Analysis of Shelley’s Adonais

Percy Bysshe Shelley invited John Keats to come to live in Pisa’s more salubrious climate after Keats had been struck with consumption (tuberculosis). Keats only got as far as Rome, where he died on February 23, 1821. Although Shelley did not know Keats well, he admired him intensely as a poet (as he says in his preface to Adonais, his elegy to Keats) and hated the vicious treatment that Keats’s poetry was subjected to by the anonymous reviewers of the English literary magazines. In particular, the Quarterly Review had been very severe about Keats’s first major long poem, Endymion, and the story was that Keats was so upset by the review as to collapse under its cruelty and develop the tuberculosis to which he would eventually succumb. In fact, Keats had contracted the disease while caring for his brother, who died of it, and Shelley knew that it was contagious, praising Keats’s friend, the artist Joseph Severn, for caring for Keats in his last illness in disregard of the dangers to his own health. Lord Byron (who disliked Keats but conceded his talent) memorably deflated the idea that Keats had died of a broken heart caused by the attack in the Quarterly Review when he wrote in Don Juan: “’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article” (XI, ll. 479–480).

Of course, Shelley did not believe this (even if he did not quite disbelieve it). The idea, however, makes it possible for him to treat the death of Keats as the death of a poet rather than the more accidental death of the person who wrote the poetry. The deep mourning that the poem displays for the death of Adonais is mourning for the poetic talent that brought him to this grief (since it was as a poet that Keats was exposed to the review and as a poet that he was attacked), which makes it possible for the elegy to become what poetic elegies tend to be: a lament for the makers, a lament for all poets in their mortality.


This is a characteristic of elegy. When a poet writes an elegy for another poet, the elegy by its nature must acknowledge that poets die, and therefore it solicits the same attention from later poets as well. Poets are known through their laments, both the laments they make and the laments made for them. In English poetry the locus classicus of this idea or theme is John Milton’s Lycidas, whose speaker imagines that someone will write an elegy for him just as he is doing for Lycidas. In Adonais, which echoes Lycidas throughout, Shelley laments not only Keats but the great poets who preceded him into “the gulph of death” (l. 35), in particular Milton, “the third among the sons of light” (l. 36), after Homer and Dante. This makes Adonais one of the poems answering the elegist’s prayer in Lycidas, even as it elevates Keats to Miltonic status by placing him, too, among the sons of light.

Shelley does this as well by invoking the same muse, Urania—for Keats and for himself—whom Milton invokes at the beginning of book 7 of Paradise Lost. Urania is the muse of heavenly love, of the transcendent world to which Shelley imagines Keats aspiring and attaining at the end of the poem. Milton calls upon her in contrast to Calliope, muse of epic poetry and mother of the greatest of earthly poets, Orpheus. In Milton, Calliope is unable to save Orpheus from death, and he mourns her failure, turning to Urania instead: “So fail not thou, who thee implores, / For thou art Heav’nlie, shee an empty dreame” (book 7, ll. 38–39). But the Urania of Adonais is not able to defend him. Rather, she comes to mourn him when it is too late.

The poem echoes Lycidas throughout, particularly in the way it works through the hopelessly repeated entreaty to “Weep for Adonais” to a poetic recovery that is the subject of the final movement of the poem, beginning in the 39th of the Spenserian stanzas that make up the poem—“Mourn not for Adonais” (l. 362)—since he has become a part of nature and a part of its transcendent beauty. This absorption into nature is anticipated by the way Lycidas reimagines the absence of the dead poet. Thus, Milton’s poem also traces the trajectory from an opening in which its speaker must “Yet once more” (l. 1) mourn the loss of a friend, but that Yet once more modulates at the end of the poem into “Weep no more / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead” (ll. 165–166). He is not dead because he has become “the Genius of the shore” (l. 183), absorbed into the very substance of the world from which he has been so poignantly absent.

These and other echoes of Lycidas frame the most important revision of that poem, in Urania’s inability to save Adonais. In Paradise Lost she is to save her poetson as Calliope has failed to do so, and Calliope’s failure is also an important element in the grief expressed in Lycidas: “Where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep / Clos’d o’re the head of your lov’d Lycidas? . . ./ Ay me, I fondly dream! / Had ye bin there—for what could that have don?/ What could the Muse her self that Orpheus bore, / The Muse her self, for her inchanting son. . . ?” (ll. 50–59). This question, which Milton has his speaker pose to Calliope, is posed to Urania herself in Adonais. “Where wert thou mighty Mother, when he lay, / When thy son lay, pierced by the shaft which flies / In darkness? where was lorn Urania / When Adonais died?” (ll. 9–12). She was unable to help him, just as the nymphs were unable to help Lycidas, just as Calliope was unable to help Orpheus. For Shelley, unlike Milton, Urania cannot save the mortal poet.

Where was Urania? It is always important, reading Shelley, to give him credit for the coherence of his thought and imagery, and the question here is not just a rhetorical one (as it is in Milton). We find out that she was lost in a reverie, listening to the echoes of Keats’s poetry. She was absorbed, more or less, in the beauties of “Ode to a Nightingale” and the synesthetic way its nightingale’s plaintive and flowery anthem fades: She listens to “all the fading melodies . . . like flowers” (ll. 16–17). The beauty of Keats’s poetry is not to be distinguished from its own tendency toward death. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats describes himself as “half in love with easeful death” (l. 52). Shelley echoes this line in the preface to the poem when he describes the Protestant cemetery in Rome: “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

Indeed, Shelley’s young son William was buried there, as his own ashes would be when he drowned a year later. Shelley alludes to William’s death toward the end of the poem, where despite the recovery the elegy attempts, he acknowledges the sorrow he cannot think himself beyond: “Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet / To have outgrown the sorrow which consigned / Its charge to each” (ll. 451–453). The sorrow is real, the recovery from it energetic and willful, and perhaps not entirely convincing.

Urania’s grief for Adonais is modeled on the grief Saturn displays in Keats’s Hyperion poems when Thea seeks to rouse him from his sorrows. There is nothing to be done about what has happened, and although in Keats’s fragments the Titans do attempt to rise again, we know that this attempt is doomed to failure. We should therefore understand that the movement of thought in Adonais is not triumphal. Shelley represents himself, both within the poem and again at its very end, in two different modes, and we should consider how that self-representation changes. In the 31st stanza he lists “one frail Form” who joins the parade of mourning poets, “A phantom among men,” and following this we get a memorable self-portrait of Shelley’s melancholy.

It makes sense that following this self-portrait, the poem moves into its mode of recovery. The structure of its argument is fairly clear and is to be found in Lycidas as well: The world from which Adonais is absent is a grim and cheerless one (as the frail Form’s own melancholy helps register). But why would we want him to be alive in this grim, cheerless, melancholy world? He is better where he is, absorbed into the beautiful, “a portion of the loveliness / Which once he made more lovely” (ll. 379–380). He contributed to its loveliness—did that contribution survive him? Or was the loveliness in the poetry he wrote, and not in the ideal beauty the poetry was about? The lines are ambiguous but share the poem’s sense that it is poetic description that finds beauty in the world, a beauty that in finding, it in fact creates. (Compare stanza 42 to Shelley’s use of the word find at the end of “The Two Spirits: An Allegory.”) And by a corresponding collapse of dichotomy, Shelley can say that at least Adonais does not belong to this world, which is a good thing since it has no intrinsic loveliness in it; it is empty and poor and undesirable now that he is gone.

The loveliness to which Adonais belongs, then, is the loveliness of poetic desire—not an ideal realm or place or world but an aspiration to the beauty of an ideal which is by its nature “Unapparent” (l. 399) since it does not exist. It is a hope or beacon or desire: It is what gives poetry the beauty of its evocations of darkness, but it is not a place one could actually come to. The memory of his son William’s death reminds Shelley that there is nothing beyond sorrow, but that sorrow itself gives poetry its intensity. Thus, the beautiful last stanza of Adonais, with its evocation of the end of Alastor, gives us Shelley in the first person: “I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar” (l. 492). “The soul of Adonais, like a star, Beacons” (ll. 494–495), but he is not drawn upward into platonic certainty, but further into the wilds of beauty and darkness. Poetry is a beacon and an orientation in this journey, but not salvation. It is what sorrow can offer us instead of salvation.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Romanticism

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