Study Guide

Adonais

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Adonais Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Adonais begins with an epigraph of Greek elegiac poetry attributed to Plato. The epigraph is followed by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s preface to the poem proper, which quotes Greek lines from the “Lament for Bion,” an ancient poem, possibly by Moschus, on the death of the second century b.c.e. poet who composed a “Lament for Adonis.” Later, following a reference to John Keats’s death in Rome early in 1821 and his burial there in the Protestant Cemetery, Shelley claims that Keats’s pulmonary tuberculosis derived from the harsh, anonymous attack on Keats’s long poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818) in the Quarterly Review. Denouncing the reviewers, Shelley asks how they could favorably treat works by bad writers but act so hostile to Endymion, which, regardless of its flaws, deserved far better treatment. As Shelley nears the end of his preface, he again says, in effect, that critical animosity killed Keats. Upon concluding this direct, literal response to the poet’s death, he launches into his elegy proper, which is set in mythic time and space.

Through the first two-thirds of its fifty-five stanzas, Adonais is a pastoral elegy, revealing the influence of the ancient Greek-speaking poets Bion and (presumably) Moschus, as well as that of Shelley’s English predecessors Edmund Spenser, who wrote Astrophel (1595), and John Milton, who wrote “Lycidas” (1638). The pastoral tradition appears when Shelley invokes a Muse (one of a set of nine Greek goddesses), presents poets as shepherds, and depicts mourners in procession. Writing in an overtly artificial tradition, Shelley displays genuine emotion and daringly places himself in a line of illustrious forerunners.

The verse form of Adonais, the Spenserian stanza, mimics a form created by Spenser that comprises eight lines of iambic pentameter and a...

(The entire section is 785 words.)