Lyrics of Ascent
Poetry and the Platonic Tradition – An Anthology
The longing to ascend to celestial spheres is as old as mankind. It surfaces in myths and legends throughout the world. In the Eastern Mediterranean, it inspired the philosophers of Antiquity. Foremost among them was Plato, who saw ascent by means of self-purification as a pathway for the human soul to return to its source in the realm of divinity. Building on Plato’s ideas centuries later, the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus identified that divine source as ‘the One’: an ineffable singularity from which all multiplicity derives and to which it aims to revert.
The teachings of Plotinus and his followers, known today as ‘Neoplatonism’, became the dominant philosophy of Late Antiquity. Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers found aspects of it compatible with their monotheist creeds. They engaged with it in their philosophy, theology and mysticism and reflected it in their literature and the arts. Neoplatonism therefore represents a common heritage shared by the cultures which arose out of the three monotheist religions. Its legacy bridges the divide between East and West, North and South.
The British Academy publication Faces of the Infinite – Neoplatonism and Poetry at the Confluence of Africa, Asia and Europe (2022, Oxford University Press) reveals the many guises in which this common heritage pervades the poetic traditions of the Greater Mediterranean, from Late Antiquity to the modern period. The most important poems discussed in this publication by 24 international scholars have been made available here in English translation and in the original languages: Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Persian, Spanish and Turkish.
Though designed primarily to complement the published volume, the Online Anthology Lyrics of Ascent is intended to go beyond the scope of the book by including a selection of languages and poems of relevance to our subject which the book does not cover. This also includes poetic writings inspired by Platonism unmediated by Neoplatonic thought, notably those composed in Europe after the Renaissance, when Plato’s original writings were rediscovered. A major example is the English poetic tradition which has for long engaged with both Platonism and Neoplatonism. A small number of English poems from different periods are therefore included and more may follow. Poems in other European and Afro-Asian languages will be added in due course.
In order to make the Anthology stand on its own as a source of reference, the poems cited are, as a rule, prefaced with a biographical note on the authors and brief explanatory comments on the text, including a reference to the Faces of the Infinite volume wherever applicable (title abbreviated as FoI).
The Anthology is a work in progress, and readers are invited to contribute comments, critiques and suggestions, including the names of poems and languages they feel should be included. The rubric ‘Studies’ on this website provide an opportunity to publicise articles, research papers, bibliographies and other comments which may have a bearing on the interface between poetry and the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, as well as on the texts made accessible here.
Their authors include some of the most celebrated writers of their respective traditions: Dante, Ibn Arabi and Ibn Gabirol, and, among the moderns, the Italian Nobel Prize-winner Eugenio Montale and the Iranian cineaste and poet Abbas Kiarostami. Neoplatonic notions of the ascent of the soul to a higher realm, conceived as the fountain head of love and beauty, have left many a trace on the works gathered here. These traces differ greatly in form and range from the overt to the transubstantiated and fragmented and, in some cases, to the negated. They remain recognizable all the same and acquire new layers of meaning when seen in the wider comparative context made available here.
Taken together, the volume Faces of Infinite and the Anthology Lyrics of Ascent aim to demonstrate that Neoplatonism is a cross-cultural phenomenon of outstanding importance which has given rise to a distinct ‘Neoplatonic poetics’ and remains relevant by pointing the way towards an inclusive sense of identity commensurate with a pluralist world.
Words of appreciation and thanks
This website could not have been prepared without the help and expertise of many friends and colleagues. The editors are profoundly grateful to them all for their valuable support. Foremost among them is Nick Awde who designed the website and helped us to set it up. The names of all those who generously made time available to provide us with texts and introductions to the poems on the website are listed under the rubric ‘Contributors’, with an indication of the poets and the works they selected. The rubric ‘Poets’ gives the names of the contributors in the order of the poets of their choice.
The editors wish to thank the copyright holders who have given us permission to reproduce their material on this website. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, but if any have been omitted or cited incorrectly the editors will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.
A special vote of thanks must go to Dr Ahmed Moustafa for supplying the illustration which appears on the cover of the volume Faces of the Infinite and on the opening page of this Anthology. It shows a detail of his triptych ‘Night Journey and Ascension’ (2008-2011CE / 1429-1432AH). The composition is based upon Qur’anic verses referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s heavenly journey and hence evokes the principal theme underlying this collection, the ascent of the soul.
The graphic emblem chosen to represent the Anthology both here and in the published volume is the Egyptian hieroglyph which designates the act of writing. The editors hereby thank Dr Hany Rashwan for his help in selecting this symbol. It shows a pen tied to a bowl of water and a palette with two colours. The choice of a hieroglyph was inspired by Plotinus’s praise of the writing system devised by ‘the wise men of Egypt’ (οἱ Αἰγυπτίων σοφοί, Ennead V 8  6.1-9).
Stefan Sperl & Yorgos Dedes