In “An Asphodel,” Allen Ginsberg seamlessly intertwines the imagery of the modern beat poet and the ancient Greek bard. The speaker sits, drunk and naked, in a darkened (presumably skid-row) room, dreaming of mad generations and impossible, alternate realities. However, this vision of the bum-poet—or “Dharma Bum?”—is framed throughout the writing in the image of a lone, unchanging asphodel.
This combination is interesting in light of the role of the asphodel plant in Greek mythology, to which Ginsberg was always fond of alluding. The grey-leaved plant has about it the pallor of death, and the Greeks wasted no time in using it as a symbol of their underworld. In Homer, asphodels adorn the haunts of the dead. In other myths, Persephone, simultaneously the semi-queen of the dead and heir apparent to the essence of vibrant life as the seasonal bride of Hades and the daughter of Demeter, is often depicted wearing a garland of asphodels. The asphodel, then, serves as a crown for she who has one foot in the grave and one foot in the blooming meadow of youth and beauty.
This duality is present in Ginsberg’s representation of the poetic lifestyle. The poet is the exalted inhabiter of two worlds: the cosmic imagination and a down-and-out, impoverished reality. The connection of the poet to Greece also illustrates another self-image often presented in Ginsberg’s poetry: the modern poet as a continuation of the ancient traditions of the lonely bard, the philosopher-prophet, and Socratic, impoverished teacher.
The whole poem is underpinned by an idea of aloneness, as it follows the dreamy thought processes of a man abandoned even by his clothes and his electric lights. However, this aloneness is, for most of the piece, somewhat exultant: “…how inspired/to be so lying in the living/room drunk naked/and dreaming…” However, the last line affects a somewhat more longing tone when placed in the context of Ginsberg’s personality. He writes, “my only rose tonite’s the treat/ of my own nudity.” Anyone who knows of Ginsberg’s constant longing for love and carnal companionship will immediately recognize in this line a certain resignation to the “treat of my own nudity.” One can almost hear his voice speaking of his contentment to be alone, but one can almost see his eyes longing pointedly for Neal, or Jack, or Peter.
In this poem, Ginsberg is left exploring the universe with his flower, his art, his ancestral history, his nudity, and his lonely death. Hopefully, it turned out to be a wonderful night.