A painful departure from Syracuse:
Plato descending the water-stair;
Dionysius II attending him there,
With six hundred spearmen standing guard.
Gone now the inconsequent days
When the marble floors of the palace were strewn with sand
And the Master traced with his wand
The square on the hypotenuse,
While his puzzled tyrannic pupil glared
At anyone who dared
To look as if this were a subject to amuse.
Then the entourage of adventurers talked
Of nothing but triangles and of their utter relief
In the desirability of a perfect life.
All might have continued,
Even though the tyrant sulked
At moments, drew back from the vista
Of virtue mathematically displayed on the sanded floor -
All might have continued
Had not the genius guest
One day demonstrated the outline of disaster.
Gazing with distaste
At the spearmen in their gilded metal,
He had spoken with the fatal
Clarity of an incomparable teacher:
‘A philosopher-king would trust
His safety to the love of his people.’
The doriphoroi did not care
For what they had heard.
‘It's him or us,’ they said.
‘If he stays,’ they said, ‘we go.’
Dionysius answered: ‘This is absurd.
You could learn much from every word
Which so famous a philosopher says.’
‘Perhaps,’ they said. ‘It’s for you to choose.’
Dionysius measured his safety with them
Against the strength of his people’s love.
And he chose.
Now the spears flashed in the Sicilian sunlight.
Now the gold embossed panoplies of the doriphoroi
Glittered into the eyes of the wise
Man who passed between them as through fire.
At the landing-stage beside the Athenian ship
Which in a moment would bear the Master away,
Dionysius bade farewell.
‘I hope,’ he said in a hesitant voice,
‘That when you are once more in Greece
You and your friends
Will not speak too unkindly about me.’
Plato, because he was truly great
And not one to wait
Until he was beyond the reach
Of the tyrant’s spearmen, said:
That we shall never be so much
In want of a subject for conversation
As to speak of you at all.’
It is to Dionysius’s credit
That he let him go.