Themes and Meanings

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In his preface to Adonais, Shelley called Keats one of the writers “of the highest genius who have adorned our age.” Shelley saw in the tragedy of Keats’s untimely death a comment on the mindless cruelty that the world inflicts upon the sensitive soul. Shelley imagined that Keats’s illness and death were the direct result of an anonymous and vituperative review of Keats’s ambitious poem Endymion. That review, which is now known to have been written by an individual named John Wilson Croker, had been published in the influential Quarterly Review for April, 1818. Shelley was not alone in his opinion that the negative reaction had broken the young Keats’s heart; Byron was of the same opinion.

Shelley’s poem is therefore a sincere act of public mourning and reaffirmation in the face of an apparently needless and certainly tragic death; yet it is also a literary broadside of the first order. Its pointed and feeling attack on the pettiness of the quarterly reviewers in the face of the poetry which Shelley and his fellow Romantics were producing (and in the process, altering the nature of English poetry for generations to come) itself follows a long tradition harking back at least as far as John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682) and Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743). With typical Romantic élan, nevertheless, Shelley turns both the pastoral elegy and the literary satire into a stirring commentary on the larger purpose of death in an unfeeling and violent physical universe.

Shelley’s decision to utilize the pastoral mode is particularly telling. In its earliest formulations, it was an Edenic vision, a harking back to greener, happier, sunnier times. It is likely that no one has ever imagined that the pastoral described, or was intended to describe, a true human condition. Only the most coldhearted, however, can fail to hear in its eternal springtime optimism the dearest longings of the human heart for peace, ease, and contentment.

In this regard, even the elegaic pastoral is compelled to render the experience positive by poem’s end, for while no poet can deny the undeniable reality of bodily death, the pastoral’s very idealizations require one to imagine a transcendent reality as the true locus of all human hopes and aspirations. In its spirited exultation that light shall triumph over darkness, that the true shall endure the violence done them through hatred and spite, and that all of nature conspires yearly to reward humankind with renewals and resurrections that can take the breath away. Adonais reaffirms life in the very act of lamenting an individual’s death.

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Critical Essays