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  • The Banquet, Gender, and "Original Composition"
  • Benjamin Sudarsky

The Banquet, Percy Bysshe Shelley's translation of Plato's Symposium, now 200 years old, has fallen somewhat between the scholarly cracks. James Notopoulos's analysis of 1949 has been taken up only recently, by David K. O'Connor in 2002, by Stephanie Nelson in 2007, and by Michael O'Neill and Teddi Lynn Chichester in 2009 and 2013, respectively.1 Since the translation has not appeared in an easily accessible, single-volume edition of Shelley's collected works or even of his prose, and only once (in expurgated form) in a widely distributed edition of Plato's dialogues, there have been few opportunities for Shelleyans or Platonists to study it.2

The Banquet deserves our attention for its formal elegance, valued by Shelley's contemporaneous readers. Its mediation between Golden Age Greece and British Romanticism registers a close dialogue between two celebrated periods of literary achievement. Shelley's own letters and Mary Shelley's introduction to her 1840 edition of Shelley's prose show their high estimate of the translation.3 Moreover, The Banquet [End Page 160] played an important role in English Platonism: the two previous English translations of the Symposium, by Floyer Sydenham and Thomas Taylor, were severely bowdlerized. Shelley probably read one of these translations in his early encounters with Plato, as Notopoulos observed. In contrast to both, The Banquet newly foregrounds Greek erotic life. Finally, it played a hitherto understudied role in the gestation of Shelley's poetry and especially of Prometheus Unbound.

Shelley composed The Banquet at the Baths of Lucca in July 1818, during a state of "tota[l] incapa[city]" for "original composition" (PBSL, ii, 26). He had associated his 1818 departure for Italy with the prospect of closer contact with ancient Greece. In and around Naples, he saw ruins of ancient Greek colonies, and during that first Tuscan summer, he imagined himself inhabiting the climate of Plato's characters. Like J. J. Winckelmann and others, Shelley thought of culture as largely a product of climate. This reasoning may give added weight to his statement that he "depend[s] on these things [i.e. the Mediterranean climate] for life" (PBSL, ii, 3). His letters from that summer generally attest to a condition like the one expressed by Young Werther: "I am so happy, so completely sunk in the feeling of peaceful existence, that my art suffers under it."4 He claimed to have coped with his "despair of producing any thing original" by translating "the divine eloquence of Plato's Symposium" (PBSL, ii, 22, 20). Yet even though biographers, taking their cue from these letters, view the summer in Lucca as a creative lull, Shelley's rapid completion of The Banquet in July suggests otherwise. In August, he had "a few days of inspiration" (probably an understatement) and finished Rosalind and Helen.5 During these weeks, he also wrote On Love and A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Athenians, relative to the Subject of Love, the latter intended as [End Page 161] an introduction to The Banquet. Additionally, as Donald H. Reiman argues, the fragmentary Prince Athanase, which reflects on the poet's discovery of Plato at Eton, was begun in July 1818.6

In this context of fecundity, what do we make of the "original composition" that Shelley thought temporarily beyond his reach? Despite Edward Young's refusal to pin down a definition, it is possible that Shelley shares Young's implication that the term applied only to the creation of longer poems.7 Translations were, and are, universally assumed to be less original. Shelley seems to share Young's bifurcation of originals and imitations in his preface to Laon and Cythna, which disavows "the imitation of any style of language or versification peculiar to the original minds of which it is the character."8 But here he means the style of contemporaries. With regard to past masterworks, a writer familiar "with the most celebrated productions of the human mind, can scarcely err in following the instinct … produced by that familiarity" (CPPBS, iii, 116). Shelley seems to intend such a familiarity when he characterizes Prometheus Unbound, obviously formed after...


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