Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
Adonais, Shelley’s lamentation on the death of John Keats, has been called the greatest pastoral elegy in English. It belongs to a tradition some twenty-three centuries old stemming from laments by ancient Greek poets Bion and Moschus. Similarly, and like John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s elegy contemplates the larger tragic implications of the loss of a gifted poet, which subtracts from the world its most precious asset, genius.
The pastoral elegy is a highly conventional form. Typically, it includes reference to the deceased as a shepherd, the trappings of pagan mythology, the mourning of all nature, a procession of mourners, a contrast between revival in spring and the finality of death, and a praise of immortality. Shelley adapted these elements from tradition but jettisoned the conventional mechanics in a final strophe, an inspired Platonic exaltation. Throughout, the poet employed the elegant Spenserian stanza: two cross-rhymed quatrains in heroic meter with a final Alexandrine, using but three rhymes, ababbcbcc.
Shelley and Keats had met but were not close friends. Learning of his illness, Shelley invited Keats to live with him in Italy, but the arrangements were never completed. Shelley wrote Adonais four months later.
Shelley blamed hostile literary critics for the poet’s death and so enhanced a theme developed elsewhere in his own neglected verse, the mortifying effects on civilization of the common person’s contempt for genius. He depicts the poet as a shepherd whose flocks are “quick Dreams . . . passion-wingèd Ministers of thought,” but after his death and “after their sweet pain/ They ne’er will gather strength, or find a home again.” Thus, the first part of the poem urges all to weep for Adonais, who is dead. (The name is a form of Adonis, the handsome young man loved by Venus and killed by a wild boar and lamented by Bion. It also recalls Adonai, the holy name of God used in place of the ineffable name Yahweh.) Indeed, all nature weeps, so profusely that a mourner can wash the corpse with starry dew. Spring, for grief, throws down her kindling buds, moving the poet to state the central tragedy of the situation: “Ah, woe is me! Winter is come and gone,/ But grief returns with the revolving year.” The gross forms of nature die to be revived in Spring, but the unique creative power of a poet vanishes forever when he dies.
To the funeral come the mountain shepherds, Keats’s poetical friends recognizable among them: Byron, the famous “Pilgrim of Eternity,” Leigh Hunt, “gentlest of the wise,” and Shelley himself,
one frail Form,A phantom among men; companionlessAs the last cloud of an expiring storm. . . . . . . . . . . . . .A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift—A Love in desolation masked;—a PowerGirt round with weakness.
The critics also come, in the forms of snakes, wolves, beaten hounds, ravens, carrion kites, and vultures. The poet bids “Hot Shame” to burn upon their brows.
Then, in the last seventeen stanzas, Shelley’s whole tone shifts. He bids the reader not to mourn for Adonais, since Death is dead, not he, and Adonais has only awakened from the dream of life. Now made one with Nature, he has become a portion of the loveliness he once made more lovely. Adonais is transformed into a star, radiant and eternal. Shelley contrasts his eternal white radiance with the temporary distortion of life, symbolized by a dome of many-colored glass that stains the white light until Death tramples it to bits. The light of day may eclipse the twinkling stars, as ordinary life may dim the power of genius. Yet death conquers life and frees the eternal Spirit to find pure beauty and love in the abode of the Eternal. In Shelley’s myth, a genius defeated by life wins from death a permanent afterlife.