How Poems Work: Lives of the Great, on Phyllis Webb’s "Socrates"

Phyllis Webb’s poem “Socrates” works in two directions at once. As portrait, it returns to Socrates’ last day on earth in 399 B.C. as told in Plato’s Phaedo and composes a picture of the philosopher on his deathbed. As query, it reactivates the problem central to Phaedo—the question of the soul’s immortality—and aligns itself with the question that permits Socrates to accept his death.

Socrates was Plato’s teacher and appears as chief player in most of his dialogues. We are told that at Socrates’ death his students and close friends gathered in his prison cell. Webb revisits these events with the reader in tow. She condenses the narrative elements of Phaedo and as such enters the dialogue between Socrates and his contemporaries on the nature of the soul and its function. The poem so constituted acts as a tableau vivant. The players arrange themselves around the dying figure of Socrates. Movement halts. The preceding debate over the soul’s immortality animates the poem through and past its end point. The figure rests, yet there sparks an afterlife.

How does Webb construct this picture? The poem streams toward terminus—death, the condition central to Socrates’ inquiry—on Webb’s short lines and her tactical, precise line-breaks. It mirrors the movement of the soul and narrows along its same path. Webb employs no commas, notably none at the end of her lines which would slow movement and stop acceleration. Alliterative “hard-edged / heavens and / hells” enclose themselves syntactically and provide a near-concrete outline of these conceptual realms. Sound successfully locates people and ideas within the poem. Repeated s sounds fix “good citizen Socrates” cleverly within his own dialogue. At the same time, Webb mitigates the arrow-straight trajectory of the poem with short vowels in the open theoretical passages: “Now I suspect / claritas / hid from the shadows / it alone cast.”

But who is speaking? Webb’s first person singular is as closely associated with “I” as it is with “eye,” the seeing eye. Webb’s readers are familiar enough with her interest in philosophy to read the “I” as autobiographical. This is plausible. What is clear, though, is that the speaker engages in the problem posed by Phaedo, and it is equally clear that the speaker views the poem as means of inquiry. Ultimately all “Socrates” does is pose questions, as Socrates is said to have done in his lifetime and as is reflected in the dialogue upon which Webb’s poem is based.

At poem’s end, as death edges nearer, “(legs and torso numb),” Socrates reminds Crito of a final obligation, to pay the offering to Asclepius usually made upon recovery from illness (text notes, Phaedo). As Socrates is released from the physical realm, he asks Crito to pay the debt on his behalf. Socrates as philosopher is duly satisfied: “‘For is not philosophy / the study of death?’”

Further Reading:

Wilson’s Bowl. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1980.

The Vision Tree: Selected Poems. Ed. Sharon Thesen. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1982.

Plato. Phaedo. Translated by F.J. Church. New York: Liberal Arts Press. 1951

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