The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Adonais is a long poem, running 495 lines in fifty-five Spenserian stanzas. As the poet states in his subtitle, it is “An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.” The younger Keats, an acquaintance and fellow Romantic poet whom Percy Bysshe Shelley had invited to visit with him in Italy, had been seeking warmer climes to relieve the tuberculosis which eventually took his life, at the age of twenty-six, on February 23, 1821.

The poem’s title requires the reader to pause and reflect momentarily on Shelley’s highly conscious design. In keeping with the conventions of the pastoral elegy, Adonais is the fictive name which Shelley assigns John Keats. Readers familiar with Greek mythology will certainly hear an echo of Adonis in the name; he was the decidedly handsome youth whom the goddess Venus loved and who also died a tragic and early death, being killed by a wild boar. One familiar with Judaic traditions might also hear Adonai in Shelley’s choice of name. Adonai in Hebrew means God or Lord, and is a substitute for the ineffable name which even the name Jehovah only betokens.

If it seems presumptuous for Shelley to hint at a godlike quality to the young man whose death he is mourning, it is easier to see an intended symmetry: As a poet, Keats shares a spiritual identity both with a mortal beloved of the gods and with the godhead itself, and he is the inheritor of both the classical and biblical traditions that compose Western culture—an heir, that is, of the ages.

The poem opens boldly with a single, undeniable fact and the poet’s response to it: “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!” Stanzas 2 through 35 will present a parade of mourners who, with the poet, have come to grieve. The poet pitifully urges the fallen Adonais’s mother, Urania, to awaken to lead the mourners at his bier; in her, Shelley combines both the Venus of the Adonis myth (Venus Urania is one of the goddess’s titles) and Urania, the muse of astronomy. That latter may seem an odd choice unless one knows that Adonais’s ultimate destiny is an eternity represented by the stars.

For the moment, however, there is only despair, and readers are urged to “weep for Adonais—he is dead!” Stanza 9 brings as leaders of the solemn procession the dead shepherd/poet’s “flocks”—his dreams and inspirations. Continuing through stanza 13, there is a cataloging of the personifications of all those thoughts and feelings, attitudes and skills, which...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)