Stephen Dunn

Allegory of the Cave by Stephen Dunn

In this poem, Stephen Dunn alludes to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or Plato’s Cave by the same title. This piece raises a number of philosophical questions with respect to the political history of the 20th century.

Stephen Dunn’s Allegory of the Cave’ is based upon the allegory of Plato known by the same name. Through this story of some cave dwellers, chained to darkness and ignorance, detained to live with the shadows of the “real” knowledge or “form”, Plato compares the effect of education and its dearth in human nature. Dunn takes this story as the basis of his poem tries to show its applicability within the modern world, especially in the war-ridden 20th century.

Allegory of the Cave by Stephen Dunn


‘Allegory of the Cave’ by Stephen Dunn describes a cave dweller’s search for the “real” and his reaction after encountering the harsh reality.

This piece directly begins with the episode where one of the cave dwellers (in Plato’s allegory, the philosopher or the greatest individual) attempts to break the shackles of darkness and face the sun or the light of knowledge. The piercing light not only blinds his eyes but also teaches him something greater than he previously believed in. Besides, he learns the ravages of history and where the world is leading. When he tries to communicate the message to other dwellers, they find it quite unbelievable and false. It makes him question even the reality around him.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-9

He climbed toward the blinding light

and when his eyes adjusted


and violence of history, encumbered

by knowledge. Only a hero

Stephen Dunn’s poem ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is a direct allusion or echo to Plato’s allegory by the same title. In Plato’s story, a few prisoners are chained to watch the shadows of reality cast on a wall. One of them, who is projected as a superior individual (a philosopher), dares to step out of the cave and confront reality. It is not his wish to do so. Rather, he was made to encounter the “light”. Dunn begins his piece from this episode.

According to the speaker, the prisoner steps out toward the light. Eventually, living for so long in darkness, his eyes are not accustomed to the natural light. He believed shadows were real, and the light was nothing but a delusion. After his eyes got used to the light, he looked down at his fellow prisoners who were still inside the cave, enjoying the imitations of life and reality.

As he walks upon reality, his beliefs and convictions start to fall into pieces. The things he took as truth was proving to be false. Then comes the twist. Dunn places the awakened prisoner in the context of the bloody 20th century. Amidst this scenario, his trust in humanity and morality crumbles down. Now, he is saddled with the real “knowledge”. It is up to him whether he wants to convey this message to his fellow inmates or question what is really happening around him.

Lines 10-18

would dare return with the truth.

So from the cave’s upper reaches,


on paper scraps, which he floated down.

But in the semi-dark they read his words

Dunn ironically uses the term “hero” in order to refer to the prisoner. Indeed, after watching the course of the 20th century, it takes immense courage to convey the “truth” to others who would not believe him in the first instance. Firstly, he chalked out the possible consequences of telling the truth. Then he thought it was safe to shout the message from the upper reaches of the cave, hoping it would reach others.

While the freed individual was in shock, the prisoners rejoiced in their shadowy reality. Their past beliefs were concrete, and their minds were free from the truth. The musical echoes (a metaphor for the political discourse of the 20th century) rang in their ears and enthralled their souls in darkness. Thus, the “disturbing news” never reached their conscience.

Furthermore, he spelled what he saw in prose on “paper scraps” (it cannot even be written in a sweet, poetic discourse or not in plain white paper). Then he floated it down and waited to hear how others would react to his message.

Lines 19-27

with the indulgence of those who seldom read:

It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.


confused, a man who had moved

to larger errors, without a prayer.

The last three tercets of ‘Allegory of the Cave’ further penetrate into the probing question: What is real and what not? After the message reached the semi-dark cave, one of them read the words. One’s father was dead in the real world. But, he could not believe this simple fact. He took it as a joke and carried on in the opera of forgetfulness and ignorance.

The prisoner at the upper reaches heard their reaction. It made him think whether he was wrong or the others were correct. So, he started to question the reality, or what he had seen till then. The sunlight appeared to him as a “shadow”. He searched for the real source responsible for its illumination.

Confusedly, he stood there. He was moved by the larger errors of the human mind. The God he trusted upon appeared to be a shadow of the real divine power. So, he stood there with silence and feared to utter a prayer.


Dunn’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is written using the tercet stanza form. It consists of a total of 9 tercets (a stanza having three lines). Dunn continues the story in an unbroken chain that is not affected by the stanza division. Apart from that, this piece does not have a regular rhyme or meter. Therefore, it is an example of a free-verse poem. Dunn writes this allegorical poem from the perspective of a third-person speaker who dives into the story of Plato.

Literary Devices

Dunn makes use of the following literary devices in ‘Allegory of the Cave’.

  • Allusion: This piece alludes to Plato’s Cave, an allegory present in Plato’s Republic. There is also an allusion to the bloody history of the 20th century.
  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. Dunn uses this device to connect the stanzas internally.
  • Metaphor: The phrase “sunlight/ and violence of history” is a metaphor for the harsh realities of the modern era, starting from the wake of the First World War.
  • Irony: This device is used in a number of instances that include “Only a hero/ would dare return with the truth”, “What lovely echoes”, etc.


What is the poem ‘Allegory of the Cave’ about?

Stephen Dunn’s poem ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is about the prisoner from Plato’s Cave who steps out of the darkness of the cave and confronts reality. In this poem, he captures the initial reactions of the person after becoming aware of the truth.

Who is the speaker of ‘Allegory of the Cave’?

The speaker of the poem is none other than the poet Stephen Dunn himself. He writes this piece from the perspective of a third-person narrator who describes the story of Plato’s allegory concerning a cave and a few prisoners.

What type of poem is ‘Allegory of the Cave’?

It is a free-verse poem that does not have a regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The text consists of 9 tercets that are joined internally. Besides, this piece is an allegory based upon Plato’s Cave.

What is the allusion in ‘Allegory of the Cave’?

The title of this piece directly alludes to Plato’s Cave. Besides, Dunn also alludes to the history of the 20th century and writes this piece in this context.

Similar Poems

The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Stephen Dunn’s poem ‘Allegory of the Cave’.

You can explore more Stephen Dunn poems.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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