HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title
pixel - Adonais: General Exposition.

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Adonais: General Exposition.

The consideration which, in the preceding section, we have bestowed upon the 'Argument' of Adonais will assist us not a little in grasping the full scope of the poem. It may be broadly divided into three currents of thought, or (as one might say) into three acts of passion. I. The sense of grievous loss in the death of John Keats the youthful and aspiring poet, cut short as he was approaching his prime; and the instinctive impulse to mourning and desolation. 2. The mythical or symbolic embodiment of the events in the laments of Urania and the Mountain Shepherds, and in the denunciation of the ruthless destroyer of the peace and life of Adonais. 3. The rejection of mourning as one-sided, ignorant, and a reversal of the true estimate of the facts; and a recognition of the eternal destiny of Keats in the world of mind, coupled with the yearning of Shelley to have done with the vain shows of things in this cycle of mortality, and to be at one with Keats in the mansions of the everlasting. Such is the evolution of this Elegy; from mourning to rapture: from a purblind consideration of deathly phenomena to the illumination of the individual spirit which contemplates the eternity of spirit as the universal substance.

Shelley raises in his poem a very marked contrast between the death of Adonais (Keats) as a mortal man succumbing to 'the common fate,' and the immortality of his spirit as a vital immaterial essence surviving the death of the body: he uses terms such as might be adopted by any believer in the doctrine of 'the immortality of the soul,' in the ordinary sense of that phrase. It would not however be safe to infer that Shelley, at the precise time when he wrote Adonais, was really in a more definite frame of mind on this theme than at other periods of his life, or of a radically different conviction. As a fact, his feelings on the great problems of immortality were acute, his opinions regarding them vague and unsettled. He certainly was not an adherent of the typical belief on this subject; the belief that a man on this earth is a combination of body and soul, in a state—his sole state—of 'probation'; that, when the body dies and decays, the soul continues to be the same absolute individual identity; and that it passes into a condition of eternal and irreversible happiness or misery, according to the faith entertained or the deeds done in the body. His belief amounted more nearly to this: That a human soul is a portion of the Universal Soul, subjected, during its connexion with the body, to all the illusions, the dreams and nightmares, of sense; and that, after the death of the body, it continues to be a portion of the Universal Soul, liberated, from those illusions, and subsisting in some condition which the human reason is not capable of defining as a state either of personal consciousness or of absorption. And, so far as the human being exercised, during the earthly life, the authentic functions of soul, that same exercise of function continues to be the permanent record of the soul in the world of mind. If any reader thinks that this seems a vague form of belief, the answer is that the belief of Shelley was indeed a vague one. In the poem of Adonais it remains, to my apprehension, as vague as in his other writings: but it assumes a shape of greater definition, because the poem is, by its scheme and intent, a personating poem, in which the soul of Keats has to be greeted by the soul of Chatterton, just as the body of Adonais has to be caressed and bewailed by Urania. Using language of a semi-emblematic kind, we might perhaps express something of Shelley's belief thus:—Mankind is the microcosm, as distinguished from the rest of the universe, which forms the macrocosm; and, as long as a man's body and soul remain in combination, his soul pertains to the microcosm: when this combination ceases with the death of the body, his soul, in whatever sense it may be held to exist, lapses into the macrocosm, but there is neither knowledge as to the mode of its existence, nor speech capable of recording this.

As illustrating our poet's conceptions on these mysterious subjects, I append extracts from three of his prose writings. The first extract comes from his fragment On Life, which may have been written (but this is quite uncertain) towards 1815; the second from his fragment On a Future State, for which some similar date is suggested; the third from the notes to his drama of Hellas, written in 1821, later than Adonais.

(1) 'The most refined abstractions of logic conduct to a view of Life which, though startling to the apprehension, is in fact that which the habitual sense of its repeated combinations has extinguished in us. It strips, as it were, the painted curtain from this scene of things. I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived. It is a decision against which all our persuasions struggle—and we must be long convicted before we can be convinced that the solid universe of external things is "such stuff as dreams are made of." The shocking absurdities of the popular philosophy of mind and matter, its fatal consequences in morals, and their [? the] violent dogmatism concerning the source of all things, had early conducted me to Materialism. This Materialism is a seducing system to young and superficial minds: it allows its disciples to talk, and dispenses them from thinking. But I was discontented with such a view of things as it afforded. Man is a being of high aspirations, "looking both before and after," whose "thoughts wander through eternity," disclaiming alliance with transcience and decay; incapable of imagining to himself annihilation; existing but in the future and the past; being, not what he is, but what he has been and shall be. Whatever may be his true and final destination, there is a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution. This is the character of all life and being. Each is at once the centre and the circumference; the point to which all things are referred, and the line in which all things are contained. Such contemplations as these Materialism, and the popular philosophy of mind and matter, alike forbid: they are only consistent with the Intellectual System.... The view of Life presented by the most refined deductions of the Intellectual Philosophy is that of unity. Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are vulgarly distinguished by the names of "ideas" and of "external objects." Pursuing the same thread of reasoning, the existence of distinct individual minds, similar to that which is employed in now questioning its own nature, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words "I, you, they," are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind. Let it not be supposed that this doctrine conducts to the monstrous presumption that I, the person who now write and think, am that one mind. I am but a portion of it.'

(2) 'Suppose however that the intellectual and vital principle differs in the most marked and essential manner from all other known substances; that they have all some resemblance between themselves which it in no degree participates. In what manner can this concession be made an argument for its imperishability? All that we see or know perishesand is changed. Life and thought differ indeed from everything else: but that it survives that period beyond which we have no experience of its existence such distinction and dissimilarity affords no shadow of proof, and nothing but our own desires could have led us to conjecture or imagine. Have we existed before birth? It is difficult to conceive the possibility of this.... If we have not existed before birth; if, at the period when the parts of our nature on which thought and life depend seem to be woven together, they are woven together; if there are no reasons to suppose that we have existed before that period at which our existence apparently commences; then there are no grounds for supposition that we shall continue to exist after our existence has apparently ceased. So far as thought and life is concerned, the same will take place with regard to us, individually considered, after death, as had place before our birth. It is said that it is possible that we should continue to exist in some mode totally inconceivable to us at present. This is a most unreasonable presumption.... Such assertions ... persuade indeed only those who desire to be persuaded. This desire to be for ever as we are—the reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change which is common to all the animated and inanimate combinations of the universe—is indeed the secret persuasion which has given birth to the opinions of a Future State.'

(3. Note to the chorus, 'Worlds on worlds are rolling ever,' &c.) 'The first stanza contrasts the immortality of the living and thinking beings which inhabit the planets and (to use a common and inadequate phrase) clothe themselves in matter, with the transcience of the noblest manifestations of the external world. The concluding verses indicate a progressive state of more or less exalted existence, according to the degree of perfection which every distinct intelligence may have attained. Let it not be supposed that I mean to dogmatise upon a subject concerning which all men are equally ignorant, or that I think the Gordian knot of the origin of evil can be disentangled by that or any similar assertions.... That there is a true solution of the riddle, and that in our present state that solution is unattainable by us, are propositions which may be regarded as equally certain: meanwhile, as it is the province of the poet to attach himself to those ideas which exalt and ennoble humanity, let him be permitted to have conjectured the condition of that futurity towards which we are all impelled by an inextinguishable thirst for immortality. Until better arguments can be produced than sophisms which disgrace the cause, this desire itself must remain the strongest and the only presumption that eternity is the inheritance of every thinking being.'

The reader will perceive that in these three passages the dominant ideas, very briefly stated, are as follows:—(1) Mind is the aggregate of all individual minds; (2) man has no reason for expecting that his mind or soul will be immortal; (3) no reason, except such as inheres in the very desire which he feels for immortality. These opinions, deliberately expressed by Shelley at different dates as a theorist in prose, should be taken into account if we endeavour to estimate what he means when, as a poet, he speaks, whether in Hellas or in Adonais, of an individual, his mind and his immortality. When Shelley calls upon us to regard Keats (Adonais) as mortal in body but immortal in soul or mind, his real intent is probably limited to this: that Keats has been liberated, by the death of the body, from the dominion and delusions of the senses; and that he, while in the flesh, developed certain fruits of mind which survive his body, and will continue to survive it indefinitely, and will form a permanent inheritance of thought and of beauty to succeeding generations. Keats himself, in one of his most famous lines, expressed a like conception,

'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.'

Shelley was faithful to his canons of highest literary or poetical form in giving a Greek shape to his elegy on Keats; but it may be allowed to his English readers, or at any rate to some of them, to think that he hereby fell into a certain degree of artificiality of structure, undesirable in itself, and more especially hampering him in a plain and self-consistent expression both of his real feeling concerning Keats, and of his resentment against those who had cut short, or were supposed to have cut short, the career and the poetical work of his friend. Moreover Shelley went beyond the mere recurrence to Greek forms of impersonation and expression: he took two particular Greek authors, and two particular Greek poems, as his principal model. These two poems are the Elegy of Bion on Adonis, and the Elegy of Moschus on Bion. To imitate is not to plagiarize; and Shelley cannot reasonably be called a plagiarist because he introduced into Adonais passages which are paraphrased or even translated from Bion and Moschus. It does seem singular however that neither in the Adonais volume nor in any of his numerous written remarks upon the poem does Shelley ever once refer to this state of the facts. Possibly in using the name 'Adonais' he intended to refer the reader indirectly to the 'Adonis' of Bion; and he prefixed to the preface of his poem, as a motto, four verses from the Elegy of Moschus upon Bion. This may have been intended for a hint to the reader as to the Grecian sources of the poem. The whole matter will receive detailed treatment in our next section, as well as in the Notes.

The passages of Adonais which can be traced back to Bion and Moschus are not the finest things in the poem: mostly they fill out its fabular 'argument' with brilliancy and suavity, rather than with nerve and pathos. The finest things are to be found in the denunciation of the 'deaf and viperous murderer;' in the stanzas concerning the 'Mountain Shepherds,' especially the figure representing Shelley himself; and in the solemn and majestic conclusion, where the poet rises from the region of earthly sorrow into the realm of ideal aspiration and contemplation.

Shelley is generally—and I think most justly—regarded as a peculiarly melodious versifier: but it must not be supposed that he is rigidly exact in his use of rhyme. The contrary can be proved from the entire body of his poems. Adonais is, in this respect, neither more nor less correct than his other writings. It would hardly be reasonable to attribute his laxity in rhyming to either carelessness, indifference, or unskilfulness: but rather to a deliberate preference for a certain variety in the rhyme-sounds—as tending to please the ear, and availing to satisfy it in the total effect, without cloying it by any tight-drawn uniformity. Such a preference can be justified on two grounds: firstly, that the general effect of the slightly varied sounds is really the more gratifying of the two methods, and I believe that, practised within reasonable limits, it is so; and secondly, that the requirements of sense are superior to those of sound, and that, in the effort after severely exact rhyming, a writer would often, be compelled to sacrifice some delicacy of thought, or some grace or propriety of diction. Looking through the stanzas of Adonais, I find the following laxities of rhyming: Compeers, dares; anew, knew (this repetition of an identical syllable as if it were a rhyme is very frequent with Shelley, who evidently considered it to be permissible, and even right—and in this view he has plenty of support): God; road; last, waste; taught, not; break, cheek (two instances); ground, moaned; both, youth; rise, arise; song, stung; steel, fell; light, delight; part, depart; wert, heart; wrong, tongue; brow, so; moan, one; crown, tone; song, unstrung; knife, grief; mourn, burn; dawn, moan; bear, bear; blot, thought; renown, Chatterton; thought, not; approved, reproved; forth, earth; nought, not; home, tomb; thither, together; wove, of; riven, heaven. These are 34 instances of irregularity. The number of stanzas in Adonais is 55: therefore there is more than one such irregularity for every two stanzas.

It may not be absolutely futile if we bestow a little more attention upon the details of these laxities of rhyme. The repetition of an identical syllable has been cited 6 times. In 4 instances the sound of taught is assimilated to that of not (I take here no account of differences of spelling, but only of the sounds); in 4, the sound of ground and of renown to that of moaned, or of Chatterton; in 2, the sound of o in road, both, and wove, to that in God, youth, and of; in 3, the sound of song to that of stung; in 2, the sound of ee in compeers, steel, cheek, and grief, to that in dares, fell, break and knife; in 2, the sound of e in wert and earth to that in heart and forth; in 3, the sound of o in moan and home to that in one, dawn, and tomb; in 2, the sound of thither to that of together. The other cases which I have cited have only a single instance apiece. It results therefore that the vowel-sound subjected to the most frequent variations is that of o, whether single or in combination.

Shelley may be considered to allow himself more than an average degree of latitude in rhyming: but it is a fact that, if the general body of English poetry is scrutinized, it will be found to be more or less lax in this matter. This question is complicated by another question—that of how words were pronounced at different periods in our literary history: in order to exclude the most serious consequent difficulties, I shall say nothing here about any poet prior to Milton. I take at haphazard four pages of rhymed verse from each of the following six poets, and the result proves to be as follows:—

Milton.—Pass, was; feast, rest; come, room; still, invisible; vouchsafe, safe; moon, whereon; ordained, land. 7 instances.

Dryden.—Alone, fruition; guard, heard; pursued, good: procured, secured, 4 instances.

Pope.—Given, heaven; steer, character; board, lord; fault, thought; err, singular. 5 instances.

Gray.—Beech, stretch; borne, thorn; abode, God; broke, rock, 4 instances.

Coleridge.—Not a single instance.

Byron.—Given, heaven; Moore, yore; look, duke; song, tongue; knot, not; of, enough; bestowed, mood. 7 instances.

In all these cases, as in that of Shelley's Adonais, I have taken no count of those instances of lax sound-rhyme which are correct letter-rhyme—such as the coupling of move with love, or of star with war; for these, however much some more than commonly purist ears may demur to them, appear to be part and parcel of the rhyming system of the English language. I need hardly say that, if these cases had been included, my list would in every instance have swelled considerably; nor yet that I am conscious how extremely partial and accidental is the test, as to comparative number of laxities, which I have here supplied.

The Spenserian metre, in which Adonais is written, was used by Shelley in only one other instance—his long ideal epic The Revolt of Islam.

Contributed by Rossetti, William Michael


Terms Defined

Referenced Works