The Shelley Translation
Introduction by John Lauritsen
Shelley, one of our greatest poets, was a brilliant translator as well
— only equalled among poets, if at all, by Pope and Dryden. He
translated three of the Plato dialogues: The Banquet * (Symposium) in 1818 and Ion in 1821. His translation of Phaedo is lost.
Shelley especially relished the central conceit of Ion: Poets and their interpreters are all mad — or, as it were, divinely inspired.
God seems purposely to have deprived all poets, prophets, and
soothsayers of every particle of reason and understanding, the better
to adapt them to their employment as his ministers and interpreters;
and that we, their auditors, may acknowledge that those who write so
beautifully are possessed and address us inspired by the God. (From the
Shelley translation of Ion)
He expanded upon and reinterpreted this idea for his famous essay, “A Defence of Poetry”, in which he wrote:
are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the
gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which
express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and
feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but
moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (Shelley,
“A Defence of Poetry”)
Shelley did not strive for a slavishly literal,
word-for-word translation. Though he was loyal to the sense and spirit
of Plato's Greek, he did not hesitate to condense a long passage into
its essence, or on the other hand, to add his own interpolations. His
goal was to understand Plato's meaning fully, and then to re-create
that meaning in English.
Shelley's translation of Ion
is not a masterpiece in its own right, as are his translations of
Plato's Banquet or of the Homeric hymn, “To Mercury”.
Nevertheless, his Ion translation conveys wit and irony; the dialogue is natural as well as elevated; and the ideas come across clearly.
The most famous passage in Ion
is a long speech by Socrates, where divine inspiration is likened to
the effect of a magnet. Here Shelley comes into his own, and, though it
may be nearly two centuries old, his rendition excels all others for
beauty of language. Here is an excerpt from the magnet speech:
souls of poets], flying like bees from flower to flower and wandering
over the gardens and the meadows and the honey-flowing fountains of the
Muses, return to us laden with the sweetness of melody; and arrayed as
they are in the plumes of rapid imagination they speak truth. For a
poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred, nor can he
compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired and as
it were mad; or whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst a man
retains any portion of the thing called reason he is utterly
incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate. (From the Shelley
translation of Ion)
is a dialogue which has polarized critics: some are hostile to it,
while others, who do like it, believe it has been misinterpreted.
Without wishing to get embroiled in the Ion controversies, I'll simply lay out my thoughts on the dialogue.
Ion may seem obtuse and boastful, and under the
questioning of Socrates he becomes seriously confused, but he is a good
sport. There is a degree of irony when Socrates flatters Ion, as he
does in the beginning of the dialogue — but perhaps there is also
a smidgeon of irony in Ion's flattery of Socrates.
Socrates. The same mode of consideration must be
admitted with respect to all arts which are severally one and entire.
Do you desire to hear what I understand by this, O Ion?
Ion. Yes, by Jupiter, Socrates, I am delighted with listening to you wise men. (Ibid.)
On the whole the exchanges are good-natured, and Socrates treats Ion gently at the end.
A central idea of Ion
is the distinction between real and fake (pretended, simulated)
knowledge or skill. One should not confuse the military abilities of a
real general with those of an actor portraying a general, and so on.
(On this note we might recall that in the 1990s the actors from Mash
were on the collegiate circuit as lecturers on foreign policy, based
presumably on the expertise they acquired from playing their roles in
the television series.)
Socrates in Ion
also criticizes the misuse of Homer as holy text, as the authority on
everything from charioteering to warfare. The salient present-day
analogy here is the fundamentalist use of the “Holy Bible”
as the authority on everything, from morality to geology. Again, the
concern is for truth. Is the Grand Canyon better explained by the book
of Genesis or by modern geology?
Sometimes Socrates and Ion speak at cross-purposes,
but Ion is not a complete dunce. At least once he turns the tables on
Socrates, asking him to base his opinions on evidence, not
You speak well, O Socrates. Yet I should be surprised if you had
eloquence enough to persuade me that when I praise Homer I am mad and
possessed. I think you would change your opinion if you once heard me
declaim. (From the Shelley translation of Ion)
Ion comes to the defence of his own profession, that of actor or rhapsodist:
I imagine that the rhapsodist has a perfect acquaintance with what is
becoming for a man to speak, what for a woman; what for a slave, what
for a free man; what for the ruler, what for the governed. (Ibid.)
This is a fair description of the
actor's art. He doesn't need to know all the skills or details of the
people he portrays, but rather what they are like, how they speak, and
so on. It's a pity Socrates couldn't have interrogated Laurence
Olivier, Alec Guinness — or, for that matter, Bette Davis. They
might have given him a run for the money. On the other hand, Olivier
and Guinness might have taken the opportunity to study Socrates, the
better to portray him on the stage. I like to imagine Ion in his old
age giving dramatic readings of the Plato dialogues, enthusiastically
declaiming the part of Socrates.
At any rate,
long introductions are tiresome, and it's time to let Socrates, Ion,
and Shelley speak for themselves.
* For a description of the Pagan Press edition of Shelley's translation of the Banquet
— the only one which includes his introductory essay, “A
Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks” — click here.
ION, OR OF THE ILIAD
Translated from Plato by Percy Bysshe Shelley
SOCRATES and ION
Socrates. Hail to thee, O Ion! from whence returnest thou amongst us now? — from thine own native Ephesus?
Ion. No, Socrates; I come from Epidaurus and the feasts in honour of Aesculapius.
Socrates. Had the Epidaurians instituted a contest of rhapsody in honour of the God?
Ion. And not in rhapsodies alone; there were contests in every species of music.
Socrates. And in which did you contend? And what was the success of your efforts?
Ion. I bore away the first prize at the games, O Socrates.
Socrates. Well done! You have only to consider how you shall win the Panathenaea.
Ion. That may also happen, God willing.
Your profession, O Ion, has often appeared to me an enviable one. For,
together with the nicest care of your person and the most studied
elegance of dress, it imposes upon you the necessity of a familiar
acquaintance with many and excellent poets, and especially with Homer,
the most admirable of them all. Nor is it merely because you can repeat
the verses of this great poet that I envy you, but because you fathom
his inmost thoughts. For he is no rhapsodist who does not understand
the whole scope and intention of the poet and is not capable of
interpreting it to his audience. This he cannot do without a full
comprehension of the meaning of the author he undertakes to illustrate;
and worthy indeed of envy are those who can fulfil these conditions.
speakest truth, O Socrates. And indeed I have expended my study
particularly on this part of my profession. I flatter myself that no
man living excels me in the interpretation of Homer; neither Metrodorus
of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus the Thasian, nor Glauco, nor any other
rhapsodist of the present times can express so many various and
beautiful thoughts upon Homer as I can.
Socrates. I am persuaded of your eminent skill, O Ion. You will not, I hope, refuse me a specimen of it?
Ion. And indeed it would be worth your while to hear me declaim upon Homer. I deserve a golden crown from his admirers.
And I will find leisure some day or other to request you to favour me
so far. At present I will only trouble you with one question. Do you
excel in explaining Homer alone or are you conscious of a similar power
with regard to Hesiod and Archilochus?
Ion. I possess this high degree of skill with regard to Homer alone and I consider that sufficient.
Socrates. Are there any subjects upon which Homer and Hesiod say the same things?
Ion. Many, as it seems to me.
Socrates. Do you demonstrate these things better in Homer or Hesiod?
Ion. In the same manner, doubtless; inasmuch as they say the same words with regard to the same things.
Socrates. But with regard to those things in which they differ — Homer and Hesiod both treat of divination, do they not?
you think that you or a diviner would make the best exposition
respecting all that these poets say of divination, both as they agree
and as they differ?
Ion. A diviner probably.
Suppose you were a diviner, do you not think that you could explain the
discrepancies of those poets on the subject of your profession, if you
understand their agreement?
Ion. Clearly so.
How does it happen then that you are possessed of skill to illustrate
Homer and not Hesiod or any other poets in an equal degree? Is the
subject-matter of the poetry of Homer different from all other poets?
Does he not principally treat of war and social intercourse; and of the
distinct functions and characters of the brave man and the coward, the
professional and private person; the mutual relations which subsist
between the Gods and men, together with the modes of their intercourse,
the phaenomena of Heaven, the secrets of Hades, and the origin of Gods
and heroes? Are not these the materials from which Homer wrought his
Ion. Assuredly, O Socrates.
Socrates. And the other poets, do they not treat of the same matter? Ion. Certainly, but not like Homer.
Socrates. How? Worse?
Ion. Oh, far worse.
Socrates. Then Homer treats of them better than they?
Ion. Oh Jupiter! — how much better!
Amongst a number of persons employed in solving a problem of arithmetic
might not a person know, my dear Ion, which had given the right answer?
Socrates. The same person who had been aware of the false one or some other?
Ion. The same clearly.
Socrates. That is, some one who understood arithmetic?
Among a number of persons giving their opinions on the wholesomeness of
different foods, would one person be capable to pronounce upon the
rectitude of the opinions of those who judged rightly and another on
the erroneousness of those which were incorrect, or would the same
person be competent to decide respecting them both?
Ion. The same evidently.
Socrates. What would you call that person?
Ion. A physician.
may assert then universally that the same person who is competent to
determine the truth is competent also to determine the falsehood of
whatever assertion is advanced an the same subject; and it is manifest
that he who cannot judge respecting the falsehood or unfitness of what
is said upon a given subject is equally incompetent to determine upon
its truth or beauty.
Socrates. The same person would then be competent or incompetent for both?
you not say that Homer and the other poets, and among them Hesiod and
Archilochus, speak of the same things but unequally, one better and the
Ion. And I speak truth.
Socrates. But if you can judge of what is well said by the one you must also be able to judge of what is ill said by the other. 
Ion. It should seem so.
Then, my dear friend, we should not err if we asserted that Ion
possessed a like power of illustration respecting Homer and all other
poets; especially since he confesses that the same person must be
esteemed a competent judge of all those who speak on 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.
can be the reason then, O Socrates, that when any other poet is the
subject of conversation I cannot compel my attention, and I feel
utterly unable to declaim anything worth talking of, and positively go
to sleep; but when any one makes mention of Homer my mind applies
itself without effort to the subject; I awaken as if it were from a
trance and a profusion of eloquent expressions suggest themselves
is not difficult to conjecture the cause of this, my dear friend. You
are evidently unable to declaim on Homer according to art and
knowledge; for did your art endow you with this faculty, you would be
equally capable of exerting it with regard to any other of the poets.
Is not poetry, as an art or a faculty, a thing entire and one?
The same mode of consideration must be admitted with respect to all
arts which are severally one and entire. Do you desire to hear what I
understand by this, O Ion?
Ion. Yes, by Jupiter, Socrates, I am delighted with listening to you wise men.
is you who are wise, my dear Ion; you rhapsodists, actors, and the
authors of the poems you recite. I, like an unprofessional and private
man, can only speak the truth. Observe how common, vulgar, and level to
the comprehension of any one is the question which I now ask relative
to the same consideration belonging to one entire art. Is not painting
an art whole and entire?
Socrates. Are there not and have there not been many painters both good and bad?
Did you ever know a person competent to judge of the paintings of
Polygnotus, the son of Aglaophon, and incompetent to judge of any other
painter; who, on the compositions of the works of other painters being
exhibited to him, was wholly at a loss, and very much inclined to go to
sleep, and lost all faculty of reasoning on the subject; but when his
opinion was required of Polygnatus or any one single painter you
please, awoke, paid attention to the subject, and discoursed on it with
great eloquence and sagacity?
Ion. Never, by Jupiter!
Did you ever know any one very skilful in determining the merits of
Daedalus, the son of Metion, Epius, the son of Panopus, Theodorus the
Samian, or any other great sculptor, who was immediately at a loss and
felt sleepy the moment any other sculptor was mentioned?
Ion. I never met with such a person certainly.
Nor do I think that you ever met with a man professing himself a judge
of poetry and rhapsody, and competent to criticise either Olympus,
Thamyris, Orpheus, or Phemius of Ithaca, the rhapsodist, who, the
moment he came to Ion the Ephesian, felt himself quite at a loss,
utterly incompetent to judge whether he rhapsodised well or ill.
cannot refute you, Socrates, but of this I am conscious to myself: that
I excel all men in the copiousness and beauty of my illustrations of
Homer, as all who have heard me will confess, and with respect to other
poets I am deserted of this power. It is for you to consider what may
be the cause of this distinction.
will tell you, O Ion, what appears to me to be the cause of this
inequality of power. It is that you are not master of any art for the
illustration of Homer but it is a divine influence which moves you,
like that which resides in the stone called Magnet by Euripides, and
Heraclea by the people. For not only does this stone possess the power
of attracting iron rings but it can communicate to them the power of
attracting other rings; so that you may see sometimes a long chain of
rings and other iron substances attached and suspended one to the other
by this influence. And as the power of the stone circulates through all
the links of this series and attaches each to each, so the Muse
communicating through those whom she has first inspired to all others
capable of sharing in the inspiration the influence of that first
enthusiasm, creates a chain and a succession. For the authors of those
great poems which we admire do not attain to excellence through the
rules of any art but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a
state of inspiration and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their
own. Thus the composers of lyrical poetry create those admired songs of
theirs in a state of divine insanity, like the Corybantes, who lose all
control over their reason in the enthusiasm of the sacred dance; and,
during this supernatural possession, are excited to the rhythm and
harmony which they communicate to men; like the Bacchantes who, when
possessed by the God, draw honey and milk from the rivers in which,
when they come to their senses, they find nothing but simple water. For
the souls of the poets, as poets tell us, have this peculiar
ministration in the world. They tell us that these souls, flying like
bees from flower to flower and wandering over the gardens and the
meadows and the honey-flowing fountains of the Muses, return to us
laden with the sweetness of melody; and arrayed as they are in the
plumes of rapid imagination they speak truth. For a poet is indeed a
thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred, nor can he compose anything
worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired and as it were mad; or
whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst a man retains any portion
of the thing called reason he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry
or to vaticinate.  Thus those who declaim
various and beautiful poetry upon any subject, as for instance upon
Homer, are not enabled to do so by art or study; but every rhapsodist
or poet, whether dithyrambic , encomiastic , choral, epic, or iambic ,
is excellent in proportion to the extent of his participation in the
divine influence and the degree in which the Muse itself has descended
on him. In other respects poets may be sufficiently ignorant and
incapable. For 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 rules of criticism according to which they could compose
beautiful verses upon one subject they would be able to exert the same
faculty with respect to all or any other. The God seems purposely to
have deprived all poets, prophets, and soothsayers of every particle of
reason and understanding, the better to adapt them to their employment
as his ministers and interpreters; and that we, their auditors, may
acknowledge that those who write so beautifully are possessed and
address us inspired by the God. A presumption in favour of this opinion
may be drawn from the circumstance of Tynnichus the Chalcidian having
composed no other poem worth mentioning except the famous poem which is
in everybody's mouth, perhaps the most beautiful of all lyrical
compositions and which he himself calls a gift of the Muses. I think
you will agree with me that examples of this sort are exhibited by the
God himself to prove that those beautiful poems are not human nor from
man but divine and from the Gods; and that poets are only the inspired
interpreters of the Gods, each excellent in proportion to the degree of
this inspiration. This example of the most beautiful of lyrics having
been produced by a poet in other respects the worst seems to have been
afforded as a divine evidence of the truth of this opinion. — Do
you not think with me, Ion?
Jupiter, I do. You touch as it were my soul with your words, O
Socrates. The excellent poets appear to me to be divinely commissioned
as interpreters between the Gods and us.
Socrates. Do not you rhapsodists interpret the creations of the poets?
Ion. We do.
Socrates. You are then the interpreters of interpreters?
Now confess the truth to me, Ion, and conceal not what I ask of you.
— When you recite some passage from an epic poem which excites
your audience to the highest degree; when for instance you sing of
Ulysses leaping upon the threshold of his home, bursting upon the
assembled suitors, and pouring forth his arrows before his feet; or of
Achilles rushing upon Hector; or when you represent some pathetic scene
relating to Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam, do you then feel that you are
in your senses or are you not then as it were out of yourself; and is
not your soul transported into the midst of the actions which it
represents, whether in Ithaca or in Troy, or into whatever other place
may be the scene of the passage you recite?
justly you conjecture my sensations, O Socrates, for I will not conceal
from you that when I recite any pathetic passage my eyes overflow with
tears, and when I relate anything terrible or fearful my hair lifts
itself upright upon my head and my heart leaps with fear.
How then, O Ion, can we call that man anything but mad who arrayed in a
many coloured robe and crowned with a golden crown weeps in the midst
of festivity and sacrifice; who surrounded by twenty thousand admiring
and friendly persons, and thus secure from all possibility of injury or
outrage, trembles with terror?
Ion. No indeed, to speak the truth, O Socrates.
Socrates. Do you know too that you compel the greater number of your auditors to suffer the same affections with yourself?
Ion. And I
know it well. Far I see every one of them upon their seats aloft
weeping and looking miserable; indeed it is of importance to me to
observe them anxiously, for whilst I make them weep I know that my
profits will give me occasion to laugh, but if I make them laugh it is
then my turn to weep for I shall receive no money.
Know then that the spectator represents the last of the rings which
derive a mutual and successive power from that Heracleotic stone of
which I spoke. You, the actor or rhapsodist, represent the intermediate
one and the poet that attached to the magnet itself. Through all these
the God draws the souls of men according to his pleasure, having
attached them to one another by the power transmitted from himself. And
as from that stone so a long chain of poets, theatrical performers, and
subordinate teachers and professors of the musical art, laterally
connected with the main series, are suspended from the Muse itself as
from the origin of the influence. We call this inspiration and our
expression indeed comes near to the truth; for the person who is an
agent in this universal and reciprocal attraction is indeed possessed,
and some are attracted and suspended by one of the poets who are the
first rings in this great chain and some by another. Some are possessed
by Orpheus, some by Musaeus, and many, among whom you may be numbered,
my dear friend, by Homer. And so complete is his possession of you that
you daze and are at a loss when any one proposes the verses of any
other poet as the subject of recitation; but no sooner is a single
passage of this poet recited than you awaken and your soul dances
within you and dictates words at will. For it is not through art or
knowledge that you illustrate Homer but from a divine influence and
election, like the Corybantes who hear no sound except that penetrating
melody which proceeds from the Deity by whom they are possessed, and
although mad in other respects, are capable of accommodating their
words and their dress to the rhythm of that music. Hence, O Ion, you
have a power of speech respecting Homer alone, and this is the cause
which you sought why that power is united to Homer; it is by a divine
election and not through art that you have attained so singular an
excellence in panegyrizing and illustrating this Poet.
speak well, O Socrates. Yet I should be surprised if you had eloquence
enough to persuade me that when I praise Homer I am mad and possessed.
I think you would change your opinion if you once heard me declaim.
And indeed I desire to hear you, but just answer me one question. On
what subjects does Homer speak well — not on every one I imagine?
Ion. Be assured, O Socrates, that he speaks ill on none.
Socrates. And does Homer never speak anything respecting which you may happen to be ignorant?
Ion. There are indeed subjects spoken of by Homer which I do not understand.
Does not Homer speak copiously and in many places of various arts
— such for instance as charioteering? If you do not remember the
passages I will quote the verses to you.
Ion. Allow me. I remember them well.
Recite me those then in which Nestor warns his son Antilochus to beware
of the turn in the course at the horse race given the funeral of
[. . . and warily proceed,
A little bending to the left-hand steed;
But urge the right, and give him all the reins;
While thy strict hand his fellow's head restrains,
And turns him short; till, doubling as they roll,
The wheel's round nave appears to brush the goal.
Yet, not to break the car or lame the horse,
Clear of the stony heap direct the course.]
— Iliad 23:335 et seq., tr. Alexander Pope.
Socrates. Enough. Now Ion, which would be the best
judge of whether Homer had given right directions on this subject or
not — a physician or a charioteer?
Ion. A charioteer certainly.
Socrates. For what reason? Because it belongs to his art to determine?
Ion. Because it belongs to his art.
Socrates. For the God has attached to every art the
knowledge of the peculiar things which relate to it. The rules for
steering a ship would never teach us anything in medicine?
Ion. Certainly not.
Socrates. Nor could we deduce from the art of medicine any rules for architecture.
Ion. We could not.
Socrates. Thus with regard to all arts: we can infer
nothing from the rules of one to the subject of another. Permit me this
one question — you allow a distinction of arts?
Socrates. Do you understand it in the sense that I
do? I say that arts are distinct one from the other inasmuch as they
are the sciences of different things.
Ion. So I understand it.
Socrates. We cannot establish any distinction
between science the objects of which are the same. For instance, we
both know that the fingers of our hand are five in number; and if I
should ask you whether we acquire this knowledge through the same
science, that is arithmetic, or by two different sciences, you would
say by the same.
Socrates. Now answer the question I was just going
to propose. Is it not true of all arts that one class of things must be
known by one single art and that the knowledge of other classes belongs
to other arts, separately and distinctly considered; so that if the art
ceases to be the same the subject must also become different?
Ion. So it should appear, O Socrates.
Socrates. No one, therefore, who is ignorant of any
part can be competent to know rightly what to say or to do with respect
Ion. Certainly not.
Socrates. To return to the verses which you just
recited — do you think that you or a charioteer would be better
capable of deciding whether Homer had spoken rightly or not?
Ion. Doubtless a charioteer.
Socrates. For you are a rhapsodist and not a charioteer.
Socrates. And the art of reciting verses is different from that of driving chariots?
Socrates. And if it is different it supposes a knowledge of different things.
Socrates. And when Homer introduces Hecamede, the
concubine of Nestor, giving Machaon who was wounded a posset to drink,
he speaks thus:
[Tempered in this, the nymph of form divine,
Pours a large portion of the Pramnian wine;
With goats'-milk cheese, a flavorous taste bestows,
And last with flour the smiling surface strews.]
Iliad 11:639 et seq., tr. Pope.
does it belong to the medical or the rhapsodical art to determine whether Homer speaks rightly on this subject?
Ion. To the medical.
Socrates. And when he says:
[She plunged, and instant shot the dark profound:
As, bearing death in the fallacious bait,
From the bent angle sinks the leaden weight.],
— Iliad 24:80 et seq., tr. Pope.
does it belong to the rhapsodical or the piscatorial art to determine whether he speaks rightly or not on the subject?
Ion. Manifestly to the piscatorial art.
Socrates. Consider if you are not inspired to make
some such demand as this to me: Come, Socrates, since you have found in
Homer a complete and fit description of these arts, assist me also in
the enquiry as to his competence in determining on the subject of
soothsayers and divination; and how far he speaks well or ill on such
subjects; for he often treats of them in the Odyssey, and especially
when he introduces Theoclymenus, the soothsayer of the Melampodides,
prophesying to the Suitors:
[O race to death devote! with Stygian shade
Each destined peer impending Fates invade;
With tears your wan distorted cheeks are drowned,
With sanguine drops the walls are rubied round;
Thick swarms the spacious hall with howling ghosts,
To people Orcus, and the burning coasts.
Nor gives the sun his golden orb to roll,
But universal night usurps the pole.]
— Odyssey 20:351 et seq., tr. Pope.
Often too in the Iliad, as at the battle at the walls; for he there says:
[A signal omen stopped the passing host,
Their martial fury in their wonder lost.
Jove's bird on sounding pinions beats the skies,
A bleeding serpent of enormous size
His talons trussed, alive and curling round,
He stung the bird, whose throat received the wound;
Mad with the smart, he drops the fatal prey,
In airy circles wings his painful way,
Floats on the winds and rends the heaven with cries:
Amidst the host the fallen serpent lies.]
— Iliad 12:200 et seq., tr. Pope.
I assert, it belongs to a soothsayer both to observe and to judge respecting such appearances as these.
Ion. And you assert the truth, O Socrates.
Socrates. And you also, my dear Ion. For we have
both in our turn recited from the Odyssey and the Iliad passages
relating to vaticination, to medicine, and the piscatorial art; and as
you are more skilled in Homer than I can be do you now make mention of
whatever relates to the rhapsodist and his art; for a rhapsodist is
competent above all other men to consider and pronounce on whatever has
relation to his art.
Ion. Or with respect to every thing else mentioned by Homer.
Socrates. Do not be so forgetful as to say
everything. A good memory is particularly necessary for a rhapsodist.
Ion. And what do I forget?
Socrates. Do you not remember that you admitted the
art of reciting verses was different from that of driving chariots?
Ion. I remember.
Socrates. And did you not admit that being different the subjects of its knowledge must also be distinct?
Socrates. You will not assert that the art of
rhapsody is that of universal knowledge; a rhapsodist may be ignorant
of some things.
Ion. Except, perhaps, such subjects as we now
discuss, O Socrates. Socrates. What do you mean by
such subjects, besides those which relate to other arts? And with which
among them do you profess a competent acquaintance, since not with all?
Ion. I imagine that the rhapsodist has a perfect
acquaintance with what is becoming for a man to speak, what for a
woman; what for a slave, what for a free man; what for the ruler, what
for the governed.
Socrates. How! do you think that a rhapsodist knows
better than the pilot what the captain of a ship in a tempest ought to
Ion. In such a circumstance I allow that the pilot
would know best. Socrates. Has the rhapsodist or the
physician the clearer knowledge of what ought to be said to a sick man?
Ion. In that case the physician.
Socrates. But you assert that he knows what a slave ought to say?
Socrates. To take for example — in the driving
of cattle a rhapsodist would know much better than the herdsman what
ought to be said to a slave engaged in bringing back a herd of oxen
that had run wild?
Ion. No indeed.
Socrates. Perhaps you mean that he knows much better
than any housewife what ought to be said by a workman about the
dressing of wool?'
Ion. No! No!
Socrates. Or by a general animating his soldiers to battle?
Ion. The rhapsodist is not unacquainted with such matters.
Socrates. What! is rhapsody the military art?
Ion. I should know what it became a general to say.
Socrates. Very likely, if you have studied tactics.
You may be at the same time a musician and horse-breaker, and know
whether horses are well or ill broken; now if I asked you, O Ion, by
which of these two arts you judged respecting these horses, what would
be your reply?
Ion. By that of horse-breaking.
Socrates. And in relation to any judgments you might
pronounce upon musical performers you would profess yourself a
musician, not a horse-breaker.
Socrates. If then you possess any knowledge of
military affairs do you possess it in your character of general or
Ion. I see no difference between a general and a rhapsodist.
Socrates. How! no difference? Are not the arts of generalship and recitation two distinct things?
Ion. No, they are the same.
Socrates. Must he who is a good rhapsodist be also necessarily a good general?
Ion. Infallibly, O Socrates.
Socrates. And must a good general be also a good rhapsodist?
Ion. That does not follow.
Socrates. But you are persuaded at least that a good rhapsodist is a good general.
Socrates. But you are the first rhapsodist in Greece?
Ion. By far.
Socrates. And consequently best general?
Ion. Be convinced of it, O Socrates.
Socrates. Why then, by all the Gods, O Ion, since
you are at once the best rhapsodist and the greatest general among the
Greeks, do you content yourself with wandering about rhapsodizing from
city to city and never place yourself at the head of your armies? Do
you think the Greeks have so great a need of one to recite verses to
them in a golden crown and none whatever of a general?
Ion. Our own city, O Socrates, is subjected to yours
and can give no employment in that branch of the art; and Athens and
Sparta are so strongly persuaded of the competence of their own
citizens that I doubt whether they would entrust me with a command.
Socrates. My dear Ion, do you know Apollodorus of Cyzene?
Ion. Which Apollodorus?
Socrates. Him whom the Athenians entrusted with a
command, although a foreigner; Phanosthenes the Andrian and Heraclides
the Clazomenian, likewise foreigners, were also promoted to many civil
and military trusts in Athens on account of their reputation. Why
should they not honour and elect Ion the Ephesian as their general, if
he should be considered equal to the situation? — you Ephesians
were originally Athenians and Ephesus is a city inferior to none.
— But you are in the wrong, Ion, if you are serious in your
pretence of being able to illustrate Homer by art and knowledge. For
after having promised to explain a multiplicity of subjects mentioned
by Homer and assuring me that you knew them well you now deceive me;
and although I give you every opportunity you are still found wanting
even with respect to that very subject of which you profess yourself
fully master. Like Proteus you assume a multiplicity of shapes until at
last escaping through my fingers, that you may avoid giving me any
proof of your skill in Homer, you suddenly stand before me in the shape
of a general. If now you have deceived me in your promise of explaining
Homer in your quality of a professor in the science of rhapsody, you
act unjustly by me; but if the various and beautiful expressions which
at times you can employ are, according to my view of the subject,
suggested by the influence of the divine election whilst you are
possessed as it were by the spirit of Homer, and you are in yourself
ignorant and incompetent, I absolve you from all blame. Take your
choice, whether you prefer to be considered inspired or unjust.
Ion. There is a great difference between these two
imputations, O Socrates; the former is far more honourable.
Socrates. It is better both for you and for us, O
Ion, to say that you are the inspired and not the learned eulogist of
1. A minor mistranslation of Shelley's, identified by Notopoulos, has
been corrected in the text. His original reads: “Socrates. But if
you can judge of what is well said by the one you must also be able to
judge of what is ill said by another, inasmuch as it expresses less
2. Vaticinate: To prophesy, foretell.
3. Dithyramb: A frenzied, impassioned choric hymn and dance of ancient Greece in honor of Dionysus. adj. dithyrambic.
4. Encomium: 1. Warm, glowing praise. 2. a formal expression of praise; a tribute. adj. encomiastic.
5. Iamb: A metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed
by a stressed syllable or a short syllable followed by a long syllable,
as in delay. adj. iambic: Consisting of iambs or characterized by their
predominance: iambic pentameter.
Note on the text
This text is based on the critical edition of the Shelley translation in James A. Notopoulos's The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind
(Duke University Press 1949). Notopoulos, following the earlier efforts
of H.B. Forman, collated two manuscripts of the Shelley translation,
one made by Claire Clairmont and the other by Shelley's widow, Mary.
Aside from formatting, I have made no changes in the
text other than the very minor correction described in the first
endnote, and the elimination of two bracketed occurrences of
“whether”, which Notopoulos scrupulously added to indicate
a temporary indecision of Shelley's. Regarding punctuation, I have
changed nothing. — John Lauritsen