Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats is a pastoral elegy written by Percy Bysshe Shelley for John Keats.
The poet weeps for dead Adonais and asks us to join him in weeping, though our tears will not recall the dead poet to life. The unfortunate Hour who had the pain of seeing him die is asked to induce less famous Hours to join her in her lamentation. When Adonais was killed by an arrow shot in the darkness, his mother Urania, the Spirit of poetry, was not by his side. She was then in her Paradise where she sat in a sleep-like trance of joy, surrounded by Echoes, one of whom sang the poetry of Adonais. Urania must weep, but her lament will be no use; let her rather suppress her tears and her beating heart, for Adonais is gone to the underground region of death from where he will not be restored. But she cannot help lamenting once again as she had lamented before, particularly the death of Milton, who died blind, old and lonely, apparently defeated in life but leaving a spirit to reign over the earth, which makes him third in the list of fame . Only a few poets could soar so high; only a few were able to win fame in their lives; many more were struck down with envy, and some still toil along the thorny path to fame. Now Urania’s youngest son — her greatest hope, the loveliest and the best — is dead, just when he was on the threshold of doing something great.
Adonais came to Rome where Death keeps his court and he has secured a place among the illustrious dead. Let Urania come and see him before he is buried, while he seems only to sleep in peaceful rest, forgetful of all evil. Death waits to spread his evil influence over his body and Corruption waits to seize it, but they dare not touch it before the body is laid in the darkness of the grave.
Adonais lies like a dead shepherd surrounded by his mourning flocks of sheep. His flocks are the poetic thoughts — his dreams and imagination — which he fed in his conceiving heart. They now droop and decay and mourn round his cold heart; one of them, holding his cold head, fans him with her wings, and supposing her own tear-drop on his face to be a tear-drop of his living eyes, cries out that he is not dead; one washes his limbs with dew collected from the stars; a third cuts off her locks of hair in grief and wreathes his body with them like a circlet of frozen tear-drops; a fourth breaks her bow and arrows in the violence of her grief. Another kisses his mouth, but instead of drawing life from the kiss as she used to do when Adonais was alive, she is chilled to death by contact with the dead lips. There are many other mourners who come like a misty pageant on an autumnal morning such as Desires, Adorations, Splendours, Glooms, Hopes, Fears, Sorrows, Pleasures etc.- all those which made up the passions and fancies of the poet when living.
Adonais had a great love for the beauties of Nature, and now the powers of Nature come to mourn his death. Morning on her eastern watch-tower mourns with her hair unbound; the melancholy thunder moans; the ocean is unquiet, and the wind blows sobbing around. Echo sits silently among the mountains in her sorrow, not caring to reply to winds of fountains or the song of merry birds, because she can no more respond to the sweet music of Adonais. Young spring is mad with sorrow and casts about her flowers in a disorderly way. The bright flowers, Hyacinth and Narcissus, stand pale at the loss of their dear Adonais: they stand pale among less colourful flowers- all full of tears and pity.
England also laments the death of Adonais in a more piteous strain than the nightingale mourning for her mate and the eagle complaining of the loss of her young ones from her nest. Let the man (critic) who killed Adonais be cursed as much as Cain.
It is the season of spring: there is a returning life in all objects of nature like air, streams, leaves and flowers; ants, bees, birds, lizards, etc., wake to new life. By the eternal law of nature, a quickening life has freshened wood and stream, field, ocean and sky. Ordinary creatures pant with new joy. Even the decaying dead bodies, touched by the magic influence of spring, serve to feed the plants which bloom into colour and fragrance. Nothing that we know of dies forever. Shall then human intelligence alone — the spirit of man — live for a moment and then die forever? The poet is pained to think that death should be the end of all that men loved in Adonais, that men should be mere actors and spectators on the stage of life, that days and months and years will come and go with only woe for them. But it is a fact that Adonais will awake no more. In his misery, the poet calls upon Urania to wake from her trance of joy and join him in her lamentation.
Urania rises from her ambrosial seat swiftly, as if stung by a painful memory, as she is called by the Dreams and Echoes from her trance. With her splendour darkened by grief, she proceeds like an autumnal night following upon the golden twilight. Surrounded by the misty appearance of sorrow and fear, she comes towards the death chamber of Adonais. As she moves on her way, her tender feet are wounded by treading upon the hard hearts of men; her tender form is pierced by wounding tongues and wicked thoughts of men. She descends to the death chamber of Adonais. The sight of her celestial person overwhelmed by grief shames Death himself for a moment, and the dead Adonais seems to wake. “Leave me not wild, and drear and comfortless“, she cries and kisses the dead body. She wildly asks him to speak once to her and kiss her, and regrets that, immortal as she is, she cannot join him in death. She mildly rebukes him for venturing so early into the den of the hungry dragon (the critics) by taking to a poetic career. He ought to have first armed himself with wisdom or with scorn or waited for the full maturity of his powers. The vicious monsters (critics) who delight in wasting young lives would then have fled from him, just as these herded wolves, these ravens and vultures had fled before the single arrow shot of Pythian Apollo (Byron) and fawned at his feet ever afterwards. Vicious reptiles and ephemeral insects breed in the heat of the day, but they die at night and the stars shine forth again, so also when a new great poet arises, there springs up a swarm of minor critics; when the poet dies, the critics are silenced and the living poets are left to mourn the spiritual darkness caused by the poet’s death.
When Urania ends her mourning, mountain shepherds come to lament their dead shepherd. The pilgrim of Eternity (Byron) who had already earned poetic fame comes, subduing the passionate vigour of his song in gentle sorrow, the sweetest lyric poet (Moore) of Ireland who sang of the wrongs done to her, comes singing sad but musical songs. Among other poets of less note comes one (Shelley) with a light, weak physical body, who has seen, like Actaeon, Nature’s naked beauty and is now fleeing through the wilderness of the world pursued by his own thoughts. He is a beautiful and swift spirit, a power overcome by weakness. He seems to be completely broken in spirit, having only the glow of a suffering heart. His head is bound with a chaplet of flowers; in his hand is a spear which trembles with the beating of the bereaved heart. All seem to know how he is weeping over his own fate in seeing the fate of Adonais. Urania asks him who he is; instead of giving an answer, he only uncovers his branded and bloody brow, bearing the symbol of both the curse of the world and the great sacrifice he has made for it. There is another sorrowing figure (Clarke or Hunt) lying across the dead body in deep sorrow. He had soothed and loved the departed poet in his last days.
Adonais was poisoned by a critic who was deaf to all charms of poetry and vicious as a poisonous snake. Adonais’s first song charmed into silence the hate and envy of other critics who waited in expectation of his mature poetry. The critic who hit him remained anonymous; he Will spout” his poison periodically, but his punishment is his own remorse and the knowledge of what a contemptuous creature he is. The poet (Shelley) himself cannot give him any heavier punishment than this. We should not lament that Adonais is fled from these vicious birds of prey and now lives with the spirits of the immortal poet. The vile critic can never soar so high. Though it is true that dust returns to dust, the pure spirit of Adonais returns to the Eternal Spirit from which it came, while the dead body of the critic will only choke the earth, he is having no spirit to rise to heaven.
Let us take comfort in the thought that Adonais is not dead — he has simply woken from the dream of life; it is we the living creatures, who suffer corruption with fear and grief and cold hopes. Adonais has through death escaped these great ills of life — envy, calumny, hate and pain. He is above the sorrows of death. He lives, he awakes in the world of beauty; so none of us should lament for him; nor should dawn, caverns, forests, etc., mourn for him, for he is not really gone from them. He has been made One with Nature. His voice is heard in the music of the nightingale and the roar of the thunder; his presence is felt and known in darkness and in light, having been made one with that power which moves through the universe, sustaining and animating it. He is a portion of the Energising Beauty which moulds the dull dross forms of the earth, of trees and beasts and men. The splendour of the soul may be dimmed for a time, but death cannot obliterate it. The souls of dead poets move like winds of light in the firmament of time.
In the invisible region into which Adonais rises, they have gone before him immortal poets who had a fate like his on earth. The spirit of Chatterton, still looking pale for the agony of his life, of Sidney, a spirit without a spot, and of Lucan, who sang his own poetry when committing suicide — all these “inheritors of unfulfilled renown” come to great Adonais. Many others who are less famous than they rise with them and show him the star of which he is to be the king. It will burst into song at once and join the chorus of music of the stars,
From these considerations, it is clear that no man should mourn for Adonais. If anybody is inclined to sorrow for the dead, let him try to grasp with his mind the immensity of space and the infinite character of the soul. Or let him go to Rome where Adonais lies buried among other immortal thinkers. “Ages, empires, and religions there lie buried“; but poets like Adonais shed glory on these ruins. Among these wrecks and ruins, there is à green slope of land over which is spread a light of laughing flowers. Here is buried one (Cestius) beneath a tomb planned by himself, and nearby is the space where men recently dead buried. Among them lies Adonais. On returning home from the place, the sorrowing man must be convinced that the grave is the best shelter from the woes of the world. It is through death, that the mortals of the Earth pass, away, and merge With Eternity which remains forever; life is like a dome of many-coloured glass; when death breaks it, its light is made one with the white Light of Eternity. Hence, Death is the thing through which we can merge into Eternity into which Adonais has passed.
The poet turns to himself and asks now, that all his joys are gone and what remains serves only to crush his spirit, why he should hesitate to join his dear Adonais through death. Adonais calls him. The spirit of the universe, which is Light, Beauty and Benediction and with which Adonais has been made one now, shines on him, consuming his mortality. The spirit of Adonais seems to light upon him and call him away from this sordid world and its mass of uninspired men. The star-like soul of Adonais seems to beckon him from Eternity.