The Tribune - Spectrum


, August 11, 2002

Plato’s influence on English literature through ages
B L Chakoo

Platonism and the English Imagination.
Edited by Anna Baldwin and Sarah Hutton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Pages 357. £ 50.

Platonism and the English ImaginationBESIDES being a philosopher of genius, Plato was a rich and diverse writer, and never became simply a monument, frozen in a fixed idea of his achievement. Every age has rediscovered him in a different way, and, without any nostalgia for antiquity, reconstructed his philosophy to suit its own understanding of the world. However, the English imagination has never been able to "live" with Plato, yet in a more profound sense it has never been able to live without him. In fact, Platonism and Neoplatonism run like "a changing thread" through the web of English literature.

Platonism and the English Imaginationwhich is a splendid collection of literary studies divided chronologically into periods so as to give a broad sense of how the perception of Platonism changes—is a major study of the influence of Plato on the English literary tradition, presenting how, during the long history of English literature from Chaucer and Spenser to Pound and Auden, Platonic—more especially Neoplatonic—ideas and images have been used again and again.

Thus the book—which contains essays on more than 30 English authors from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch—begins with the essay Plato and the Neoplatonists by Anne Sheppard. Adopting a historical approach, she provides a succinct readable introduction to Neoplatonists who, according to her, were philosophers, not poets, and who emphasised just the aspects of Plato that have made his philosophy attractive to the literary imagination.


The volume’s Part II includes The Christian Platonism of St. Augustine by Janet Coleman, Boethius and King Alfred by Janet Bately, Chaucer’s use of Neoplatonic traditions by Yasunari Takada, and Platonism in the Middle English Mystics by Andrew Louth. These essays give general but richly detailed accounts of how Platonic ideas were incorporated into the Christian faith by Augustine and his predecessors, how these ideas and other Platonic authorities were used in Old and Middle English prose and poetry, and how the writings of the English mystics became part of the Platonic tradition.

Nevertheless, the main interest of this part resides in the fact that to the modern reader the Neoplatonists appear to be reading their own metaphysics into passages of "Plato that do not warrant it and to be misled by an excessive desire to explain away contradictions not only within Plato but between Plato and Aristotle."

The interesting essays, included in part III, are: Shakespeare on beauty, truth and transcendence by Stephen Medcalf; Platonic ascents and descents in Milton by Anna Baldwin; and Platonism in some Metaphysical poets by Sarah Hutton. Thus Medcalf’s penetrating study of Shakespeare and Plato provides us with, respectively, a brilliant understanding of the fact that Plato put his philosophy forward not as a code of doctrine, but dramatically as "a set of explorations in dialogues that look like plays," and that Shakespeare "behaved" in a thoroughly Platonic way, particularly in Troilus and Cressida in which the sheer quantity of philosophical statement and debate that happens in it is highly Platonic in its appeal.

Part IV concentrates on the 18th century and includes, surprisingly, a single essay on Blake and Platonism by Edward Larrissy. Though the 18th century marks a waning interest in Platonism in general, Blake continued to engage with it. So Larrissy gives a general but richly detailed survey of the involvement of Blake in Platonism. However, there is little effort to provide the reader with a brief indication of the line taken by this volume. The concluding pages simply present a summary of the content of Blake’s work.

The main interest of the concluding parts (V &VI) resides in the fact that the renewal of interest in Plato in the 19th and 20th centuries was at once more secular and more scholarly. Part V—which comprises Coleridge’s Platonism by Keith Cunlife, Wordsworth’s Ode on the intimations of Immortality by A.W. Price, Shelley, Plato and political imagination by Jennifer Wallace, and Arnold, Plato, Socrates by M.W. Rowe—provides us with a detailed and absorbing account of how the 19th century was a time of triumph for Plato who seemed able to appeal aesthete and man of thought, conservative and radical, agnostic and Christian alike.

The essays in Part VI which follow a similarly detailed approach are: Brian Arkins’s Yeats and Platonism, focusing on the transcendent symbolism of both Plato and Neoplatonists; Brenda Lyons’s Virginia Woolf and Plato, sizing up the connections between Plato and Woolf whose writings do not engage with Platonic arguments, but rather draw from "the dialogues" to inspire, complicate, and support her own aesthetic ends; Dennis Brown’s Plato and Eliot’s earlier verse, showing how Eliot’s earlier poetry queries whether Plato’s own philosophical contribution should be regarded as an elaboration of ideal truths or as a quasi-sceptical journey into ultimate mystery; Daphne Turner’s Platonism in Auden, the struggle between Platonist and poet in Auden which leads to some of his most characteristic poetry, a playful, witty display of technical mastery; and Peter Conradi’s Platonism in Iris Murdoch which is penetrating.

However, this admirable book has something so brilliant, spontaneous and scholarly about it that it seems to fill the reader with clearness and hope when he reads it. It teaches him nothing, but prepares him, fashions him and makes him ready to know all. Clear, well written, and intellectually brilliant, it will hold some surprises even for those most familiar with the riches that Platonism has to offer and will encourage the readers to take their study of Plato further and in the directions this volume has not covered.