certain size as to become susceptible to the workings of mass psychology. Those workings can “loosen” the constraints of ‘civilized’ (which can also mean, at least in a Freudian sense: repressed) society from one moment to the other; it is the spontaneous annulment of all social contracts in the name of a violent collective desire. This is the nightmare of all despots, even of those who still have their people under control; for as soon as an avalanche of revolution is loosened, the other “nations echo round” and become prone to revolt against their oppressors as well. This is why William Pitt, who knew this, made repeated efforts to go to war against revolutionized France.

Before going into a more detailed analysis of the avalanche as an image of revolution, it is necessary to recognize that not only politics play a great part in the passage. It is of great importance that the simile’s propositions about epistemology, aesthetics and politics are contained in the image of a natural phenomenon. This were not remarkable, were Shelley’s nature not significantly different from Wordsworth’s, for an instance. As a natural phenomenon, Shelley’s use of words suggests, the avalanche belongs primarily to the domain of natural science. The snow of which the avalanche consists is “sifted”, thoughts are “piled”, the truth is “loosened”, and nations “echo” and are “shaken”. There is a remarkable accumulation of ‘technical’ terms in this short passage, terms which one could find in treatises on chemistry or physics. The description of the avalanche is given in the language of natural science and as such in the language of empiricism.


[1] See Cameron: “The Social Philosophy of Shelley,” 515.

[2] See ibid.

[3] See Lepenies: Between Literature and Science, 101f.

[4] Quoted after ibid., 104.

[5] Also, the barrenness of empiricism depressed its own theorists, for example John Stuart Mill. Mill found immediate cure in the poems of Wordsworth.

[6] See Cameron: “The Social Philosophy of Shelley,” 518.

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The Simile of the Avalanche in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound
Brandeis University
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Simile, Avalanche, Shelley, Prometheus, Unbound, Romanticism
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Anonymous, 2002, The Simile of the Avalanche in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • Rob Zseleczky on 9/17/2010

    Shelley's imagery can be political/sociological, philosophical, scientific, mythological, or literal, but once in a while it communicate ideas in 3 or 4 categories at once, in an allegorical fashion like Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene, in which there are 4 interspliced layers all the way through the entire gigantic epic. In Richard Holmes' thrilling biography of Shelley--in which the judgment of the poems ranges from excellent to problematic--Holmes at one point in his discussion of Prometheus Unbound explores a passage in which swamp gas rises from the bottom of ponds, and explains how the poetry fulfills 3 or 4 of the categories mentioned above. This is just one of the beautiful qualities of Shelley's poetry. Shelley is not perfect, but the best of Shelley is very very fine. (Thirty-six verse forms in Prometheus Unbound alone.)Those who believe his poetry to be simply lyric have only experienced one of his most obvious qualities. Shelley is much richer than that, and much more rewarding. Study of all of his long poems, best lyrics, and A Defense of Poetry is necessary to approach a real understanding of his true range and skills. The age he lived in was, poetically speaking, truly astonishing. For me, only Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser present us with higher achievements, but the Byron/Keats/Shelley era gave us so very much to think about and to admire. Keats and Shelley egged each other on like the best of the Italian masters during the Italian renaissance. Unbelievable. --R.E.Z.

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