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 made his genius, as they view the corpse in shocked disbelief. Awakened by the grieving poet as well as by the figure Misery, Urania appears in stanza 22, and the poet repeats his lament: “He will awake no more, oh, never more!” In the wild distraction of her grief she urges her son to arise, to awake; her pleas are in vain.
Stanzas 30 through 34 bring a select group of human mourners. The “Pilgrim of Eternity,” to anyone familiar with Byron’s first great work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), is George Gordon, Lord Byron. The next is the Irish poet Thomas Moore, whose themes also comment on the sorrows and losses wrought by time’s passage. Finally, stanzas 31 through 34 present a Shelleyan self-portrait: “one frail Form” who has “fled astray,” “his branded and ensanguined brow,” a brow “like Cain’s or Christ’s.”
This image is not simply of himself but of the poetic soul in general as a gentle, high-strung creature who, as an outcast, survives the darts of his callous fellow mortals with dignity and a quiet grace. The image spurs a substantial shift...
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in the poet’s attitude toward Adonais’s death.
To this point, the poet has lamented his and others’ helplessness to make sense of that death. In stanza 37, however, the poet reflects on a fit punishment for the “nameless worm” and “noteless blot” who is the anonymous and highly critical reviewer of Keats’s Endymion (1818), who, in Shelley’s eyes, drove John Keats/Adonais to an early grave. The worst punishment that Shelley can contrive is that such a scoundrel should live: “Live thou, whose infamy is not thy fame!/ Live!” Faced with the contradiction that he would wish a long life upon the miscreant who took his hero’s life, in stanza 38 the poet bursts open the gates of consolation that are required of the pastoral elegy: “Nor let us weep that our delight is fled/ Far from these carrion kites.”
Adonais “is not dead . . ./ He hath awakened from the dream of life.” Shelley turns his grief from Adonais to “we” who must live on and “decay/ Like corpses in a charnel,” and after a series of stanzas (39-49) in which he celebrates the richer and fuller life that Adonais must now be experiencing, the poet becomes mindful that he is in Rome, itself a city rife with visible records of loss and decay. Moreover, he is in the Protestant cemetery there, where Shelley’s three-year-old son is buried as well; and yet, as if mocking all despair, a “light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.” Nature does not abhor death and decay, he sees; it is humans, who fear and hate in the midst of life, who do.
“What Adonais is, why fear we to become?” he asks in stanza 51. The reversal of attitude is completed, and in stanza 52 Shelley makes the most profound profession of faith in the everlasting and transcendent to be found in all English poetry. It is life’s worldly cares—that obscuring and distracting “dome of many-coloured glass”—not Death that is the enemy and the source of human despair. “Follow where all is fled,” he urges, and he goads his own heart into having the courage to face not extinction but “that Light whose smile kindles the Universe.” The poem concludes by imagining Adonais to be a part of “the white radiance of Eternity.” As the poem ends, “like a star,” the soul of the dead poet “Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.”
Adonais is a pastoral elegy, a highly stylized composition adhering to rules, or conventions, that hark back at least two thousand years to such Greek poets as Theocritus, Moschus, and Bion. Shelley had in fact translated into English Bion’s Lament for Adonis and Moschus’s Lament for Bion; he would have been familiar with the form, even had he never studied those classical sources, through the seventeenth century English masterpiece, John Milton’s “Lycidas.”
In general, the pastoral deals with an idyllic imaginative landscape where it is always May and the pastures and hills are always green. Despite renowned uses of pastoral conventions in poems from the late sixteenth century such as Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) and Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” by Shelley’s own time the pastoral mode had fallen into disuse among serious English poets. Some of this development was attributable to changing social conditions; pasture lands had been fenced off, and the Industrial Revolution was making England a less bucolic nation. The eighteenth century critic Samuel Johnson had also poked fun at the pastoral’s sanitized view of the lives of shepherds, pointing out that they generally smelled quite bad; in 1798, William Wordsworth had pointedly subtitled Michael (published in 1800), his realistic narrative of an elderly shepherd struggling to make ends meet, “a pastoral,” as if to sound the death knell, in English poetry, of this long-standing literary tradition.
Indeed, it may seem strange that Shelley should choose to lament Keats’s death in such an artificial and constrained format as the pastoral requires. If his feelings of grief were genuine, one might ask, why not have expressed them in plain, or at least far less contrived terms. The pastoral allows the poet to exercise, nevertheless, the option of poeticizing the event. From that perspective, Shelley, who was quite capable of using a wide range of poetic styles and expression, was first of all doing his fellow poet a high honor by eulogizing him in a structure unique to poetic discourse.
Also, Keats’s own poetry often harked back to pastoral themes if not actual modes. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is only one outstanding example, and all of Keats’s poetry is rich in an appreciation of life’s simple pleasures and beauties—and of the pain that their loss can cause.
Shelley adheres to all the traditional formal pastoral constraints—and more—in producing his elegy. In keeping with the tradition, he does not identify the characters by their actual names, but by their shepherd names or by characteristics typical of natural rather than social environs. Since the tradition is Greek, he harks back to classical myth and imagery. Keats’s poetic efforts, as noted previously, are his flocks. The procession of mourners is appropriately arrayed in flowers and other vestiges of spring; even in the depths of his grief, the poet never fails to remind the reader that it is in fact the springtime of the year.
Adonais, like Milton’s Lycidas, is a remarkably successful English adaptation of the classical elegy form perfected by the Greek poets Bion, Moschus, and Theocritus. Keats, whose early works Shelley had greatly admired, had died at Rome in 1821. The cause of death was tuberculosis, but Shelley believed that a hostile review of Keats’s Endymion had crucially contributed to the poet’s death. Thus the poem’s allusion to Adonis, a beautiful youth loved by Venus and killed by a savage boar, is aptly ironical as well as conventionally classical.
Shelley’s poem, written in 55 Spenserian stanzas, closely follows the pattern of the pastoral elegy. The mournful beginning includes a reproachful invocation to the muse Urania, the natural world’s sympathetic participation in the bereaved poet’s sorrow over Adonais, a procession of mourners (among them Shelley depicts himself and Lord Byron), and the obligatory attack on debased literary practitioners, the specific reference here being to Keats’s harsh critic, John Wilson Croker of the Quarterly Review.
At stanza 38, the mood shifts from grief to comfort. Keats’s spirit has become part of the Eternal, made one with nature and immortalized through his enduring works. Toward the end of the elegy, after the view of Keats’s grave at Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, Shelley offers one of the finest English analogies for Plato’s doctrine of the ideal: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass/ Stains the white radiance of Eternity/ Until death tramples it to fragments.”
The narrator proclaims grief for Adonais and calls upon the Muse Urania to wake and weep for her son, who died before fulfilling his great promise. In Rome, says the narrator, Adonais lies in his death chamber as if he were sleeping, with his flesh as yet uncorrupted. A shepherd-poet, Adonais is survived by his flock of dreams and other poetic thoughts, who mourn the one who fed them. Spring has come, but, as life returns throughout the natural world, sorrow also returns to those who know death. While worms eat corpses, flowers bloom atop the graves. The narrator questions the origin and purpose of humans, who recognize their individual mortality.
In stanza 22, Urania awakes. While she hastens to Adonais from her paradise, the hateful world wounds her feet, but her blood causes everlasting flowers to bloom. In the death chamber, Death vanishes momentarily when Urania arrives, and a glimmer of life returns to the corpse before, roused by Urania’s suffering, Death rises to meet her embrace. Exclaiming that she would join Adonais were she not bound to Time, Urania asks why he left his ordinary ways prematurely to face vile animals, such as vultures, and states that, when the sun rises, insects that live just one day flourish, only to die when the sun sets and the eternal stars can be seen.
Starting in stanza 30, Adonais’s fellow shepherds arrive from the mountains to mourn him. Most noticeable among them is a solitary figure, powerful in spirit but bleeding and weak in flesh. While that shepherd weeps, he recognizes his own destiny in Adonais’s, and, when Urania asks who he is, he suddenly pulls back his hood to reveal his resemblance to Cain, the first vagabond, or to Christ.
Stanza 36 begins a denunciation of the anonymous, poetically deaf serpent that, according to the narrator, poisoned Adonais and will grow still older and die unlamented. Within the denunciation comes the narrator’s effort to find joy amid the sorrow of the young poet’s death. Adonais’s spirit will return to the everlasting fountain of fire from which it came, unlike the serpent’s spirit. Leaving invective behind with stanza 40, the narrator declares that Death has died, not Adonais, who has achieved unity with the impersonal Power that animates nature and who has ascended to join other poets who died before they could reach on Earth the greatness that should have been theirs. Adonais will become the guiding spirit of Venus and shine amid the stars.
In stanza 47, the narrator asks who grieves for Adonais and, with one person in mind, calls him foolishly unhappy and urges that he travel to Rome. There, he will find a graveyard beside the decaying city wall, where an ancient pyramidal tomb stands beside more recent graves, including one that holds intensely personal meaning for the unhappy man. The narrator asks why people fear to become like Adonais: Unity abides, unchanging, while multiplicity changes and passes away. When death shatters life’s many-hued dome, eternity’s white light becomes visible. Finally, the narrator asks himself why he remains in his hopeless life. The eternal light shines on him, the narrator says, removing mortal clouds, and a freshening wind fills his soul’s sails and drives him far from the safety of land, while Adonais’s soul, an eternal star, guides him through the frightening dark.
Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography. 2 vols. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004-2005. Gives a detailed, psychologically probing account of Shelley and treats the most important of Shelley’s relatives, friends, and enemies.
Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky. 1988. Rev. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. This now classic work portrays Shelley in chapter 2 as a great poet whose love for humanity often failed to lead to kindness toward individuals.
Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. Selected and edited by Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: Norton, 2009. Includes Endymion, Croker’s review as well as several others, Shelley’s letter inviting Keats to Italy, and Keats’s letter in reply.
Knerr, Anthony D., ed. Shelley’s “Adonais”: A Critical Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. Presents the relationship between Shelley and Keats, facts about the composition and first printing of Adonais, the text of the poem with notes about textual variants in early editions, comments on numerous lines, and a survey of critics’ evaluations of Adonais from the 1820’s to the 1980’s.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. 2d ed. Selected and edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. Includes an editorial introduction to Adonais, Shelley’s preface, the poem itself, many explanatory footnotes, commentary by Michael Scrivener, and a chronology of Shelley’s life.