THE gift of Prometheus was fire. How has it been used? Fire might sustain, in the tender warmth of a lasting love, or it might destroy, in the utter chill of a world bereft of such love, or finally in the perishing inferno of flame which burns all before it. It’s a single image but a multi-faceted metaphor. Let’s pause on the sustaining aspect first.

The possibility of sustenance and tenderness need not be sentimentalised. The danger of saccharine extrusions might be noted, but we are wise to temper such tones. In the Australian poet Les Murray’s beautiful celebration of marriage, The Wedding at Berrico, a particular occasion from 1992 becomes universal:

Here are your gifts…

Landscape. Unfraught love. Some poetry.

Risk too, with his star rigger Freedom,

but here’s poise, for whatever may come.

What’s life wish you? Sound genetics, delight,

long resilience against gravity…

…a joint sense of home.

… Fun,

challenges, Meaning, work-satisfaction –

this must be the secular human lot: health

till high old age, children of character,

dear friendships. And the testing one: wealth.

Quietly we add ours: may you

always have each other, and want to…

But now you join hands, exchanging

the vows that cost joyfully dear.

They move you to the centre of life

and us gently to the rear.

That’s humbling, and analogous to the kind of love expressed in the third piano concerto of Bela Bartok, especially in the central slow movement, one of the loveliest pieces of music ever composed. There is a similar acknowledgement of difficulty here, a recognition of the unanswerable questions, the storms that might tear, but these are, miraculously, carried along on the sustained tonal resolution of that Adagio Religioso.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus famously proclaims that “the lunatic, the lover and the poet / are of imagination all compact.” But he continues:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

We are more or less familiar with the lover and the poet, but the madman brings the dangers of Prometheus’s gift more forcefully close. “More devils than vast hell can hold” are behind Edward McGuire’s setting of the traditional ballad, Cruel Mither, about a mother who, having had two “bonny babies” illegitimately, decides to kill them in infancy, and knows her decision has damned her to a life of Hell’s fire, plague and guilt. It’s an eerie and shivering ballad that has been known for several centuries, but its concerns, of course, are perennial. When Walter Scott took the matter of child murder as a central theme in his novel The Heart of Midlothian, he probably knew that ballad by heart. Its utter chill is the threat which lies behind the generosity and largeness of spirit for which the novel’s central character, Jeanie Deans, and Scott himself, are better known.

The lover and the poet are in the same “compact” triumvirate because of the gift of Prometheus, the fire which is both love and art, which comes to excess in passion or fury, or dies and turns to burning ice. The poet’s “fine frenzy” is exactly what Charles Olson expresses in his liberating, influential essay of 1950, Projective Verse: “[It’s] the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it […] by way of the poem itself […] all the way over to, the reader. […] Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct […] and an energy-discharge.”

And the lover’s “energy-discharge” has its own long tradition. A story was told by the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje when he was in New Zealand in March 1988: A woman who was once working as a night nurse in a hospital would keep the patients’ interest up by reading to them in the evenings, stories, poems. Nothing was having very much impact this time so she told them when she went in the next evening that tonight she would read them some modern poetry and tonight she would read them some poems by David Gascoyne. And they did sit up and when she read them the poems of David Gascoyne they did listen. And then when she closed the book and was leaving the ward one of the patients rose up and came over to her and he said to her, “I am David Gascoyne.”

And she divorced her husband and she married him.

The unexpected delight of the surprising turn, the fresh variation, keeps the dance going. Some rather arid and wrong-headed theorists have suggested that such traditions in themselves are reactionary, that it’s somehow wrong or evil to write love poems in this tradition. But we do. In the early 1600s, John Donne calls out in angry opposition to the rising sun that will bring the day that ends the night which he and his lover have happily spent together:

Busie old foole, unruly sunne,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?

Saucy pedantique wretch, goe chide

Late Schooleboyes, and sowre prentices,

Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,

Call countrey ants to harvest offices;

Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clyme;

Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.

For Donne, the lover is “all States” and he is “all Princes”, and the Sun itself is finally seen as the hot and happy ball whose centre is their bed itself, and whose sphere is made up of the walls of their bedroom.

It’s the same old story 400 years later in Peter McCarey’s “aubade” or “alba” – another dawn-song of love, in his poem Tantris from his book, Collected Contraptions (Carcanet Press, 2011):

Don’t go. Don’t let the morning

turn your head with her shivering, thin grace,

in silk like a tarn that just forgot the starlight

before the sun takes its usual way with her.

If dawn were a dove on the window ledge …

but you don’t want to know.

Don’t go – all this in the dark, her lying there

like moonlight on the bed, like a memory,

beyond recall already, now the blackbirds

were telling the town what we had done that night,

carving our initials

on each other’s hearts. They sang

Don’t go – but the night was parcelled up in binbags.

You’re on my mind so much, I hardly know

The noonday sun or frost in the bones of morning

The poem draws to a close with dawn and farewell:

Goodbye: the yellow planets and the grey

dawn will attend you on your way. The sun

will get around this blind. The sun

will lever us apart.

I have her crouching at this square of canvas

quite naked. Black canvas. Black on white.

Heavy hair pinned up, and chin to cheekbone

mulled in light, like a pebble in the hand.

She pulls the black aside –

she rolls it up, we disappear.

One of the most mesmerizing of all American modern love poems is by Theodore Roethke:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,

When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;

Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:

The shapes a bright container can contain!

Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,

Or English poets who grew up on Greek

(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,

She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;

She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;

I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;

She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,

Coming behind her for her pretty sake

(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Roethke’s eyes are dazzled: “She moved in circles, and those circles moved” –

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:

I’m martyr to a motion not my own;

What’s freedom for? To know eternity.

I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.

But who would count eternity in days?

These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:

(I measure time by how a body sways).

This is the gift of Prometheus, so frighteningly well-known by the “compact” of the lunatic, the lover and the poet. We’ve been dwelling here on the benevolent aspect, the lover’s. There are others, as we noted. Prometheus’s gift delivers, allows for, and sometimes generates a kind of creative heat, a Promethean desire, sustaining, but at its most dangerous, it can flare into destruction.

We’ll come back to that.

Next week: Alan Riach looks at the liberating power of imagery and the destructiveness of ignorance, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Derek Walcott: more gifts from Prometheus: eloquence, humour, wisdom and “bad juju”