Poetry

Stephen Dunn – Allegory of the Cave

“He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see

his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed
was false…”

– Stephen Dunn


Stephen Dunn‘s poem, Allegory of the Cave, talks about knowledge and the layers of knowing uncovered by exploration. Taking on Plato’s scene of the prisoners in the cave, Dunn imagines the loneliness of the visionary who captures a radical truth but is unable to communicate what he has seen and understood to his fellow prisoners who remain deluded in the darkness. With no resonance, the person begins to doubt himself and his experience, and question even the primacy of the sun, since, as he says, ‘wasn’t there always a source behind a source?’


Allegory of the Cave

He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see

his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed
was false. And he was suddenly

in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero

would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave’s upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out

the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.

He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words

with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it’s a joke.

By this time he no longer was sure
of what he’d seen. Wasn’t sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn’t there always a source

behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.

Stephen Dunn
From: The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry

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