As an elegy, Adonais centers on honoring the recently deceased John Keats, a fellow poet of Percy Bysshe Shelley. A traditional elegy has three parts, which mirror the stages mourners pass through when grieving a lost loved one. Such poems usually begin with a lament, go on to praise the departed person in effusive terms, and end with expressions of comfort and consolation.
Shelley's poem follows this basic pattern. John Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five from tuberculosis, is represented as Adonais, an adaptation of the Greek mythological character Adonis. Shelley casts Urania, a daughter of Zeus, as Adonais's (Keats's) grieving mother. The poem begins by describing all the mourners: Urania; Keats's own "Dreams, the passion-winged Ministers of thought"; personified topics of his poems; other poets; and Shelley himself.
Shelley then lashes out at the unkind critic whose harsh words Shelley credits with sending Keats to an early grave. In section 39, Shelley turns toward imagining Keats in a blessed state in the afterlife: "Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—He hath awakened from the dream of life." Shelley describes great men who have already died rising to meet Adonais as he joins them. This brings Shelley to Keats's graveside in an Italian cemetery—the same place where Shelley buried his three-year-old son.
As Shelley's elegy moves into the section that should be one of comfort and solace to the mourners, things take a surprisingly dark turn. After describing his son's grave in stanza 49, Shelley writes in stanza 51, "From the world's bitter wind seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb. What Adonais is, why fear we to become?" The death wish builds in stanza 52: "Die, if thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek! Follow where all is fled!" Stanza 53 continues: "Thou shouldst now depart! . . . No more let Life divide what Death can join together." The poem concludes with the image that became eerily prophetic of Shelley's own accidental death at sea a year after he penned the words: Shelley's "spirit's bark" is "borne darkly, fearfully, afar" to "where the Eternal are."
Surprisingly, instead of delivering the condolences that an elegy typically offers, Adonais ends with a dark assertion that death is better than life. The theme of Adonais is that death is preferable to life on this sorrow-filled earth.