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The death of the young has been a thematic concern in literature since Antiquity. That untimely demise not only exposes human vulnerability but makes for melancholic contemplation over the waste of beauty, confidence, and youth’s energy. And when that person is an artist, still young and learning, the implications seem more tragic. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais” (1821) is at one level a contemplation of the sudden death in 1821 of fellow poet John Keats. Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis, a particularly virulent bacterial infection that attacks the lungs, at the time one of world’s most feared infectious diseases.
The poem, however, is also a sweeping anatomy of the implications of the untimely death of a creative artist whose achievements to that point promised only significant and important work, art that now would never be realized. In drawing on the tragic figure of Adonis from Greek mythology, a splendid, handsome young man killed pointlessly by savage boars while he was hunting, Shelley creates a towering elegy, nearly 500 lines, that shares his own private struggle to handle the loss of a compatriot, a dashing and promising talent done in too soon. Ironically, within months of completing “Adonais,” Shelley himself would be dead, drowned in the Bay of Lerici off the coast of Italy. He was 29.
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Born in 1792 in the bucolic countryside of his family’s estate near Broadbridge Heath, some 40 miles south of London, Percy Bysshe (pronounced bish) Shelley enjoyed a life of privilege. His grandfather amassed the family fortune of roughly $10 million in today’s currency; his father, a respected lawyer, served in Parliament. A voracious reader, young Shelley began drafting lyric poems by the age of 12. In 1810, he matriculated at the University College at Oxford only to be expelled within months for co-authoring an unapologetic defense of atheism. Undeterred, Shelley continued his education on his own. He published controversial broadsides that denounced conservative British politics and advocated radical agendas, most notably political independence for Ireland and the right of women to vote. He married a woman two years his junior who found the charismatic “bad boy” Shelley irresistible.
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By 1813, when Shelley was 21, he had had two children by his wife and had taken a lover, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of a controversial liberal firebrand, William Godwin. Shelley journeyed to Europe with Mary and her sister, who eventually became his lover as well. By 1816, both his lover and his wife were pregnant. His distraught wife petitioned for divorce and later died by suicide, after which Shelley and Mary married.
With the 1816 publication of the grandly conceived epical Alastor about the power of the imagination, Shelley moved to the forefront of the generation of angry young Romantics who recast the role of the poet and broadened the message of poetry to enhance the spiritual life of its culture. On a lengthy trip through Europe, Shelley met fellow Romantics George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron) and John Keats, and the three struck up something of a personal and professional relationship.
Over the next several years, Shelley completed sweeping philosophical works, among them Mont Blanc (1816), Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1817), The Revolt of Islam (1818), and his masterpiece Prometheus Unbound (1820). These dense and intimidating works explored the role of the poet, the composition of beauty itself, the place of humanity within nature, and the function of the soul. In addition, he published short lyrics that have become among the most frequently anthologized poems in the English language, among them “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” and “Ode to the West Wind.
The Shelleys moved to Tuscany in northern Italy in 1818 to escape conservative British society, which had long hounded them over their radical views and unconventional lifestyle. The two enjoyed the freedoms of the Italian lifestyle and the sublime expanses of the Italian countryside. In 1822, a month shy of his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned when his sailboat, staffed by a largely inexperienced crew, capsized during a sudden squall while crossing the Ligurian Sea in northern Italy. His body, badly deteriorated and gnawed away by sea life, washed up 10 days later some 50 miles south near Viareggio. His cremains were interred at the Cimitero degli Inglesi (The British Cemetery) in Rome, near the final resting place of John Keats.
I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: “With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!”
Where wert thou, mighty Mother, when he lay,
When thy Son lay, pierc’d by the shaft which flies
In darkness? where was lorn Urania
When Adonais died? With veiled eyes,
‘Mid listening Echoes, in her Paradise
She sate, while one, with soft enamour’d breath,
Rekindled all the fading melodies,
With which, like flowers that mock the corse beneath,
He had adorn’d and hid the coming bulk of Death.
Oh, weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep!
Yet wherefore? Quench within their burning bed
Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep
Like his, a mute and uncomplaining sleep;
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;
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.
Most musical of mourners, weep again!
Lament anew, Urania! He died,
Who was the Sire of an immortal strain,
Blind, old and lonely, when his country’s pride,
The priest, the slave and the liberticide,
Trampled and mock’d with many a loathed rite
Of lust and blood; he went, unterrified,
Into the gulf of death; but his clear Sprite
Yet reigns o’er earth; the third among the sons of light.
Most musical of mourners, weep anew!
Not all to that bright station dar’d to climb;
And happier they their happiness who knew,
Whose tapers yet burn through that night of time
In which suns perish’d; others more sublime,
Struck by the envious wrath of man or god,
Have sunk, extinct in their refulgent prime;
And some yet live, treading the thorny road,
Which leads, through toil and hate, to Fame’s serene abode.
But now, thy youngest, dearest one, has perish’d,
The nursling of thy widowhood, who grew,
Like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherish’d,
And fed with true-love tears, instead of dew;
Most musical of mourners, weep anew!
Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last,
The bloom, whose petals nipp’d before they blew
Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste;
The broken lily lies—the storm is overpast.
To that high Capital, where kingly Death
Keeps his pale court in beauty and decay,
He came; and bought, with price of purest breath,
A grave among the eternal.—Come away!
Haste, while the vault of blue Italian day
Is yet his fitting charnel-roof! while still
He lies, as if in dewy sleep he lay;
Awake him not! surely he takes his fill
Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill.
He will awake no more, oh, never more!
Within the twilight chamber spreads apace
The shadow of white Death, and at the door
Invisible Corruption waits to trace
His extreme way to her dim dwelling-place;
The eternal Hunger sits, but pity and awe
Soothe her pale rage, nor dares she to deface
So fair a prey, till darkness and the law
Of change shall o’er his sleep the mortal curtain draw.
Oh, weep for Adonais! The quick Dreams,
The passion-winged Ministers of thought,
Who were his flocks, whom near the living streams
Of his young spirit he fed, and whom he taught
The love which was its music, wander not—
Wander no more, from kindling brain to brain,
But droop there, whence they sprung; and mourn their lot
Round the cold heart, where, after their sweet pain,
They ne’er will gather strength, or find a home again.
And one with trembling hands clasps his cold head,
And fans him with her moonlight wings, and cries,
“Our love, our hope, our sorrow, is not dead;
See, on the silken fringe of his faint eyes,
Like dew upon a sleeping flower, there lies
A tear some Dream has loosen’d from his brain.”
Lost Angel of a ruin’d Paradise!
She knew not ‘twas her own; as with no stain
She faded, like a cloud which had outwept its rain.
One from a lucid urn of starry dew
Wash’d his light limbs as if embalming them;
Another clipp’d her profuse locks, and threw
The wreath upon him, like an anadem,
Which frozen tears instead of pearls begem;
Another in her wilful grief would break
Her bow and winged reeds, as if to stem
A greater loss with one which was more weak;
And dull the barbed fire against his frozen cheek.
Another Splendour on his mouth alit,
That mouth, whence it was wont to draw the breath
Which gave it strength to pierce the guarded wit,
And pass into the panting heart beneath
With lightning and with music: the damp death
Quench’d its caress upon his icy lips;
And, as a dying meteor stains a wreath
Of moonlight vapour, which the cold night clips,
It flush’d through his pale limbs, and pass’d to its eclipse.
And others came…Desires and Adorations,
Winged Persuasions and veil’d Destinies,
Splendours, and Glooms, and glimmering Incarnations
Of hopes and fears, and twilight Phantasies;
And Sorrow, with her family of Sighs,
And Pleasure, blind with tears, led by the gleam
Of her own dying smile instead of eyes,
Came in slow pomp; the moving pomp might seem
Like pageantry of mist on an autumnal stream.
All he had lov’d, and moulded into thought,
From shape, and hue, and odour, and sweet sound,
Lamented Adonais. Morning sought
Her eastern watch-tower, and her hair unbound,
Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground,
Dimm’d the aëreal eyes that kindle day;
Afar the melancholy thunder moan’d,
Pale Ocean in unquiet slumber lay,
And the wild Winds flew round, sobbing in their dismay.
Lost Echo sits amid the voiceless mountains,
And feeds her grief with his remember’d lay,
And will no more reply to winds or fountains,
Or amorous birds perch’d on the young green spray,
Or herdsman’s horn, or bell at closing day;
Since she can mimic not his lips, more dear
Than those for whose disdain she pin’d away
Into a shadow of all sounds: a drear
Murmur, between their songs, is all the woodmen hear
Grief made the young Spring wild, and she threw down
Her kindling buds, as if she Autumn were,
Or they dead leaves; since her delight is flown,
For whom should she have wak’d the sullen year?
To Phoebus was not Hyacinth so dear
Nor to himself Narcissus, as to both
Thou, Adonais: wan they stand and sere
Amid the faint companions of their youth,
With dew all turn’d to tears; odour, to sighing ruth.
Thy spirit’s sister, the lorn nightingale
Mourns not her mate with such melodious pain;
Not so the eagle, who like thee could scale
Heaven, and could nourish in the sun’s domain
Her mighty youth with morning, doth complain,
Soaring and screaming round her empty nest,
As Albion wails for thee: the curse of Cain
Light on his head who pierc’d thy innocent breast,
And scar’d the angel soul that was its earthly guest!
Ah, woe is me! Winter is come and gone,
But grief returns with the revolving year;
The airs and streams renew their joyous tone;
The ants, the bees, the swallows reappear;
Fresh leaves and flowers deck the dead Seasons’ bier;
The amorous birds now pair in every brake,
And build their mossy homes in field and brere;
And the green lizard, and the golden snake,
Like unimprison’d flames, out of their trance awake.
Through wood and stream and field and hill and Ocean
A quickening life from the Earth’s heart has burst
As it has ever done, with change and motion,
From the great morning of the world when first
God dawn’d on Chaos; in its stream immers’d,
The lamps of Heaven flash with a softer light;
All baser things pant with life’s sacred thirst;
Diffuse themselves; and spend in love’s delight,
The beauty and the joy of their renewed might.
The leprous corpse, touch’d by this spirit tender,
Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath;
Like incarnations of the stars, when splendour
Is chang’d to fragrance, they illumine death
And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath;
Nought we know, dies. Shall that alone which knows
Be as a sword consum’d before the sheath
By sightless lightning?—the intense atom glows
A moment, then is quench’d in a most cold repose.
Alas! that all we lov’d of him should be,
But for our grief, as if it had not been,
And grief itself be mortal! Woe is me!
Whence are we, and why are we? of what scene
The actors or spectators? Great and mean
Meet mass’d in death, who lends what life must borrow.
As long as skies are blue, and fields are green,
Evening must usher night, night urge the morrow,
Month follow month with woe, and year wake year to sorrow.
He will awake no more, oh, never more!
“Wake thou,” cried Misery, “childless Mother, rise
Out of thy sleep, and slake, in thy heart’s core,
A wound more fierce than his, with tears and sighs.”
And all the Dreams that watch’d Urania’s eyes,
And all the Echoes whom their sister’s song
Had held in holy silence, cried: “Arise!”
Swift as a Thought by the snake Memory stung,
From her ambrosial rest the fading Splendour sprung.
She rose like an autumnal Night, that springs
Out of the East, and follows wild and drear
The golden Day, which, on eternal wings,
Even as a ghost abandoning a bier,
Had left the Earth a corpse. Sorrow and fear
So struck, so rous’d, so rapt Urania;
So sadden’d round her like an atmosphere
Of stormy mist; so swept her on her way
Even to the mournful place where Adonais lay.
Out of her secret Paradise she sped,
Through camps and cities rough with stone, and steel,
And human hearts, which to her aery tread
Yielding not, wounded the invisible
Palms of her tender feet where’er they fell:
And barbed tongues, and thoughts more sharp than they,
Rent the soft Form they never could repel,
Whose sacred blood, like the young tears of May,
Pav’d with eternal flowers that undeserving way.
In the death-chamber for a moment Death,
Sham’d by the presence of that living Might,
Blush’d to annihilation, and the breath
Revisited those lips, and Life’s pale light
Flash’d through those limbs, so late her dear delight.
“Leave me not wild and drear and comfortless,
As silent lightning leaves the starless night!
Leave me not!” cried Urania: her distress
Rous’d Death: Death rose and smil’d, and met her vain caress.
“Stay yet awhile! speak to me once again;
Kiss me, so long but as a kiss may live;
And in my heartless breast and burning brain
That word, that kiss, shall all thoughts else survive,
With food of saddest memory kept alive,
Now thou art dead, as if it were a part
Of thee, my Adonais! I would give
All that I am to be as thou now art!
But I am chain’d to Time, and cannot thence depart!
“O gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastur’d dragon in his den?
Defenceless as thou wert, oh, where was then
Wisdom the mirror’d shield, or scorn the spear?
Or hadst thou waited the full cycle, when
Thy spirit should have fill’d its crescent sphere,
The monsters of life’s waste had fled from thee like deer.
“The herded wolves, bold only to pursue;
The obscene ravens, clamorous o’er the dead;
The vultures to the conqueror’s banner true
Who feed where Desolation first has fed,
And whose wings rain contagion; how they fled,
When, like Apollo, from his golden bow
The Pythian of the age one arrow sped
And smil’d! The spoilers tempt no second blow,
They fawn on the proud feet that spurn them lying low.
“The sun comes forth, and many reptiles spawn;
He sets, and each ephemeral insect then
Is gather’d into death without a dawn,
And the immortal stars awake again;
So is it in the world of living men:
A godlike mind soars forth, in its delight
Making earth bare and veiling heaven, and when
It sinks, the swarms that dimm’d or shar’d its light
Leave to its kindred lamps the spirit’s awful night.”
Thus ceas’d she: and the mountain shepherds came,
Their garlands sere, their magic mantles rent;
The Pilgrim of Eternity, whose fame
Over his living head like Heaven is bent,
An early but enduring monument,
Came, veiling all the lightnings of his song
In sorrow; from her wilds Ierne sent
The sweetest lyrist of her saddest wrong,
And Love taught Grief to fall like music from his tongue.
Midst others of less note, came one frail Form,
A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gaz’d on Nature’s naked loveliness,
Actaeon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursu’d, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.
A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift—
A Love in desolation mask’d—a Power
Girt round with weakness—it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour;
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower,
A breaking billow; even whilst we speak
Is it not broken? On the withering flower
The killing sun smiles brightly: on a cheek
The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break.
His head was bound with pansies overblown,
And faded violets, white, and pied, and blue;
And a light spear topp’d with a cypress cone,
Round whose rude shaft dark ivy-tresses grew
Yet dripping with the forest’s noonday dew,
Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasp’d it; of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart;
A herd-abandon’d deer struck by the hunter’s dart.
All stood aloof, and at his partial moan
Smil’d through their tears; well knew that gentle band
Who in another’s fate now wept his own,
As in the accents of an unknown land
He sung new sorrow; sad Urania scann’d
The Stranger’s mien, and murmur’d: “Who art thou?”
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!
What softer voice is hush’d over the dead?
Athwart what brow is that dark mantle thrown?
What form leans sadly o’er the white death-bed,
In mockery of monumental stone,
The heavy heart heaving without a moan?
If it be He, who, gentlest of the wise,
Taught, sooth’d, lov’d, honour’d the departed one,
Let me not vex, with inharmonious sighs,
The silence of that heart’s accepted sacrifice.
Our Adonais has drunk poison—oh!
What deaf and viperous murderer could crown
Life’s early cup with such a draught of woe?
The nameless worm would now itself disown:
It felt, yet could escape, the magic tone
Whose prelude held all envy, hate and wrong,
But what was howling in one breast alone,
Silent with expectation of the song,
Whose master’s hand is cold, whose silver lyre unstrung.
Live thou, whose infamy is not thy fame!
Live! fear no heavier chastisement from me,
Thou noteless blot on a remember’d name!
But be thyself, and know thyself to be!
And ever at thy season be thou free
To spill the venom when thy fangs o’erflow;
Remorse and Self-contempt shall cling to thee;
Hot Shame shall burn upon thy secret brow,
And like a beaten hound tremble thou shalt—as now.
Nor let us weep that our delight is fled
Far from these carrion kites that scream below;
He wakes or sleeps with the enduring dead;
Thou canst not soar where he is sitting now.
Dust to the dust! but the pure spirit shall flow
Back to the burning fountain whence it came,
A portion of the Eternal, which must glow
Through time and change, unquenchably the same,
Whilst thy cold embers choke the sordid hearth of shame.
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceas’d to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.
He lives, he wakes—’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais. Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone;
Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan!
Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air,
Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown
O’er the abandon’d Earth, now leave it bare
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
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, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light.
The splendours of the firmament of time
May be eclips’d, but are extinguish’d not;
Like stars to their appointed height they climb,
And death is a low mist which cannot blot
The brightness it may veil. When lofty thought
Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair,
And love and life contend in it for what
Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there
And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.
The inheritors of unfulfill’d renown
Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal thought,
Far in the Unapparent. Chatterton
Rose pale, his solemn agony had not
Yet faded from him; Sidney, as he fought
And as he fell and as he liv’d and lov’d
Sublimely mild, a Spirit without spot,
Arose; and Lucan, by his death approv’d:
Oblivion as they rose shrank like a thing reprov’d.
And many more, whose names on Earth are dark,
But whose transmitted effluence cannot die
So long as fire outlives the parent spark,
Rose, rob’d in dazzling immortality.
“Thou art become as one of us,” they cry,
“It was for thee yon kingless sphere has long
Swung blind in unascended majesty,
Silent alone amid a Heaven of Song.
Assume thy winged throne, thou Vesper of our throng!”
Who mourns for Adonais? Oh, come forth,
Fond wretch! and know thyself and him aright.
Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth;
As from a centre, dart thy spirit’s light
Beyond all worlds, until its spacious might
Satiate the void circumference: then shrink
Even to a point within our day and night;
And keep thy heart light lest it make thee sink
When hope has kindled hope, and lur’d thee to the brink.
Or go to Rome, which is the sepulchre,
Oh, not of him, but of our joy: ‘tis nought
That ages, empires and religions there
Lie buried in the ravage they have wrought;
For such as he can lend—they borrow not
Glory from those who made the world their prey;
And he is gather’d to the kings of thought
Who wag’d contention with their time’s decay,
And of the past are all that cannot pass away.
Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shatter’d mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;
And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who plann’d
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transform’d to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitch’d in Heaven’s smile their camp of death,
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguish’d breath.
Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet
To have outgrown the sorrow which consign’d
Its charge to each; and if the seal is set,
Here, on one fountain of a mourning mind,
Break it not thou! too surely shalt thou find
Thine own well full, if thou returnest home,
Of tears and gall. From the world’s bitter wind
Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb.
What Adonais is, why fear we to become?
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!—Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?
Thy hopes are gone before: from all things here
They have departed; thou shouldst now depart!
A light is pass’d from the revolving year,
And man, and woman; and what still is dear
Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither.
The soft sky smiles, the low wind whispers near:
‘Tis Adonais calls! oh, hasten thither,
No more let Life divide what Death can join together.
That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.
The breath whose might I have invok’d in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
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.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Adonais.” 1821. Poetry Foundation.
The speaker begins with a forthright declaration: “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!” (Stanza I, Line 1). This sad hour will always be remembered. Adonais’s devastated mother, Urania, one of the Greek muses responsible for inspiring artists, recalls the sweet songs her beautiful and doomed son created and mourns his stilled voice. She weeps, but her tears serve no purpose: Adonais is dead, and tears cannot bring him back. The poet struggles to place the dead Adonais in some historic perspective and, in Stanza IV, invokes the memory of the great British poet John Milton, who, centuries earlier, died. Milton, however, did not die in his youth. Thus, the poet’s premature death suggests the sad reality of promise unrealized.
Urania is not alone in her sorrow. Even as Adonais’s body arrives at its final resting place in Rome, the “high Capital” (Stanza VII, Line 1), and the speaker ponders the beautiful corpse before it is interred, nature itself—the flowers and blossoms, the trees and the wind—is saddened. Nature grieves the loss of one so young, so promising, and so beautiful, even as he sleeps undisturbed and prepares to take his place in the cemetery, “[a] grave among the eternal” (Stanza VII, Line 4). It is a morbid moment—the speaker struggling to grasp the reality of death.
Even as the young poet’s body begins to decay, what the speaker terms “the eternal Hunger” (Stanza VIII, Line 6), the speaker celebrates the eternal reach of the poet’s work. The speaker compares the thoughts and musings of the poet to gentle and quiet sheep, and he deems Keats their loving and careful herder. Keats’s numerous works, the sheep he herded, survive, although the speaker can only ponder all the songs (poems) the young poet might have created had he not died. These ideas, unborn and never to be expressed, now grow cold.
The poet’s role is unique, which means these ideas will never find their way into the work of any other poet. In Stanza X, one of these ideas, now slowly slipping into oblivion, actually grasps the cold hand of the dead poet and tries to comfort him, to “fan him with her moonlight wings” (Stanza X, Line 2). It then realizes that with the death of the poet its death is as well ensured. In Stanza XI, the speaker reflects on how all of these never-to-be-expressed thoughts glisten about the corpse like a sweet, faint morning dew already beginning to evaporate.
In turn, Desires, Adorations, Glooms, Pleasures, Hopes, and Fears—the sum topics of Keats’s verse—come to the burial site to pay their respects. As these abstract qualities slowly pass the prostrate body of the young poet, they also concede to the inevitable and evaporate quietly like mist that hangs briefly about a country stream in late fall before dissipating.
The inevitability and reality of death, coupled with musings about the death of Keats, makes spring feel like fall. Nature thus provides a rallying point. Despite the profound sorrow nature feels over the death of this young poet, nature teaches immortality: With the spring, nature renews itself and in turn offers a potent metaphor for the soul. Despite the evident death of Adonais/Keats, the spirit, the soul of the poet survives. Nothing in nature actually dies. Although that faith in the spirit cannot ease the sorrow that the speaker and Urania feel, the sorrow and the terrors occasioned by the absoluteness of death need not be the last word.
In Stanzas XXII to XXIX, the poem reflects on the sorrow of Adonais’s mother. “Sorrow and fear / So struck, so rous’d” (Stanza XXIII, Lines 5-6) Urania that she approaches the dead Adonais with her heart wounded. She contemplates the figure of the dead youth and feels not serenity or calm but rather as “wild and drear and comfortless” (Stanza XXV, Line 6) as the starless night sky when lightning has flashed and is gone. The mother mourns her child and wrestles with the unanswerable question any mother would ask in similar circumstances: Why him, why my child, why does my son die too soon? As she contemplates the dead figure, she cannot help but ask why did your wisdom and your eloquence not protect you? The speaker can offer no solace, no answer save that such “a godlike mind” (Stanza XXIX, Line 6) inevitably soars for the briefest moment, rendering the earth bare and obvious, before it “sinks” and leaves the world in the depths of that “awful night” (Stanza XXIX, Lines 8, 9).
The speaker briefly mentions a murderous “worm” in Stanza XXVI that might be the cause of Adonais’s death. To remind himself of the immortality of poets, however, the speaker parades past the figure of the dead Adonais/Keats other important poets from the past whose works have ensured them immortality, most notably Sir Philip Sydney, Thomas Moore, and Thomas Chatterton, names perhaps not familiar to a contemporary reader but larger-than-life figures in Shelley’s time. These poets, these great lights, will welcome Keats to their company. In turn, Keats will join the illustrious poets who, back to Roman Antiquity, live on in their works. If anyone is inclined to mourn Keats and his too-soon death, the poet invites them to come to Rome, to spend a moment at the grave of Adonais/Keats. There in “the shadow of the tomb” (Stanza LI, Line 8) the visitor will feel the energy of the dead poet’s presence, his lingering “spirit’s light” (Stanza XLVII, Line 4) and know the reality of immortality. Like beauty and truth, poets (and artists generally) who serve such abstracts and who strive to discover their radiant energy, ultimately defy the limits of time and space.
Stanzas XXXVIII to LV
The argument now turns toward the consolations of immortality. The speaker celebrates: “[H]e is not dead, he doth not sleep” (Stanza XXXIX, Line 1). It is those left behind, those still encased in flesh, who decay and fester. Adonais soars in eternity; the rest of the world is still bound in time, doomed to surrender to time.
It is foolish to mourn for Adonais/Keats. He is now one with Nature, one with the resilient energies of a plane higher and grander than any puny individual. His voice is now fused with the wind and the song of the birds. He is still a presence, felt if not seen, known if not recognized. And now he is lovelier, fairer, and more resplendent than he ever was in his corruptible mortal shell. Death is trivial, a “low mist which cannot blot / [t]he brightness it may veil” (Stanza XLIV, Lines 4-5). Even as the long cavalcade of poets who died before him welcome him into their company, they invite young Adonais/Keats to “[a]ssume [his] winged throne” (Stanza XLVI, Line 9) and join their radiant throng.
At the grave, there as near to the poet as a person can be now, separated from the immortal and still interred in material reality, the visitor will understand the redemptive power of the imagination, feel the full force of immortality itself, the energy of his resilience. “[K]now thyself and him aright” (Stanza XLVII, Line 2). The speaker comes to understand Keats is beyond worlds, beyond sorrow, beyond darkness. The speaker informs those who might visit the cemetery:
[T]he spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread (Stanza XLIX, Lines 6-9).
These lines suggest the living spirit of the poet himself. The cemetery then becomes a fitting stage for the poet’s ultimate argument of hope. There in the storied Eternal City, the speaker invites those left to mourn the death of the poet to touch the eternal. When it comes time to die, he cautions his reader, fear not. Understand that Keats’s soul is as radiant as any star in the night sky, and more importantly, its illumination cannot, will not fade. The “light” (Stanza LIV, Line 1) that animates the universe, its splendid kinetic “spirit” (Stanza LV, Line 2), beams down alike on each of us and promises a blessing that will soar far above the despairing curses we level at death’s intrusion. In the death of Adonais/Keats, therefore, understand that it is life—tawdry and tacky and temporary—that separates us from beauty and truth and death that brings us together with those energies.
By Percy Bysshe Shelley