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Adonais: Its Argument

The poem of Adonais can of course be contemplated from different points of view. Its biographical relations have been already considered in our preceding sections: its poetical structure and value, its ideal or spiritual significance, and its particular imagery and diction, will occupy us much as we proceed. At present I mean simply to deal with the Argument of Adonais. It has a thread—certainly a slender thread—of narrative or fable; the personation of the poetic figure Adonais, as distinct from the actual man John Keats, and the incidents with which that poetic figure is associated. The numerals which I put in parentheses indicate the stanzas in which the details occur.

(1) Adonais is now dead: the Hour which witnessed his loss mourns him, and is to rouse the other Hours to mourn. (2) He was the son of the widowed Urania, (6) her youngest and dearest son. (2) He was slain by a nightly arrow—'pierced by the shaft which flies in darkness.' At the time of his death Urania was in her paradise (pleasure-garden), slumbering, while Echoes listened to the poems which he had written as death was impending. (3) Urania should now wake and weep; yet wherefore? 'He is gone where all things wise and fair descend.' (4) Nevertheless let her weep and lament. (7) Adonais had come to Rome. (8) Death and Corruption are now in his chamber, but Corruption delays as yet to strike. (9) The Dreams whom he nurtured, as a herdsman tends his flock, mourn around him, (10) One of them was deceived for a moment into supposing that a tear shed by itself came from the eyes of Adonais, and must indicate that he was still alive. (11) Another washed his limbs, and a third clipped and shed her locks upon his corpse, &c. (13) Then came others—Desires, Adorations, Fantasies, &c. (14 to 16) Morning lamented, and Echo, and Spring. (17) Aibion wailed. May 'the curse of Cain light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast,' and scared away its angel soul! (20) Can it be that the soul alone dies, when nothing else is annihilated? (22) Misery aroused Urania: urged by Dreams and Echoes, she sprang up, and (23) sought the death-chamber of Adonais, (24) enduring much suffering from 'barbèd tongues, and thoughts more sharp than they.' (25) As she arrived, Death was shamed for a moment, and Adonais breathed again: but immediately afterwards 'Death rose and smiled, and met her vain caress.' (26) Urania would fain have died along with Adonais; but, chained as she was to Time, this was denied her. (27) She reproached Adonais for having, though defenceless, dared the dragon in his den. Had he waited till the day of his maturity, 'the monsters of life's waste' would have fled from him, as (28) the wolves, ravens, and vultures had fled from, and fawned upon, 'the Pythian of the age.' (30) Then came the Mountain Shepherds, bewailing Adonais: the Pilgrim of Eternity, the Lyrist of lerne, and (31) among others, one frail form, a pard-like spirit. (34) Urania asked the name of this last Shepherd: he then made bare his branded and ensanguined brow, which was like Cain's or Christ's. (35) Another Mountain Shepherd, 'the gentlest of the wise,' leaned over the deathbed. (36) Adonais has drunk poison. Some 'deaf and viperous murderer' gave him the envenomed draught.

[I must here point out a singular discrepancy in the poem of Adonais, considered as a narrative or apologue. Hitherto we had been told that Adonais was killed by an arrow or dart—he was 'pierced by the shaft which flies in darkness,' and the man who 'pierced his innocent breast' had incurred the curse of Cain: he had 'a wound' (stanza 22). There was also the alternative statement that Adonais, unequipped with the shield of wisdom or the spear of scorn, had been so rash as to 'dare the unpastured dragon in his den'; and from this the natural inference is that not any 'shaft which flies in darkness,' but the dragon himself, had slaughtered the too-venturous youth. But now we hear that he was done to death by poison. Certainly when we look beneath the symbol into the thing symbolized, we can see that these divergent allegations represent the same fact, and the readers of the Elegy are not called upon to form themselves into a coroner's jury to determine whether a 'shaft' or a 'dragon' or 'poison' was the instrument of murder: nevertheless the statements in the text are neither identical nor reconcileable for purposes of mythical narration, and it seems strange that the author should not have taken this into account. It will be found as we proceed (see p. 66) that the reference to 'poison' comes into the poem as a direct reproduction from the Elegy of Moschus upon Bion—being the passage which forms the second of the two mottoes to Adonais.]

(36) This murderer, a 'nameless worm,' was alone callous to the prelude of the forthcoming song. (37) Let him live on in remorse and self-contempt. (38) Neither should we weep that Adonais has 'fled far from these carrion-kites that scream below.' His spirit flows back to its fountain, a portion of the Eternal. (39) Indeed, he is not dead nor sleeping, but 'has awakened from the dream of life.' Not he decays, but we. (41) Let not us, nor the powers of Nature, mourn for Adonais. (42) He is made one with Nature. (45) In 'the unapparent' he was welcomed by Chatterton, Sidney, Lucan, and (46) many more immortals, and was hailed as the master of a 'kingless sphere' in a 'heaven of song.' (48) Let any rash mourner go to Rome, and (49) visit the cemetery. (53) And thou, my heart, why linger and shrink? Adonais calls thee: be no longer divided from him. (55) The soul of Adonais beacons to thee 'from the abode where the Eternal are.'

This may he the most convenient place for raising a question of leading importance to the Argument of Adonais—Who is the personage designated under the name Urania?—a question which, so far as I know, has never yet been mooted among the students of Shelley. Who is Urania? Why is she represented as the mother of Adonais (Keats), and the chief mourner for his untimely death?

In mythology the name Urania is assigned to two divinities wholly distinct. The first is one of the nine Muses, the Muse of Astronomy: the second is Aphrodite (Venus). We may without any hesitation assume that Shelley meant one of these two: but a decision, as to which of the two becomes on reflection by no means so obvious as one might at first suppose. We will first examine the question as to the Muse Urania.

To say that the poet Keats, figured as Adonais, was son to one of the Muses, appears so natural and straightforward a symbolic suggestion as to command summary assent. But why, out of the nine sisters, should the Muse of Astronomy be selected? Keats never wrote about astronomy, and had no qualifications and no faintest inclination for writing about it: this science, and every other exact or speculative science, were highly alien from his disposition and turn of mind. And yet, on casting about for a reason, we can find that after all and in a certain sense there is one forthcoming, of some considerable amount of relevancy. In the eyes of Shelley, Keats was principally and above all the poet of Hyperion; and Hyperion is, strictly speaking, a poem about the sun. In like manner, Endymion is a poem about the moon. Thus, from one point of view—I cannot see any other—Keats might be regarded as inspired by, or a son of, the Muse of Astronomy. A subordinate point of some difficulty arises from stanza 6, where Adonais is spoken of as 'the nursling of thy [Urania's] widowhood'—which seems to mean, son of Urania, born after the father's death. Urania is credited in mythology with the motherhood of two sons—Linus, her offspring by Amphimacus, who was a son of Poseidon, and Hymenaeus, her offspring by Apollo. It might be idle to puzzle over this question of Urania's 'widowhood,' or to attempt to found upon it (on the assumption that Urania the Muse is referred to) any theory as to who her deceased consort could have been: for it is as likely as not that the phrase which I have cited from the poem is not really intended to define with any sort of precision the parentage of the supposititious Adonais, but, practically ignoring Adonais, applies to Keats himself, and means simply that Keats, as the son of the Muse, was born out of time—born in an unpoetical and unappreciative age. Many of my readers will recollect that Milton, in the elaborate address which opens Book 7 of Paradise Lost, invokes Urania. He is careful however to say that he does not mean the Muse Urania, but the spirit of 'Celestial Song,' sister of Eternal Wisdom, both of them well-pleasing to the 'Almighty Father.' Thus far for Urania the Muse.

I now come to Aphrodite Urania. This deity is to be carefully distinguished from the Cyprian or Pandemic Aphrodite: she is different, not only in attribute and function, but even in personality and origin. She is the daughter of Heaven (Uranus) and Light; her influence is heavenly: she is heavenly or spiritual love, as distinct from earthly or carnal love. If the personage in Shelley's Elegy is to be regarded, not as the Muse Urania, but as Aphrodite Urania, she here represents spiritual or intellectual aspiration, the love of abstract beauty, the divine element in poesy or art. As such, Aphrodite Urania would be no less appropriate than Urania or any other Muse to be designated as the mother of Adonais (Keats). But the more cogent argument in favour of Aphrodite Urania is to be based upon grounds of analogy or transfer, rather than upon any reasons of antecedent probability. The part assigned to Urania in Shelley's Elegy is very closely modelled upon the part assigned to Aphrodite in the Elegy of Bion upon Adonis (see the section in this volume, Bion and Moschus). What Aphrodite Cypris does in the Adonis, that Urania does in the Adonais. The resemblances are exceedingly close, in substance and in detail: the divergences are only such as the altered conditions naturally dictate. The Cyprian Aphrodite is the bride of Adonis, and as such she bewails him: the Uranian Aphrodite is the mother of Adonais, and she laments him accordingly. Carnal relationship and carnal love are transposed into spiritual relationship and spiritual love. The hands are the hands, in both poems, of Aphrodite: the voices are respectively those of Cypris and of Urania.

It is also worth observing that the fragmentary poem of Shelley named Prince Athanase, written in 1817, was at first named Pandemos and Urania; and was intended, as Mrs. Shelley informs us, to embody the contrast between 'the earthly and unworthy Venus,' and the nobler ideal of love, the heaven-born or heaven-sent Venus. The poem would thus have borne a certain relation to Alastor, and also to Epipsychidion. The use of the name 'Urania' in this proposed title may help to confirm us in the belief that there is no reason why Shelley should not have used the same name in Adonais with the implied meaning of Aphrodite Urania.

On the whole I am strongly of opinion that the Urania of Adonais is Aphrodite, and not the Muse.

Contributed by Rossetti, William Michael


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