Percy Bysshe Shelley

Adonais

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Adonais Summary

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Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc. The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the poem “Adonais” (1821) in honor of his good friend, John Keats, who had died earlier that year from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. Its title refers to the Greek mythological figure Adonis, the handsome young lover of the god Aphrodite who also died an untimely death at a young age. Some scholars argue that Shelley’s intent was to draw comparisons between the boar that gored and killed Adonis, and the critics who savaged Keats during his lifetime.

Shelley begins the poem, “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!” The refrain, “Weep for Adonais—he is dead!”, is repeated numerous times throughout the poem. Mourners gather to bemoan the late poet’s death. Most of these mourners, however, are either mythical figures or personifications of Keats’s dreams, aspirations, thoughts, and emotions. This may be because Keats, despite his lofty reputation in later years, was not widely known or beloved at the time of his death. Therefore, the offspring of Keats’s own imagination are the ones he leaves behind, described here as his “flocks.” The mother of Adonais, the goddess of astronomy, Urania, arrives to officiate the funeral ceremony.

In addition to the personifications of Keats’s various attitudes and inspirations, Shelley lists a number of contemporary poets, including himself, who gather at the funeral bier. Some of them, such as Lord Byron, referred to here as the “Pilgrim of Eternity,” had never actually met Keats but shared a similar poetic spirit. Other mourners include the Irish poet Thomas Moore and the English critic Leigh Hunt.

Shelley spends a number of stanzas describing one mysterious mourner, in particular, characterizing the man as “one frail Form / A phantom among men; companionless / As the last cloud of an expiring storm / Whose thunder is its knell.” The description of the anonymous mourner is at once pathetic and Biblical. In one stanza, the mourner is “neglected and apart; / A herd-abandon’d deer struck by the hunter’s dart.” In the next stanza, after Urania asks the man, “Who art thou?”, his response is given with tormented yet quiet dignity: “He answer’d not, but with a sudden hand / Made bare his branded and ensanguin’d brow, / Which was like Cain’s or Christ’s—oh! that it should be so!”

Starting with Stanza 36, Shelley’s despair gives way to anger, as the author sets his sights on the man he feels is responsible for Keats’s death: a nameless critic who savagely criticized Keats’s 1818 poem Endymion. Although Keats died of tuberculosis, Shelley believes that his friend’s condition was significantly worsened by some of the deeply negative reviews he received, particularly one written by an anonymous critic later revealed to be John Wilson Croker, a prominent Irish author and statesman. In considering an appropriate punishment for the “deaf and viperous murderer” who fed Keats “poison,” Shelley concludes that the critic should not join Keats in death. Rather, the critic should live a long life of infamy, “free to spill the venom when thy fangs o’erflow,” for doing so will cause “Remorse and Self-contempt” to cling to the critic.

In Stanza 45, Shelley recalls other poets, including Thomas Chatterton, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Roman poet Lucan who, like Keats, died young before achieving their full potential. Shelley goes on to say that Keats, in dying young, has achieved a sense of immortality that the living mourners do not possess and can only fear. The living should not fear death, however, for Keats is now “one with Nature” and in a place where “Envy and calumny and hate and pain / Can touch him not and torture not again.”

Here, Shelley also mentions the setting of the funeral: a Protestant cemetery in Rome. This is significant because Shelley’s son is buried in the same cemetery. Shelley’s son died in Rome two years earlier at the age of three of malarial fever. In this way, the author’s lengthy discussions of the dead and the living, and his internal debate over which of the two groups is better off can be seen as an extension of his own tortured feelings about the death of his son.

In the end, Shelley views death less as internment and decay and more as an act of transcendence far above the worldly worries and ills that plague the living. His final characterization of Keats is that of an exalted celestial form: “I am borne darkly, fearfully afar; / Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven, / The soul of Adonais, like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the eternal are.”

Adonais is at once a powerful elegy for Shelley’s departed friend, a biting rejoinder targeted at Keats’s critics, and a thoughtful meditation on the nature of life and death.