News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

On This Day in 1818: 17 July, Percy Bysshe Shelley translates Plato’s Symposium

We continue to celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events in the Romantic period with the BARS ‘On This Day’ blog series. Following a post by Alan Weinberg in March on Shelley’s arrival in Italy in 1818, we now present this commentary by Amanda Blake Davis on the poet’s translation of the Symposium, a task that he undertook during his stay in Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany.

On This Day in 1818: 17 July, Percy Bysshe Shelley translates Plato’s Symposium

By Amanda Blake Davis (University of Sheffield)

This summer marks the bicentenary of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium into English, an exercise of remarkable speed that was conducted over ten days in the summer of 1818.  For James A. Notopoulos, ‘[t]he translation of the Symposium was one of the most important things in Shelley’s poetic life.  It is valuable not only in itself but also for its influence on Shelley’s subsequent poetry’.[1]  In light of this comment, I would like to briefly consider the history of the translation’s composition and its impact upon Shelley’s poetic thought.

‘The Symposium’, Pietro Testa (1648)

Shelley began translating the Symposium on the 7th of July and continued on a daily basis until its completion on the 17th.  Shelley then made corrections from the 19th and finished these on the 20th when Mary Shelley took up the task of transcribing that lasted until the 6th of August.

The act of translation enabled Shelley to deeply consider the moral and imaginative properties of love and allowed him to bring the poeticisms of Plato’s language to life in the English language.  Stephanie Nelson observes that both the speed of the translation and Shelley’s intentional refusal to consult a Greek lexicon ‘preserve the flow of the dialogue’, and Michael O’Neill states that Shelley’s work is ‘closer in spirit to Plato than virtually any other translation’.[2]  Shelley’s assertion in A Defence of Poetry that ‘Plato was essentially a poet’ is anticipated by his prefatory fragment to his translation, wherein he describes how the philosopher expresses ‘the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendour and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions’.[3]  In her preface to Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, Mary Shelley describes her late husband’s translation as a ‘noble piece of writing…which for the first time introduces the Athenian to the English reader in a style worthy of him’.[4]

Prior to Shelley’s translation, the existing English translation by Floyer Sydenham was a ‘sanitized’ and bowdlerised rendition, described by Mary Shelley as being ‘so harsh and un-English in its style’, and Nelson notes that ‘[t]he only translations of Plato available to Shelley, aside from Ficino’s Latin version, were Andre Dacier’s French translation of a number of dialogues, an English translation of Dacier’s selection, a French translation of the Republic, and Thomas Taylor’s Neoplatonic completion of Floyer Sydenham’s Collected Dialogues, first published in 1804’.[5]  However, this period of translation was not the poet’s first encounter with the Symposium.  In her journal, Mary records that Shelley read the Symposium one year prior to his translation, in the summer of 1817.[6]  Even earlier, Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalls that the two studied French and Latin translations of Plato’s works, including passages from the Symposium, while at Oxford in 1810.[7]  These studies were purely recreational, as the works of Plato were not added to the curriculum at Oxford until 1847.[8]  While it was the Phaedo that captivated the young Shelley at Oxford,[9] the Symposium seems to have had the most lasting effect on the poet’s mind, as it was this text that he returned to repeatedly throughout his career.

Shelley’s explained his reasoning for translating Plato’s dialogue on love in 1818: it was to allay ‘the despair of producing any thing original’.[10]  Rather than simply serving as a distraction from creative despondency, however, the translation in both content and purpose also reveals the significance of love to Shelley’s poetic thought.  In 1821, Shelley defines love as

…a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own.  A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.

(A Defence of Poetry, 682)

Shelley’s definition of love is deeply indebted to his translation of Plato’s Symposium and particularly to the speech of the prophetess Diotima who, echoing Shelley’s Hymn of 1816, discusses ‘intellectual beauty’ and asserts that ‘the beauty which is in souls [is] more excellent than that which is in form’,[11] thereby emphasising love as a mental act.  Michael O’Neill notes that ‘“intellectual” is not present in the Greek, nor in the Latin gloss of Ficino at the foot of Shelley’s Bipont edition of the Symposium and often used by him when he was gravelled by the Greek’, positing that ‘[t]he adjective’s insertion suggests that Shelley found in Plato a subject-rhyme with his own intuitions in his earlier Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’.[12]  Shelley’s insertion of the phrase into his translation reveals his own ‘identification…with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own’.  Shelley seems to feel that Plato’s emphasis on the beauty of the soul reflects his own belief in love as a meeting of minds and not simply of bodies.  This is further emphasised in the fragment of the essay that was to accompany the translation, wherein

…the gratification of the senses is no longer all that is sought in sexual connexion.  It soon becomes a very small part of that profound and complicated sentiment, which we call love, which is rather the universal thirst for a communion not merely of the senses, but of our whole nature, intellectual, imaginative, and sensitive…

(‘Essay on the Literature, the Arts and the Manners of the Athenians’, p. 57)

On the 10th of July, while engaged in the act of translation, Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes and declared that he hoped ‘to give Mary some idea of the manners & feelings of the Athenians—so different on many subjects from that of any other community that ever existed’.[13]  The translation is a gift of love and an encouragement for Mary to ‘put [herself] in the place of another and of many others’ by means of her imaginative recognition of the ‘inmost state of manners & opinions among the antient Greeks’.[14]  Mary reciprocates this act of love in writing to Maria Gisborne that: ‘It is true that in many particulars [the Symposium] shocks our present manners, but no one can be a reader of the works of antiquity unless they can transport themselves from these to other times and judge not by our but by their morality’.[15]  Here, Mary’s defence of the ancient Greeks and her recommendation for mental and moral transportation clearly anticipate Shelley’s definition of love in the Defence.

Shelley’s translation, edited and published by Mary as The Banquet nearly twenty years after his death, anticipated the English revival of interest in Plato’s life and philosophy.  Shelley’s engagement with the Symposium extends far beyond the summer of 1818, possibly beginning during his time at Eton and certainly remaining at the forefront of his thought up until his accidental death in 1822.  Poignantly, the last words Shelley wrote to Mary are: ‘I have found the translation of the Symposium’.[16]

Shelley’s last letter to Mary.  Pisa, July 1822 Shelley c. 1, fol. 505v Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (via Shelley’s Ghost).


[1] James A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1949), p. 57.

[2] Stephanie Nelson, ‘Shelley and Plato’s Symposium: The Poet’s Revenge’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 14.1/2 (2007), p. 104; Michael O’Neill, ‘Emulating Plato: Shelley as Translator and Prose Poet’ in The Unfamiliar Shelley ed. by Timothy Webb and Alan Weinberg (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p. 243.

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 679; Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Preface to the Banquet of Plato’ in The Platonism of Shelley, p. 402.

[4] Mary Shelley, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, vol. 1 (London: Edward Moxon, 1852), preface vii.

[5] Steven Bruhm, ‘Reforming Byron’s Narcissism’, Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion, ed. by Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998), p. 432; Mary Shelley, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, vol. 1, preface viii; Nelson, p. 102.

[6] Mary’s journal entry for 13 August 1817 reads: ‘Shelley writes—reads Plato’s Convivium’.  The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844.  2 vols., ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), vol. 1, p. 178.

[7] Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: George Routledge & Sons Limited, 1906), p. 72.

[8] Notopoulos, p. 31.

[9] Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: George Routledge & Sons Limited, 1906), p. 72.

[10] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), vol. 2, p. 22.

[11] Notopoulos, pp. 447 and 448.

[12] O’Neill, p. 242.

[13] PBS Letters II, p. 20.

[14] PBS Letters II, p. 22.

[15] Shelley, Mary, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. by Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980-1988), vol. I, p. 77.

[16] ‘Shelley’s first introduction to Plato was through James Lind…who befriended Shelley at Eton.  Thomas Medwin, who took an interest in Shelley’s Platonism, mentions Shelley’s statement that he read the Symposium with Dr. Lind’, Notopoulos, p. 30; PBS Letters II, p. 444.