Anna Mercer on Adonais

Author

Adonais. An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of ‘Endymion’, ‘Hyperion’ etc

‘[Adonais is] a highly wrought piece of art, perhaps better in point of composition than any thing I have written’

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a letter of 5 June 1821.[1]

‘Keats they say is dying in Rome’

– Mary Shelley, in a letter of 5 April 1821.[2]

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy to John Keats, Adonais, was written between April and June 1821. Keats and Shelley were first linked as creative individuals in Leigh Hunt’s ‘Young Poets’ article of 1816. They met at Hunt’s house in London several times, where they would converse and take part in sonnet-writing competitions - but they never became close.

It was Keats’s illness and death, something which Shelley heard about during his time in Italy, that resonated so strongly with him, and produced the reaction that led to Adonais. As Keats himself made his tragic journey to Naples, Shelley anticipated that he could help the sick man:

‘Where is Keats now? I am anxiously expecting him in Italy where I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him. I consider his a most valuable life, & I am deeply interested in his safety. I intend to be the physician both of his body & his soul […] I am aware indeed in part [tha]t I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass [me] and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.’[3]

Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821, but it was not until 11 April that Shelley heard the news. The young poet’s fate, following destructive reviews of his work in the Quarterly, led to Shelley’s distinctive anger at the cruel public treatment of a genius still developing. It has been argued that Shelley also felt that Keats’s experience reflected his own troubles as a writer, since neither was able to achieve public success, recognition, and readership in their own lifetime; this is a situation very unlike, for example, Shelley’s good friend Lord Byron.[4]

Adonais is a pastoral elegy in Spenserian stanzas. A conventional reading is to infer that Shelley views himself as Keats in the poem. Arguably, this style is actually not narcissistic, but instead, as Jeffrey N. Cox has suggested, ‘the purpose of the “self-portrait” is not self-pity but an analysis of the principle of self in modern poetry’, building on a Wordsworthian introspection that was also developed by Keats himself.[5]

The poem is full of beautiful imagery, including perhaps the most famous passage (Stanza 52):

    The One remains, the many change and pass;
    Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
    Life, like a dome of many-coloured 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.[6]

It is worth noting that Shelley enriches his poem with a multitude of Keatsian allusions. He echoes Keats’s diction, suggesting that he may have studied Keats’s poetry in detail ahead of composing Adonais in May 1821. Shelley’s depiction of mourning, anger and frustration in the poem is all the more shocking when considering that he, too, would die young, drowned at sea just over a year later in July 1822,aged just 29.

The names ‘Keats’ and‘ Shelley’ now frequently appear together, and both poets are buried in the same graveyard, the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome. Frequently their surnames are linked into the term ‘Keats-Shelley’ to create a sense of the impact and scope of these two writers who loom large within the so-called ‘second-generation Romantics’. Their joint names also represent their wider associations with writers of the same period: the ‘Keats-Shelley circle’ or ‘Keats and Shelley and their circles’. The groups and communities within Keats House, the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (KSMA), the Keats-Shelley House, and the Keats-Shelley Association of America (K-SAA) work to preserve the memory of these historical figures. Jonathan Mulrooney (editor of the Keats-Shelley Journal) noted poignantly at a recent online event for the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) that ‘Keats-Shelley’ no longer means just other white, heterosexual traditionally-educated men but also a wider range of authors and thinkers:

‘In the case of the Keats-Shelley Association of America, their anti-racist forum is hopefully going to make its way into a print version. And I think that’s one way to really kind of engage audiences and contributors. […] There was once upon a time when Keats, Shelley, Hunt, Byron and their circles meant Keats, Shelley, Hunt, Byron and two other guys, right? That’s not the way we think about it any more, and I think all of us are trying to contend with that question’.[7]


Adonais is one of a few select poems actually published in Shelley’s lifetime, appearing first in Pisa in July 1821, and then in the Literary Chronicle in December of the same year. In our next ‘Feast of the Poets’ event, playfully entitled ‘Keats vs. Shelley’, we use 200 years since the poem’s initial publication to celebrate the two writers and their work. We invite our expert panellists to make the case for a preference for either Keats or Shelley, or, to be more diplomatic perhaps, simply reflect on the relationship between the two poets, and thinking about who they have influenced and inspired. This event celebrates not just the publication of Adonais but looks forward to the Shelley Conference 2022, to be held on 8-9 July 2022 at the Nightingale Room in Keats House, marking the bicentenary of Shelley’s death.

Keats House, July 2021

by Anna Mercer

#Keats200 #KeatsShelley200#Shelley200

Inkstand belonging to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1800s
Inkstand belonging to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1800s. Gifted to Keats House by Mrs Buxton Forman following her death in 1934. K/AR/01/050

According to Claire Clairmont, this inkstand was used by Shelley while he was writing ‘Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem’ in 1813.

Claire Clairmont was a stepsister of Mary Shelley and had a relationship and child with Byron. She owned a number of Shelley’s possessions, including letters and this inkstand. After her death in 1879, some of these were purchased by the editor and collector Harry Buxton Forman.

Find more information.

Bibliography:

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Garrett, Martin. The Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Shelley (London: Palgrave, 2013).

Rossington, Michael, Jack Donovan and Kelvin Everest (eds.). The Poems of Shelley Vol. 4 1820-1821(London: Routledge, 2014).

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 Vols., ed. Betty T. Bennett (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 Vols., ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

Useful links:

The Shelley Conference 2022

The Keats Letters Project present “Weep for Adonais” – a reading of the poem for the bicentenary of Keats’s death

BARS Digital Events‘ Re-envisioning Romantic Publishing’ Recording, BARS Blog

Footnotes

[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 Vols., Vol. II, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 294.

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 Vols., Vol. I, ed. Betty T. Bennett (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 188.

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letters Vol II, p. 240.

[4] For more: Michael Rossington, Jack Donovan and Kelvin Everest (eds.) The Poems of Shelley Vol. 4 1820-1821(London: Routledge, 2014) pp. 235-330.

[5]Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 213.See also: ‘Adonais’ in Martin Garrett, The Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Shelley (London: Palgrave, 2013) pp. 2-5.

[6] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Adonais’ in The Poems of Shelley Vol 4 pp. 326-328.

[7] Jonathan Mulrooney, speaking at the British Association for Romantic Studies Digital Event ‘Re-envisioning Romantic Publishing’ on 8 July 2021.

About #Keats200

The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

Find out more about #Keats200 by following Keats House on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.