It happened one day in Whitby like a lightning strike. I was window-shopping when passing by a place called The Lexical Engineering Company, I was brought to a halt by a dark canvas near the window. It was almost entirely black. On it was a shadowy figure, almost skeletal or ghost-like would it be. I was intrigued enough to go inside and take a closer look. And there I stood before ‘Prometheus Bound’; I was stunned; completely taken. Whoever painted this, understood — how devastating it is to empathise with the troubles of the world, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I stood for ages, transfixed. I took the artist’s number. I wanted to tell him what this work meant to me and that, in some visceral way, I felt myself
which is the title of my poem this week in Bewildering Stories.
Prometheus was being punished for his compassion toward mankind, which in itself seems to us unfair. Having witnessed their terrible plight, living like animals, he saw a higher purpose for them and gave them the gift of fire so that they could control their environment, be warm, cook, burn vegetation — become so much more than the beasts. He gave them power. Zeus was angry. How dare Prometheus usurp him in this way? Perhaps Prometheus wanted to be greater than his father.
Now this is not a stone’s throw from Eden. It is the power of knowledge that makes man independent from the gods. It is what Adam wanted and what he took.
In the Prometheus story knowledge is freely given by a compassionate being who is then punished by a higher, jealous diety. At length Prometheus is rescued by Hercules who thinks his punishment unfair. And so Zeus takes the upper hand again and Prometheus’ brother fall in love with and marry Pandora, whose dowry, a box, contains all the evils that are unleashed upon the world and thus mankind is ultimately punished too because of Prometheus’ actions.
Robert Ford, the artist, had painted this image with so few lines and yet, such lines as flow and move and turn before our eyes, that the figure on the canvas seems to writhe; never to rest. Some people when they see this canvas think it depressing, since it is almost entirely black. Not I — because there, amid the blackness of despair, the agony of pain, the unrelenting exhaustion of prolonged suffering for the plight of mankind and yes, the anger, which are so keenly present, there are glimmers, rays of light — a stairway, a window-grill, shafts of hope the figure itself made of light.
I talked to Robert and told him what the painting meant to me. Perhaps he will read the poem and know that, after all these years, it still speaks to me. I think it always will. Because it is by contrast that we see. There can be no light without darkness, no shadow but for light. I am reminded of this every day and it helps me deal with the horrors that came out of that box, that constantly beset us from the TV screen and papers and in life; and I am also reminded that neither Prometheus nor I ever held the key to that box. It’s not his fault and it isn’t mine so I will forgive his hubris and impotence, if he will forgive me mine.
I have been asked about “Whitby-black” in the poem.
Whitby is the town where Bram Stoker’s Dracula is set and where I ‘met’ Prometheus It is famous for the best quality Jet jewelery which is also black and so it is a place of gothic black horror — I just extrapolated to that phrase and coined the term.