Shelley wrote this long poem as an elegy for Shelley’s close friend and fellow poet John Keats, who died in Rome of tuberculosis at the age of 26. The mood of the poem begins in dejection, but ends in optimism—hoping Keats’ spark of brilliance reverberates through the generations of future poets and inspires revolutionary change throughout Europe. Adonis is the stand-in for Keats, for he too died at a young age after being mauled by a boar. In Shelley’s version, the “beast” responsible for Keats’s death is the literary critic, specifically one from London’s Quarterly who gave a scathing review of Keats’ poem “Endymion” (Shelley was unaware of the true cause of Keats’s death). Urania (also known as “Venus” or “Aphrodite”), who is Adonis’ lover in the myth, is rewritten here as the young man’s mother (possibly because Keats had no lover at the time of his death). In a sense, Keats is not dead, for like other great poets, he lives within those who benefited from his life and poetry, and he is alive because he is “one with Nature.” He is even Christlike, a divinity among the best of poets. Even so, he died too soon. In death, he beacons the living to join him in eternity.
The Greek in the subtitle is: “Thou wert the morning star among the living, / ‘Ere thy fair light had fled; / Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving / New splendor to the dead.” This is taken from the “Epigram on Aster,” often attributed to Plato, which Shelley had been translating at the time of John Keats’ death.
Shelley is mourning the death of his good friend, the young English poet John Keats. The persona has entered a state of dejection, calling everyone to mourn with him, and announcing that Keats should be remembered forever. To do so, Shelley assigns to Keats’ identity Adonis, a Greek god who was loved by Venus and died at a very young age, being torn apart by wild boars.
The overarching form of the poem is a pastoral elegy, meaning that a shepherd of sorts is mourning the death of another. Literarily speaking, the function of pastoral poetry is reflexive in that it uses older traditions to make complex emotions seem simpler. The Greek legend of Adonis is a tale about a handsome youth who was equally admired by Aphrodite (Urania), Queen of Love, and by Persephone, Queen of Death. (Shelley makes Urania into Adonis’ mother in this elegy.) Unable to agree on which Goddess shall have him, Zeus decided he would spend half the year on Earth with Aphrodite (the spring and summer) and half the year in the underworld with Persephone (autumn and winter). During a summer hunt, Adonis pierced a boar with his spear, wounding but not killing the beast. In retaliation, the boar charged Adonis and stabbed him with his tusk, causing a lesion that would eventually kill the young and beautiful prince. It was said that every year the Greek women would mourn for Adonis when he died, then rejoice when he was resurrected (in the form of the windflower). Using this myth as the central theme in the elegy, Shelley is hoping, or suggesting, that Keats shall be as immortal as the young Adonis. Beyond the obvious parallel that both were taken at a young age, Shelley uses this poem to exhort readers to mourn him in his death, but hold onto him in memory and rejoice in his virtual resurrection by reading his words.
Shelley blames Keats’ death on literary criticism that was recently published (see lines 150-53; he was unaware that Keats was suffering from tuberculosis). He scorns the weakness and cowardice of the critic compared with the poet, echoing his famous essay providing “A Defense of Poetry.” The poet wonders why Adonis’ mother (“Urania”) was not able to do more to save her beloved son, and he summons all spirits, living and dead, to join him in his mourning. Shelley argues that Keats’ had great potential as a poet and is perhaps the “loveliest and the last” great spirit of the Romantic period (an argument that might be true).
Stanzas eight and nine continue with Shelley’s beckoning of mourners. Stanza ten changes to dialogue: his mother, Urania, holds the corpse of her young poet son and realizes that some “dream has loosened from his brain.” That is, something about his mind is not dead although his body may be dead. The body is visited by a series of Greek Goddesses, who take three or four stanzas to prepare the corpse for the afterlife; Keats deserves it.
Even nature is mourning the loss, where things like the ocean, winds, and echoes are stopping to pay their respects. As the seasons come and go, the persona is feeling no better. By stanza twenty, the persona finally perceives a separation between the corpse and the spirit, one going to fertilize new life in nature, the other persisting to inspire aesthetic beauty. This is when Urania awakens from her own dejected sleep and takes flight across the land, taunting death to “meet her” but realizing she is “chained to time” and cannot be with her beloved son, so she is again left feeling hopeless and dejected. She acknowledges her son’s “defenselessness” against the “herded wolves” of mankind but then compares him to Apollo, suggesting he will have more inspiration in death than he would have in life.
The persona then describes the death of Keats with scorn for those he thinks is responsible. Keats visits his mother as a ghost whom she does not recognize. The persona calls for Keats to be remembered for his work and not the age of his death, and Shelley takes an unusual religious tone as he places Keats as a soul in the heavens, looking down upon earth. Shelley contends that Keats, in death, is more “alive” than the common man will ever be, and he can now exist peacefully, safe from the evils of men and their criticisms.
In stanza forty-one, the poem takes a major shift. The narrator begins to rejoice, becoming aware that the young Adonis is alive (in spirit) and will live on forever. We see the Romantic notion that he is now “one with nature,” and just as other young poets who have died (Shelley lists them), their spirits all live on in the inspiration we draw from their work and short lives. Even so, Keats is a head above the rest. Completely turning on his original position, the speaker now calls upon anyone who mourns for Adonis as a “wretch,” arguing that his spirit is immortal, making him as permanent as the great city of Rome. Shelley ends the poem wondering about his own fate, when he will die, and if he will be mourned and remembered with such respect as he is giving Keats.
Taken as a whole, then, “Adonais” expresses the many stages of grieving. John Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821. Not long afterward, Shelley wrote the poem. Did he really go through the whole process described above? Such a recovery through poetry is somewhat surprising given its speed, but we do not have to see this poem as more than aspirational, a hope that this is somehow the way Keats has ended up and the way that those left behind will reconcile themselves to his loss. Instead of taking up these issues directly, Shelley chooses allusion and allegory going back to ancient myth in order to express his sorrow for the loss of his friend and to implore the rest of the world to never forget the work of the young bard. The use of ancient mythology suggests that Shelley sees Keats as a truly majestic figure, as the rest of the poem demonstrates.
While Urania is in mourning for the loss of her son, he visits her in spirit form (see lines 296-311). This makes Keats Christlike (with “ensanguined brow”) and makes Urania a kind of grieving Virgin Mary. After Urania does not recognize him, the speaker begins to realize that his beloved Adonis “is not dead” (line 343). This is not just a Christian metaphor of resurrection; it also employs a Platonic idea that all forms of the good emanate from the absolute good. As an example of the good and the beautiful, Keats partakes in the eternal and therefore never dies (see line 340). This is the realization that causes the speaker to rejoice and change his view from sadness to optimism, and the speaker now begins to immortalize Keats in many different forms. “He is made one with Nature,” and he “bursts” in beauty—from trees to beasts to men to Heaven.
Finally, the poet almost dares the reader, if he is still mourning, to join him in his newfound vision of immortality in mutated form (lines 415-23). He alludes to the city of Rome as “the grave, the city, and the wilderness,” where mourning is “dull time.” That is, if you do not quit this mourning, you risk finding yourself in your own tomb (lines 455-59).
Ultimately, Shelley concedes the passing of his friend because he accepts the idea that Keats’ “light” will continue to “kindle” the inspiration of the universe. So long as we never forget the power of Adonis’ spiritual resurrection, he will forever remain. The poet’s “breath,” in the “light” that shall guide Shelley throughout the rest of his life (Shelley died not long afterward, in 1822).