I have been reading M.H. Abrams’s classic study The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition over the last couple of weeks. It is a wonderfully erudite and often surprising intellectual history of Romanticism. One surprising detail I encountered recently was a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium. I knew Shelley was influenced by Platonism, but I didn’t know he translated any of Plato’s works. I was interested to know more about this translation, so I turned to The Shelley-Godwin Archive, which has digitized a number of Shelley’s notebooks and manuscripts. Unfortunately, they have not yet digitized this particular translation.1 They have, however, digitized a partial draft manuscript of Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Ion. It is incomplete and a little messy to read, even with the encoded transcriptions that accompany each page, but it is nonetheless a fine specimen of Shelley’s engagement with Plato’s aesthetic theories.
What follows is an edited transcription of the partial draft manuscript available here. I made some minor editorial interventions for the sake of clarity and consistency, but I tried to allow Shelley’s translation to come through as purely as possible. I did, however, cut the transcript short by about a page, only because Plato draws a firm conclusion with the line, “You are then the interpreters of interpreters,” and I thought it best not to include the opening sentences of his next line of thought. I also added a paragraph break to Socrates’s final long statement.
Socrates— Hail to thee Ion, whence returnest thou amongst us; from thine own native Ephesus?
Ion— From Epidauras, o Socrates, of the Æsculapians.
Socrates— Had the Epidaurians instituted a contest of rhapsodists to the honor of the god — ?
Ion— And not that alone, but contests in every species of musical art.
Socrates— And into what contest did you enter, & what was the event of your efforts?
Ion— I carried the first prize, o Socrates.
Socrates— Well done, you have only to consider how you shall bear away the Panathenea.
Ion— That also may happen if the God should be propitious.
Socrates— I have often envied you rhapsodists, o Ion, on account of your art; for it imposes on you the nicest care of your persons & the most studied elegance of dress so that you must excel the beautiful in beauty; & secondly a familiarity with many & excellent poets & especially with Homer the most godlike & admirable among them, & your emulation is greater, not merely to remember the verses, but to fathom the deepest meaning of this king of melody: for he is no rhapsodist who does not understand the whole scope & intention of the poet, & is not capable of interpreting it to his audience. This he cannot do without a full comprehension of the meaning of his author; worthy indeed of envy are those who can fulfill these conditions!
Ion— You speak truly, o Socrates; and indeed I have expended my principal study upon this circumstance of the art; I flatter myself that no man living excels me in expounding Homer; neither Metrodorus of Lampsacas, nor Stesimbrotus the Thasian, nor Glaucon, nor any other rhapsodist of the present time, can so give so many various & beautiful meanings to the verses of Homer as I can.
Socrates— I am persuaded of your eminent skill, o Ion. You will not grudge me a proof & explanation?
Ion— It is worth while to hear the manner in which I have illustrated Homer: I deserve a gold crown from his descendants.
Socrates— And I will find sure some day or other to request you to give me a specimen; at present I will only trouble you with one question. Are you excellent in explaining Homer alone, or are you conscious of the same power with regard to Hesiod & Archilochus?
Ion— I possess this high degree of skill respecting Homer alone; and I consider that sufficient.
Socrates— Are there any topics concerning which Homer & Hesiod say the same?
Ion— Many, as it seems to me.
Socrates— Whether you illustrate these topics better as treated by Homer or Hesiod?
Ion— In the same manner doubtless inasmuch as they say the same words with respect to the same things.
Socrates— But with regard to those things in which they differ; divination for instance?
Ion— Certainly I feel that I could explain them.
Socrates— But whether or not you or a diviner would make the best exposition respecting all that those poets say of divination, both as they agree & as they differ?
Ion— A diviner certainly.
Socrates— If you were a diviner do you not think that you could explain their discrepancies on the subject of your profession, if you understood their agreements?
Socrates— How then does it happen that you are possessed of skills to illustrate Homer & not Hesiod or the other poets in an equal degree? Are the topics of Homer dissimilar from those of all the other poets? Does he not treat the principle of war and the mutual intercourse of men, and the distinct functions & characters of the brave & the coward, the professional and the private person; the relations borne by men to the gods & the gods to men, and the mode of their communion; of the proceedings of heaven, of hell, of the origin of gods & heroes: are not these the materials from which Homer wrought his poem?
Ion— Assuredly, o Socrates.
Socrates— And the other Poets, do they not treat of the same matters?
Ion— Certainly: but not like Homer.
Socrates— How, worse?
Ion— Oh, far worse!
Socrates— And Homer better than they?
Ion— Oh Jupiter, how much better!
Socrates— Suppose, my dear friend Ion, several persons are solving a problem in arithmetic, and one alone does it correctly: a man might know who had given the true answer.
Socrates— The same as had been aware of those who had given the false one, or not?
Ion— The same clearly.
Socrates— That is, some one who understood arithmetic.
Socrates— Suppose among several people giving their opinions upon the wholesomeness of different foods whether would one person know the rectitude of the opinion of those who judged rightly, and another pass upon the erroneousness of those which were incorrect, or would the same person be competent to decide respecting both?
Ion— The same evidently.
Socrates— What should you call that person?
Ion— A physician.
Socrates— We may then assert universally, that the same person who is competent to judge of the truth is competent also to determine the falsehood of whatever is asserted on the same topic; and it is manifest that he who cannot judge respecting the falsehood or unfitness of what is said on a given subject, is incompetent to determine also on its truth or beauty.
Socrates— The same person then is competent to both.
Socrates— And yet you say that your power of explaining Homer & other poets, among them Hesiod & Archilochus, is unequal; & that you can illustrate this poet better & those worse.
Ion— And I speak truth.
Socrates— Yet if you would determine that which is excellent in one, you must also know that which is inferior in another, inasmuch as it is inferior.
Ion— So it should seem.
Socrates— Then my dear friend we should not err, if we asserted that Ion possessed a like power of illustration respecting Homer & all other poets; especially as he confesses that the same person must be esteemed a competent judge of all who speak of the same subjects, inasmuch as those subjects are understood by him, when spoken of by one; and the subject matter of almost all the poets is the same.
Ion— What then is the reason, Socrates, that when any other poet is the subject of conversation, I cannot compel my attention, and I feel utterly unable to improvise any thing worth speaking of,—& positively go to sleep; but when anyone reminds me of Homer, I awaken instantly as from a trance, I apply my mind without effort to the subject, & feel a throng & profusion of expressions suggest themselves involuntarily?
Socrates— It is not difficult to conjecture the cause. You are evidently unable to speak concerning Homer according to art or knowledge; for if you could speak according to art, you would be equally capable of illustrating any of the other poets; as the materials of their composition no less than the art of criticism which illustrates them, must be the same.
Socrates— Yet of any other art the same mode of consideration must be admitted with respect to all arts; do you desire to hear what I understand by this, o Ion?
Ion— Yes, by Jupiter, o Socrates. I am delighted with listening to you wise men.
Socrates— To confess the truth, it is you who are wise, o Ion. The rhapsodists, the actors, & the authors of these poems which you recite. I, like an unprofessional & private man, can only say that which I know to be true. Observe how vulgar & common and level to the comprehension of any one is the question I now ask, relative to the same consideration belonging to one entire art. Is not the art of painting one whole system in itself?
Socrates— Are there not & have there not been, many painters good and bad?
Socrates— Did you ever know a person competent to determine the merits of the paintings of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, and incompetent to judge the production of any other painter; who, on the compositions of other painters being exhibited to him felt wholly at a loss & very much inclined to go to sleep, and lost all faculty of reasoning upon the subject; but who, when his opinion was required of Polygnotus, or any one single painter you please, awoke, paid attention to the subject, & illustrated it with great eloquence?
Ion— Never, by Jupiter.
Socrates— Did you ever know any one very skillful in discussing the merits of Dædalus the son of Metion, one Epeius Panopeus, Theodorus the Samian or any other great sculptor, who immediately went to sleep & became at a loss the moment any other sculptor was mentioned?
Ion— I never met with such a person certainly.
Socrates— Nor do I think you ever saw a man who professing himself a judge of music, song & rhapsody, was competent to criticize Olympus Thamyris, Orpheus, or Phemius of Ithaca, the rhapsodist; but the moment he came to Ion the Ephesian felt himself quite at a loss, & utterly incompetent to determine whether he rhapsodized well or ill.
Ion— I cannot refute you Socrates; but of this I am conscious in myself that I excel all men in the profusion & eloquence of my illustrations of Homer; that all who hear me will confess it; & that with respect to other poets, I am deserted by this power; it is for you to consider what may be the cause of this.
Socrates— I can unfold to you, o Ion, my opinion. I will tell you, o Ion, what appears to me to be the cause of this inequality of power. It is not that you are possessed of any science for the illustration of Homer; but a divine influence moves you, a power like that which resides in the stone called magnet by Euripides & Heracleia by the people. For this stone not only attracts iron rings, but communicates to them power like that which itself possesses of attracting other rings, so that some times a long attached chain of rings & irons may be one to the other. To all these the power from that stone is communicated & attaches itself. In like manner the Muse, through those whom she has first inspired, communicating to others the influence of the first enthusiasm creates a chain & a succession; for all the excellent authors of poems not disciplined into excellence by art, but they utter beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspired & possessed as it were by a spirit. And thus the composers of lyric poetry, like Corybants who dance having lost all control over their mind, compose admired songs of theirs in a state of insanity, & by this supernatural possession are excited to the rhythm & harmony which they invent; like the Bacchants, who when possessed by the God draw honey & milk from the streams in which & when they come to their senses find honey no more; for the souls of poets, as poets tell, have this peculiar ministration in the world; tell us, that flying like bees from flower to flower, & wandering over the gardens & the meadows & the honey flowing fountains of the Muses these souls return to us, laden with the sweetness of melody—arrayed close as they are they speak truth. For indeed a poet is a thing ætherially light winged & sacred, nor is he capable of composing poetry until he becomes inspired & as it were mad, or whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst man yet retain any portion of the thing called reason he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate.
Thus, those who declaim various & beautiful poetry upon any subject as you upon Homer, are not enabled to do so by art or study: but every rhapsodist or poet, whether be he dythyrambic, encomiastic, choral, epic, or iambic is capable in proportion to his participation in the divine influence, & to the degree in which the Muse itself has descended upon him. In other respects poets may be sufficiently ignorant & incapable. They do not compose according to any art which they have acquired, but from the impulse of the divinity within them; for, did they know any system of criticism according to which they could compose beautiful versus upon one subject, they would be able to exert the same faculty with respect to all and any others. The God has purposely deprived all poets, prophets & soothsayers to adapt them for their employments as his ministers & interpreters, of every particle of reason & understanding; in order that we their auditors may acknowledge, that such absurd persons cannot possibly be the authors of the excellent & admirable things which they communicate; but that he the God himself is he who speaks & they are merely the organs of his voice. A proof of this may be found in Tynnichus the Chalchidean, who composed no other poem which any one thinks worth remembering except the famous pæan which is in every one’s mouth, perhaps without exception the most beautiful of all lyrical compositions and which he himself called ευρηματι μουσαν. I think you will agree with me, that the gods show us clearly by such examples that these beautiful poems are not human nor from men, but divine & from the gods; and that poets are nothing but the inspired interpreters of the gods, each excellent in proportion to the degree of his inspiration; and the examples of the most beautiful song having been composed by the worst poet in other respects, seems to have been purposely afforded as a divine evidence of the truth of this opinion. Do you think with me, o Ion?
Ion— By Jupiter, I do. You touch my soul with your words, o Socrates. The excellent poets appear to me to be divinely commissioned as interpreters between the gods & us.
Socrates— Do not you rhapsodists interpret the creations of the poets?
Ion— That also is true.
Socrates— You are then the interpreters of interpreters.
If you would like to read the unedited transcription, or to see the manuscript pages themselves, visit The Shelley-Godwin Archive. Not only do they have a selection of Percy Shelley’s manuscripts, but they also have strong holdings in Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. It is a wonderful resource.
1 I did some basic internet research but was unable to discover where the manuscript of the translation is housed, or even if it is extant.