The Keats-Shelley Blog

1 April 2022

A Brief History of Elegy: Part 6 Adonais

We can hear Coleridge too in Adonais itself. Keats’ death robs Shelley not only of a friend, comrade and peer (however idealised these became in his imagination), but a faith in the natural order: Keats is among other things portrayed as a child who died before his parent, a victim of cold, indifferent and second-rate forces (the reviewers whom Shelley believes hastened Keats’ illness). For someone almost overcome with grief, happiness rests only in the future, like the star visible but out of reach that Shelley imagines in the poem’s final lines:

The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

Shelley’s long, slow journey towards this consolation is, more or less, the story of Adonais itself. To what extent you believe the sincerity of his devastation and its eventual promise of relief depends greatly on whether you agree with Shelley himself or, among others, his biographer Richard Holmes. For Holmes, the poem’s tone is beset by ‘a mannerism and pomposity’, its concluding stanzas guilty of the ‘same straining, thinness’ that he associates with earlier, less mature works like ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’: ‘[Adonais] seeks to celebrate the indestructible life of the creative spirit, in art and in nature; yet its personal drive and its most intense images tend always towards consummation and death.’

Holmes isn’t the only reader to detect a similar grandiose coolness in Adonais: both WH Auden and WB Yeats felt similar detachment. One could argue that this was Shelley paying tribute to John Milton and by extension to John Keats: Shelley’s favourite Keats poem was the unmissably Miltonic ‘Hyperion’. One might also wonder whether Shelley wasn’t trying to maintain his cool and avoid the potential pitfalls of the Romantic Elegy, whose focus on poet-elegist flirts an excess of passion, sentimentality and narcissism. Shelley was the first to admit, in a letter to Lord Byron, that there are moments in Adonais where his feelings got the better of him:

‘I need not be told that I have been carried too far by the enthusiasm of the moment; by my piety, and my indignation, in panegyric.’

This justification sounds a little too good to be true, an act of self-defence (and self-defensiveness) tailored for Byron’s urbane ears. Where Adonais might actually have arried Shelley too far was in his over-identification with Keats, as a poet but more importantly as the victim of vicious reviews: see the attacks on Shelley in the Quarterly Review during 1819. Was the mannered,even pompous tone complained of by Richard Holmes an attempt to put some distance between his own feelings and the subject at hand?

I will leave that for you to decide.