Michael Drayton’s Sonnet 14: Prometheus Contrasted with a Hottie

Below is a sonnet that appears to be one of the earliest references to Prometheus in an English language poem. In The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s—which is a pretty encyclopedic referencethe poem is the first one listed under “Prometheus.” It’s Michael Drayton’s Sonnet 14, from his collection of sonnets titled, Idea  (1619):

If he from Heav’n that filch’d that living fire
Condemn’d by Jove to endless torment be,
I greatly marvel how you still go free
That far beyond Prometheus did aspire.
The fire he stole, although of heav’nly kind,
Which from above he craftily did take,
Of lifeless clods us living men to make,
He did bestow in temper of the mind;
But you broke into Heav’n’s immortal store,
Where Virtue, Honor, Wit, and Beauty lay,
Which taking thence you have escap’d away,
Yet stand as free as e’er you did before;
      Yet old Prometheus punish’d for his rape.
      Thus poor thieves suffer when the greater ‘scape.

Michael Drayton is addressing his ideal woman—his Beatrice. She has stolen from heaven “Virtue, Honor, Wit, and Beauty,” and yet, unlike Prometheus, she appears to have gotten away with her theft unscathed.

Good for her!

But I also get the impression that there’s an undercurrent of resentment in Drayton toward this woman, for traditionally men are given by Prometheus craft, cunning, techne, intelligence. So Drayton obviously doesn’t think that this woman got those endowments (else there would be no contrast between Prometheus and her). Put directly, in Drayton’s sonnet this woman is given, well—how shall we put this nicely?—less intellectual gifts.

He does say she’s witty, though. But acknowledging that someone is witty does not necessarily mean that he thinks of that person as possessing a substantial mind. She may be quick on the uptake of his thoughts—that is, responsive—but not “masculine” or “Promethean” in intellectual generation. 

In other words, if the woman of Drayton’s affections was  particularly intelligent, his sonnet may have been off-putting to her for its boorishness, admiring the woman’s physical charms and virtues, but not really her mind. And the sonnet’s ending couplet, mentioning rape, is not very nice, is it? I know he’s trying to make the rhyme with ‘scape, but really now!

If I were a woman having just received this sonnet from a man, and reading it through again for a second time, I’d also latch onto that third line—“I greatly marvel how you still go free”—and wonder whether this man, as a husband, might enslave me. And is his innuendo this: that I don’t sufficiently like men?

I wonder if the woman to whom he sent this sonnet gave him a second date. Maybe the other men in her life were even more boorish, or perhaps not as well off. At least Drayton could write, and knew mythology. In a world of bad options, maybe these were things a woman could hold onto.

But if she didn’t give Drayton a second date, do you suppose he sent the sonnet to another woman?

Below is a painting of the lovelorn Michael Drayton. Wikipedia says that the woman he addressed his sonnets to did not return his favors: “. . . the lady lived by the river Ankor in Warwickshire. It appears that he failed to win his ‘Idea,’ and lived and died a bachelor.”

A lesson for the lovelorn male: notice a woman’s mind, or you might end up alone and grimacing uncomfortably in a fluffy collar for the rest of your life.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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