Written and published on October 4, 1821, “Adonais” memorializes the death of Shelley’s friend and fellow poet John Keats, whom he regarded as being one of the poets of “the highest genius” of the age. Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821, at the age of twenty-six. A medical doctor by training, Keats knew for some time that he was seriously ill. Indeed, on the evening of February 3, 1820, he had coughed up blood and knew he had no choice but to face the inevitable. “I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.”
Despite the actual circumstances of Keats’s demise, Shelley chose to construct an elaborate myth, based partly on Greek mythology and partly on the literary “politics” of his day, specifically blaming his friend’s death on a scathing review of Keats’s poem “Endymion” in the April issue of the 1818 Quarterly Review, written by a then anonymous critic (since identified as John Wilson Croker). Shelley is referring to this literary critic when he speaks of the devastating effect of his review on his beloved and sensitive friend as “the curse of Cain / Light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast, / And scared the angel soul that was its earthly guest!” Shelley’s tirade, both within the preface, where he states that “these wretched men know not what they do,” and throughout the poem, cost Shelley his already tentative relationship with Blackwood’s magazine. But in terms of the poem, Shelley’s weaving together of a contemporary situation with the primarily classical depiction of Adonis makes the work still more complex. To do this, Shelley employs two very important Greek myths in this poem.
The predominant one is the myth of Adonis (whose name also means “Lord”), in which Adonis is born from a myrrh tree, dies in a hunting accident where he is slain by a boar, and then is metamorphosed into an anemone, a flower without scent. In Shelley’s poem, Adonais is killed by an evil critic, depicted as a wild beast who “pierced by the shaft which flies / In darkness” and is mourned by his mother Urania (Aphrodite/Urania, the goddess of earthly love), whom Shelley elevates to the status of motherhood, thereby invalidating another mythic tradition which has Aphrodite as Adonis’s lover. Shelley did this in order to conform to the dignity of a poem written to commemorate the death of a great poet.
The second though less obvious myth concerns the story of Echo and Narcissus, which is most fully preserved by the Latin poet Ovid. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Echo was a nymph who fell in love with Narcissus. Echo was punished by Hera, the wife of Zeus, for trying to distract Hera from recognizing Zeus’s amorous dalliance with the other nymphs. She is punished by Hera for misusing the gift of speech for deceitful purposes and is transformed into stone; most cruelly, she can never again utter a single word or thought of her own. She is left with only the ability to echo someone else’s words. In short, Echo is guilty of rhetorical violence, which bears a striking similarity to the violence wrought by the pen of Keats’s reviewer. Echo also fell in love with Narcissus, a beautiful young boy who loved no one until, while gazing upon the calm surface of a lake, he fell in love with his own reflected image. This self-consuming love became deadly, for he was prohibited from ever knowing or loving another person. Though Echo would call out to him, he would never be aware of her. Narcissus was eventually metamorphosed into a beautiful white flower, an image repeated in “Adonais.” The two lovers were doomed to never know each other.
Finally, “Adonais” is also a part of the classical tradition in that it is structured along the lines of the classical elegy, a type of poem inspired by the death of an important person. Although there were variations within the genre, the elegy contained certain standard structural parts:
- a ceremonial mourning for an exemplary person;
- a mournful invocation to a muse;
- a sympathetic participation of nature, who shares the mourners’ grief;
- a description of the procession of appropriate mourners;
- a denunciation of unworthy participants who are found wanting in their literary achievements;
- a song of lament for the person’s death;
- praise for the lost one’s virtues;
- and a consolation or turning point for the poet, and for all those who share his grief, from the despair of terrible loss to hope for a far better life in heaven.
The elegy has also been used for political purposes, which is relevant to Shelley’s belief that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of their time.”
Stanza 1 begins in total despair: “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!” This hopelessness will eventually be worked out in the process of the poem. Indeed, “Adonais” is what modern psychology would call “a work of mourning” in which the bereaved person goes through a catalogue of associations with the deceased and gradually accepts their absence by turning those associations into cherished memories that live on forever. Moreover, the “echoing” device, or repetition of the same phrase, “O, weep for Adonais!” that exists throughout the poem is symptomatic of the early stages of mourning.
This stanza also contains another classical device known as the “personification of the hours,” in which Time is addressed as an essential living entity that marks both the passage of time and the change of seasons. Here, Time is even further particularized into the appropriate “Hour” that establishes a sympathetic rapport and becomes a trusted companion of the bereaved poet who has presided over the death of Adonais: “And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years / To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers / And teach them thine own sorrow.”
In Stanza 2 we find the classical invocation, a request for assistance, addressed to the Muses, goddesses upon whom poets depend for the inspiration needed to create their poetry. Here, that goddess is Urania, and the invocation is not only a plea for a response, but an accusation as well. The poet is angry at Urania’s absence, believing that her intervention would have prevented Adonais’s death. “Where wert thou might Mother, when he lay, / When thy Son lay, pierced by the shaft . . . where was lorn Urania / When Adonais died?” Shelley considers her to be negligent in her duties, ignoring her son’s desperate plight. “She sate, while one, with soft enamoured breath, / Rekindled all the fading melodies, / With which, like flowers that mock the corse beneath.” Indeed, Urania is vaguely implicated in the myth of Narcissus, for she too remained unresponsive to her son’s echoing voice. In Stanza 3, Shelley must call out to her to attend to her sacred duties for she has not yet acknowledged the tragedy that has taken place. “Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep! / . . . For he is gone, where all things wise and fair / Descend;—oh, dream not that the amorous Deep / Will yet restore him to the vital air.” She is being summoned to a terrible and unrelieved anguish. “Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.”
Stanza 6 not only continues the implication of Urania, reminding the neglectful mother of the enormity of her loss, but expands it even further to include images of the shattered dreams and lost potential of her young son who now lives merely as a white flower on the surface of a lake. “But now, thy youngest, dearest one, has perished— / The nursling of thy widowhood, who grew, / Like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished . . . Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last . . . Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste; The broken lily lies—” That lost potential for even greater artistic achievement is intensified later in Stanza 9, as we are given a brief catalog of the fruits of his poetic imagination, with Shelley making reference to such pastoral poems as Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and the mythological beings that are painted upon its surface. “O, weep for Adonais!—The quick Dreams, / The passion-winged Ministers of thought, Who were his flocks . . . and whom he taught / The love which was its music, wander not,—Wander no more, from kindling brain to brain, / But droop there.”
In Stanzas 14 through 17 we see Nature in sympathetic bond with Shelley’s grief, for Nature recognizes that Keats loved her; the elements must respond to the terrible loss of their loving representative. “All he had loved, and moulded into thought, / From shape, and hue, and odour, and sweet sound, / Lamented Adonais . . . Pale Ocean in unquiet slumber lay, / And the wild winds flew round, sobbing in their dismay.” Even Echo is resurrected in Stanza 15 from her “deathlike” state, only to a more heightened experience of her awful pain, for she can no longer even echo another person’s thoughts. “Lost Echo sits amid the voiceless mountains, / . . . And will no more reply to winds or fountains, / . . . Since she can mimic not his lips, more dear / Than those for whose disdain she pined away.” And so the list continues, with Keats’s poems coming to life to add their plaintive voices, a truly “unspeakable” agony that finally outdoes that of Echo and Narcissus. “Grief made the young Spring wild, and she threw down / Her kindling buds, as if she Autumn were . . . since her delight is flown / . . . Nor to himself Narcissus, as to both / Thou Adonais.”
In Stanza 17, the focus shifts to a denunciation of the unworthy literary practitioner, the anonymous, evil critic, who is to be forever punished for his contribution to “rhetorical violence.” More significant, this is contextualized in a far more emphatic way: “As Albion wails for thee: the curse of Cain / Light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast, / And scared the angel soul that was its earthly guest.” Two things are important here. First, in using the name Albion, Shelley now invokes the entire English nation, as Albion is an older name for England. Second, in comparing the reviewer to Cain, the stakes become much higher and far more realistic than any mythology; the biblical analogue also gives a sacred dimension to Keats’s very being. Yet, that angelic soul has not yet been reunited with Cain’s body, for it is frightened by his murderous deed. His sin lives on and holds him in captivity, and in the absence of a reunion of body with the soul, he can find no transcendental resolution to his predicament. This unrealized reunion, which would enable the deceased to break out of the shackles of his earthly bondage and live in total happiness in the next world, is especially poignant in lines reminiscent of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”
Stanzas 18–21 are Shelley’s personal expression of grief for the loss of his friend. When he exclaims, “Ah woe is me! Winter is come and gone, / But grief returns with the revolving year,” we are struck by the sense of hopeless in the last lines of Shelley’s great ode. We find no spiritual renewal at this point in his elegy. Shelley is overwhelmed with abject despair, and his feelings of grief are contrasted with a regenerated natural world: “Through wood and stream and field and hill and Ocean / A quickening life from the Earth’s heart has burst . . . they illumine death . . . [for] Nought we know, dies.” And, finally, in stanzas 22–29, this mortal agony finally touches Adonais’s mother Urania, causing her to accept the terrible tragedy that has taken place. At last she participates in the mourning process that until now she has evaded. “Swift as a Thought by the snake Memory stung, / From her ambrosial rest the fading Splendour sprung. / . . . so swept her on her way / Even to the mournful place where Adonais lay.” This mythic being even enters into Shelley’s myth of death-dealing reviewers, fiendishly depicted as “the herded wolves . . . the obscene ravens, clamorous o’er the dead; The vultures to the conqueror’s banner.” In denouncing them, he invokes the image of the poet Byron who wrote a satirical poem against these very same offending critics, entitled “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” (1809). Byron’s mythological analogue is Apollo, “[t]he Pythian of the age,” the champion who killed the dragon Python.
In stanzas 30–35, Shelley turns his attention to a procession of mourners, “the mountain shepherds.” In the context of “Adonais,” these poetic practitioners are worthy of esteem, and preeminent among them is the poet Byron: “The Pilgrim of Eternity, whose fame / Over his living head like Heaven is bent.” This is a reference to Byron’s poem, “Childe Harold,” concerning a young and eloquent noble of the same name who travels through a wasteland, “a place of agony and strife,” like one outcast (similar to Shelley), an “outlaw of his own dark mind.”
Finally, however, the unmitigated grief that has thus far dominated the poem begins to lighten. We find cause for new hope as the poet radically shifts from mourning to a denial of death’s ultimate victory. The poet finds consolation for this terrible loss, and that consolation is likewise a process. In stanza 38, Keats becomes one of the “enduring dead,” because his spirit lives on and returns, “[b]ack to the burning fountain whence it came,” with the same creative powers it manifested in its mortal lifetime. The denial of death goes even further, as Shelley declares that Keats’s death has been but a dream from which he now awakens. Even more boldly, he asserts that we the living are the ones who are asleep, and thus we are the ones who must strive against unknown fears and demons. “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep— / He hath awakened from the dream of life— / ’Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep / With the phantoms an unprofitable strife.” Keats, having “outsoared the shadow of our night,” has far surpassed and out-distanced the narrow circumference of our own lives that are filled with unrest and the fear of growing old. We are directed to stop grieving, for “[h]e lives, he wakes–’tis Death is dead, not he; / Mourn not for Adonais.” Adonais no longer needs Nature’s sympathy, for one of his poetic genius and sensitivity has earned his reward.
Having celebrated so poignantly Nature’s eternal promise of youth and vitality, Keats is now one with Nature, rejoicing in his own immortality. “He is a portion of the loveliness / Which once he made more lovely; he doth bear / His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress / Sweeps through the dull dense world.” So thorough is the transformation of mourning into joyous celebration that Shelley ultimately looks on his death as the promise of reunion with his beloved friend. “Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart? . . . ’Tis Adonis calls! oh, hasten thither, / No more let Life divide what Death can join together.”
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