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The distinction between philosophers and poets has been anticipated, Plato was essentially a poet—the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry (518)

In his 1981 article “Poetry and Language in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry,” John Ross Baker observes that Shelley, in his Defence, seems to give almost everyone the title of “Poet,” and Baker suggests that the “cynical reader [. . .] would conclude” that “Shelley has extended the meaning of ‘poetry’ so as to encompass whatever he pleases” (439). From this perspective, Shelley’s claim that “Plato was essentially a poet” may appear self-serving in that, simply by making Plato a poet, Shelley provides poetry with a defense against Socrates’s banishment of poetry in Republic—surely, Plato would not banish himself from his own Republic.[1] Jerrold E. Hogle’s recent reading of Shelley’s Defence, which interprets Shelley’s model for poetry as “a process of transfer and substitution” rather than as a result of inspiration provided by “a primal Oneness or coalescence” (159), seems to underscore the dilemma presented by this annexation of Plato into the realm of Shelley’s poets, for describing poetry as a process of transference denies the existence of the divine presence described by Socrates in Plato’s texts as the inspiration for poetry. What I wish to propose here, though, is that a revisiting of Plato’s Ion—one which distinguishes between what Socrates says and what we can read Plato’s text to mean—reveals that Ion presents a pattern of decentred transfer similar to that pointed to by Hogle in Shelley’s Defence and suggests, therefore, that Shelley’s assertion that “Plato was [. . .] a poet” is not self-serving, but correct: from this perspective, Plato was a poet, and he was a poet in Shelley’s terms.

In his introduction to Shelley’s Defence, David Baulch points out that Shelley’s text serves as a response to Thomas Love Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry,” a text which Shelley received while reading Plato’s Ion (1).[2] Though Defence and Ion address similar issues confronting the nature of art, literature, and criticism, the critical conversation connecting these two texts is, perhaps, not as complete as it should be. One recent work which connects a reading of Shelley’s Defence with one of Ion is Tracy Ware’s “Shelley’s Platonism in A Defence of Poetry,” in which Ware points to Shelley’s translation of Ion, a text which he describes as “largely neglected,” suggesting that “the conception of poetic inspiration described in the Ion” is Shelley’s “greatest debt” to Plato (533).[3] Ware asserts that Plato and Shelley are similar in that both see the poet as divinely inspired and that their difference lies in where each locates that inspiration: Socrates describes an external divinity, the Muse, while Shelly locates divinity, as inspiration, within the poet. While Ware’s interpretation provides a productive connection between these two texts, it also proposes that Shelley’s and Plato’s views of poetry are fundamentally at odds, for Ware asserts that when Shelley argues that poetry produces positive moral effects, “he is by implication arguing against Plato” (559). However, relying on recent readings of Ion by John Russon and Joel F. Wilcox as well as on Hogle’s interpretation of Shelley’s Defence, I want to suggest that Plato’s Ion and Shelley’s Defence argue the same thing—that the process of metaphor and transference makes poetry an essential part of society—and that Plato’s Ion, by making this argument, suggests that poetry meets the criteria set by Socrates for remaining in his republic.[4]

In “Shelley’s Poetics: The Power as Metaphor,” Hogle posits that Shelley’s Defence points, almost in spite of itself, to a “shifting process basic to thought and basic to poetry at every level” (159). In an interesting turn, Hogle’s argument inverts the model which terms poetry the effect of divine inspiration, suggesting instead that the ideas of “a first Unity or a grounding Presence [. . .] are the products, not the sources” (159), of poetry. In other words, Hogle describes the model of poetry in Shelley’s Defence as simulacrum, privileging metaphor as the source for the original or, in Platonic terms, asserting that the imitation—the shadow on the wall of the cave—is the source for the thing-in-itself, and not the other way around. This postmodern interpretation of Shelley’s text, then, suggests that Shelley’s text is, itself, postmodern, replacing the belief in the existence of any “wholeness or presence” (161) with “a perpetual metaphor” which has meaning only by constructing new associations within “a field of differences” (162). Significantly to a reading of Plato’s Ion, Hogle points out that, at times in the Defence, Shelley is himself resistant to a model of meaning which is absolutely de-centered.[5] Indeed, in the opening of the Defence, Shelley does a great deal of work to position poetry between two causes: humankind’s corporeal experience and an external, divine inspiration.[6] I believe that this conflict within Shelley’s text points to a useful way to view Ion, one in which Ion seems to articulate an answer to a decidedly postmodern crisis. While Socrates reveals the fears associated with the absence of or distance from a divine referent, Plato’s text, through its metaphor of the iron rings and through its own structure as a dramatic dialogue, serves as a model of how meaning is created even when meaning has no center.

In Plato’s Ion, the central conflict between Socrates and Ion, between philosophy and poetry, is that poetry, in Socrates’s view, has no techne—no craft—and, therefore, is a matter of divine inspiration and not of knowledge.[7] In “Cross-Metamorphosis in Plato’s Ion,” Wilcox articulates the problem created for philosophy and for the ideal of the philosopher-king by Socrates’s insistence that the rhapsode cannot know every craft.[8] Socrates’s critique of the rhapsode creates what Wilcox terms an “ultimately insoluble problem” (4), for, to be an effective governor who is able to oversee his utopian republic, the philosopher-king must be fluent in all crafts. However, in Republic, Socrates asserts that, in an ideal state, each citizen must restrict himself to only one craft.[9] Wilcox, suggesting that this conflict within Ion is “distressing” because “it is philosophy ultimately, not poetry, which falls short of the mark” (4), does not find a satisfactory resolution, instead arguing that possession of a comprehensive understanding of all crafts is “patently impossible” (9). Although Ion claims to have a knowledge of Homer that is all-encompassing,[10] and although, as Wilcox points out, “the world is clearly Homer’s province” (9), the syllogism seems to fail, for Socrates insists that Ion’s comprehensive knowledge of Homer does not equate to a comprehensive knowledge of the world, at least in Socrates’s own terms of techne. What Wilcox’s argument seems to point to, I believe, is a tension running through the text of Ion between the literal words of Socrates and what we can take the text of Plato to mean, a tension between Socrates the philosopher and Plato the poet.

The problem of finding a person able to meet the criteria for the philosopher-king and the usefulness of Socrates’s critique of poetry as some sort of divine madness rather than as a useful craft relies on the assumption that the meaning we are to take from the text is that stated by Socrates; it relies on our accepting that Plato serves as a stenographer for Socrates.[11] Viewed from this perspective, Plato’s Ion appears to be a negative critique of the rhapsode, for Socrates finds rhapsodes to be merely “interpreters of interpreters” (13), constructing a model of iron rings which places the rhapsode at the third remove from the divine poetic source and which places, by implication, the rhapsode’s performance—his art, the experience of the audience—at the fourth remove.[12] Notably, in Republic, Socrates bases his condemnation of imitative poets on a similar model, asserting that a craftsman is “an imitator [. . .] whose product is at three removes from nature” (597) and that the artist’s work merely imitates this imitation (598); the artwork is, therefore, like the rhapsode’s performance, four removes from its source. This distance between art and its source leads Socrates to banish imitative poetry based on the claim that “all poetic imitators [. . .] have no contact with the truth” (600). Socrates’s banishment of poetry in Republic confirms his criticism of the rhapsode in Ion: even though the rhapsode may be well intentioned,[13] he lacks a craft which would make him useful to his society.

What I am suggesting, however, is that there is a significant difference between what Socrates says and what we can infer from the Ion as a dramatic dialogue in which Socrates is the main character and not necessarily the voice of authority. In “Hermeneutics and Plato’s Ion,” John Russon describes Ion as “a fine piece of hermeneutical philosophy” and points to a reading of Ion that suggests that the text provides its own interpretive apparatus, arguing that “rather than being a critique of the rhapsode, Ion reveals the poverty of that philosophical stance which does not recognize its own dependence on language and interpretation” (1). Taking up Socrates’s metaphor of the iron rings, Russon suggests that “the magnet is a magnet only in its act of attracting” (6). Although Russon indicates that his redefinition of the magnet in terms of its use is Aristotelian, his insistence on use value also seems compatible with Plato’s Republic, in which citizens are expected to be useful to their community and are categorized according to their crafts.[14]

From this perspective, which focuses on the way the metaphor of the iron rings works rather than on how Socrates seems to use it to critique the rhapsode, the model of the iron rings ceases to be a model for diluted truth and becomes instead a model for the construction of meaning. In a statement which Socrates seems to ignore, Ion himself suggests that his role as a rhapsode is defined by his audience as well as by the inspiration he receives from the poet, stating, “I look down upon them [the spectators] from the stage, and behold the various emotions [. . .] stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them” (15). Ion recognizes that his performance as a rhapsode is shaped by the act of performing, understands that he becomes a rhapsode only in the interactive act of interpreting Homer for his audience. In other words, Ion’s task is not merely to recite the words of the poet, but also to translate them into a form his audience understands, a form which affects the audience the way Ion believes they should be affected. This view suggests that each link in the chain of iron rings relies on both the higher and the lower links, for just as the rhapsode is a rhapsode only in the action of bridging “the mind of the poet” (Plato, Ion 12) and the mind of the audience, the poet is a poet only in connecting the muse with the rhapsode—engaged in any other activity, the poet could not take the title “poet.”

However, this reading of Plato’s Ion, in which the metaphor of the iron rings becomes a model for the way meaning is trans-ferred or trans-lated from its divine source through the poet and rhapsode to the audience, differs from Shelley’s model in one significant aspect: for Shelley, “poetry is infinite” (525); for Shelley, the process of transfer through metaphor is unending, while the model in the Ion seems limited to a four-link chain. I now want to suggest that this difference may be resolved by pointing, first, to the differing positions along this metaphoric chain assigned to Homer in Ion and Republic and, then, to the meta-textual position of Plato as the writer of Ion. In Ion, Socrates gives the title “poet” to both Homer and Hesiod, stating that Homer is “the best and most divine” of poets (12) and that, in the model of the iron rings, a “greater number [of rhapsodes] are possessed and held by Homer” than by any other poet (15).[15] However, in an interesting turn, Socrates gives the label of rhapsode to Homer in Republic, asserting to Glaucon that “if Homer had been able to benefit men and make them more virtuous, his contemporaries would not have allowed him, or Hesiod either, to wander around as rhapsodes” (600; emphasis added). If Homer is a rhapsode, he must fill the role of the rhapsode: there must be an audience for whom he performs, and there must be a poet from whom he receives inspiration. Homer is not, then, directly connected to a divine, unearthly source of inspiration (except, perhaps, for his imagination), but to an earlier poet. Further, not only does this transfer of Homer (and Hesiod) from one iron ring to another underscore the definition of those positions in terms of function—Homer is a poet when he performs as a poet, a rhapsode when he performs as a rhapsode—but it also suggests that Plato’s iron rings are not fixed, not finite. If we accept both titles given to Homer, poet as well as rhapsode, Homer’s task is both to receive inspiration from a poet and to interpret that inspiration for an audience, and the iron rings, therefore, suggest a model remarkably similar to Shelley’s, in which the poet translates old poetry—old metaphors—into new.[16]

Plato’s position as the author of Ion, a dramatic dialogue, further underscores that the text points to the creation of meaning through interpretation and transfer and suggests that Plato, himself, is a poet—or perhaps a poetic rhapsode or a rhapsodic poet, either of which seems to be very similar to Shelley’s definition of poet. I want to return to the question of Plato’s position to the text and Socrates’s position within it, and I would like to conclude by addressing this question, a question central to Shelley’s postmodern reading of Ion: is Plato a dramatist or simply a stenographer for Socrates? In other words, does Plato mechanically record the text that Socrates constructs, or does he translate that text into a new form? In a letter to Dionysius, Plato states that he “[has] never written anything about” his own philosophy and that “there is not and will not be any written work of Plato’s own” (Collected Dialogues 314). While this admission seems to support the idea that Plato merely records the words of Socrates, Plato follows this statement by asserting that the works which “are now called [Plato’s] are the work of a Socrates embellished and modernized” (314). Like the poet of the iron rings, Plato records the inspiration he receives, and, like the rhapsode, he translates that inspiration into a form accessible by his audience, “embellish[ing] and moderniz[ing]” Socrates’s verbal text. Plato acts as both poet and rhapsode, translating the metaphors of a previous poet into a new form. When Shelley describes “the truth and splendor of [Plato’s] imagery” and “the melody of his language,” it seems easy—and reasonable—to connect this description to Plato’s claim to have “embellished and modernized” the words of Socrates.

Certainly, Shelley’s Defence points to the de-centering of meaning and removes language from a fixed, divine source, but a revisiting of Ion suggests that Plato’s text is also remarkably postmodern in its view of language. For Plato, meaning already lacks a center and the iron rings are already distant from any muse, for Ion itself metaphorically describes a process of metaphor—of interpretation, translation, and transfer—by which meaning is constructed. This view of language, in which meaning is constructed rather than reflected, points to a reprieve from Socrates’s banishment of poetry in at least two ways. First, Ion suggests that the value of language, the presence of meaning in a Platonic world, depends upon poets such as Plato to construct that meaning, so the Ion answers the challenge made by Socrates in Republic, proving “that [poetry] must have a place in a well-governed city” and that Socrates and his utopian government should, in fact, “be glad to welcome it” (607). Second, and perhaps more importantly, this interpretation of Ion suggests that Ion eliminates the basis for Socrates’s objection, for it eliminates the need for concern regarding mimesis. Because Homer occupies various positions along the chain of iron rings and because Plato himself serves as an interpretive link on this chain, the model of the iron rings becomes, rather than a finite model for divine truth to be transmitted (and diluted) from muse to audience, a remarkably postmodern, self-perpetuating model for the creation of meaning in which each link translates the meaning generated by the previous link into a form effective for its audience: the poet creates meaning by repeating with a difference. The iron rings, then, suggest the interminable progression of metaphor found in Shelley’s Defence,[17] and the issue of accurate representation becomes one of effect rather than of the mimetic representation of an abstract, divine Truth: the poet’s craft becomes the transmission of experience rather than the reproduction of an ideal.

I suggest that we view Shelley’s Defence not only as a response to Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry,” but also as a translation of Plato’s Ion.[18] Rather than proposing a theory radically different from that in Plato’s Ion, the Defence embellishes and modernizes the text of Ion in the same manner that Plato embellishes and modernizes the words of Socrates, making their meaning current for his audience. Shelley’s Defence reconstructs Ion, re-presenting and re-articulating the process of poetic translation and the value of metaphor Ion implies, constructing a new text for a new audience. Shelley, indeed, was a poet—as was Plato.