Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” is a poem about the workings of the half-conscious mind in its strivings to extinguish itself in sleep and in its trials to refocus while awakening. Out of this twofold struggle humankind emerges “perplexed,” sleepy, “affectionate, hungry, and cold.” It is in this sense that history, in the end, remains “unforgiven” or unredeemed—an ever-renewable mystery. While in the making, history can be neither comprehensible nor controllable, the poet seems to intimate. It is sheer activity, somehow escaping humankind’s moral aspirations toward truth, order, and justice.
“Plato’s cave” is reenacted (ontology repeats philogeny) in the insomniac’s “naked-bed” struggle to obliterate the stubborn or obssessional contours of the hard material facts of outer reality. Likewise, it still provides a valid analogy to the exhausted mind’s attempts to regather itself and its sense of identity (in terms of reconstituting familiar surroundings) while trying hard to wake up.
This dramatization of the mental ebb and flow provides the forcefulness of the work. The reader is bound to leave it with a heightened awareness of her or his own subjectivity—the first essential step toward the light of reason and out of the chimeras of one’s cave. This daily struggle to regain and reconquer one’s mind’s sovereign control is aptly introduced by the figure of the milkman, who, like an unobtrusive minister, enables one to connect again to the source of innocence and well-being. The milk of human kindness is there, in Delmore Schwartz’s poem, ready to bestow its miraculously redeeming vitality—but for how long? Its promise seems to loom there only for history to “dismember and disremember” it in its eagerness to tarnish and undo.