Adonais by Shelley: Summary & Poem Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson takes a look at Percy Shelley's most famous pastoral elegy, 'Adonais' written in honor of the passing of John Keats. In addition, the lesson describes key characteristics of Romantic poetry.

Poem Summary

Imagine that you have just learned that your best 'frenemy' has died. You know, the one who is everything that you are or want to be but even more - that prettier/handsomer, smarter, stronger, more talented rival that you both love and hate. Well, that is Percy Shelley's 'Adonais' in a nutshell, written to commemorate Shelley's more talented poetic rival, John Keats.

Shelley's poem is a pastoral elegy (more on that to come) featuring nature imagery and Classical allusions (i.e. allusions to the mythologies and histories of Ancient Greece and Rome). In it, Shelley uses 55 Spenserian stanzas constructed of nine lines each and arranged in an ababbcbcc rhyme scheme. This means that lines 1 and 3 of each stanza rhyme with each other, lines 2, 4, 5, and 7 rhyme with each other, and lines 6, 8, and 9 rhyme with each other. That's a lot of numbers that all boil down to one thing: poetic artistry!

Shelley's poem begins with the announcement that Adonais has died. Remember that Adonais is Shelley's own creation, not a historic or mythological figure, but we can easily see that Shelley intends Adonais to attain mythic proportions. Shelley created the name by combining the name for the Greek God of Fertility (and beauty), Adonis, and the Hebrew word, Adonai, meaning 'our Lord.'

The speaker then calls on the mourners to lament Adonais' passing. Among the first to be called is Urania, the Goddess of Astronomy and identified in the poem as Adonais' mother. Significantly, Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, is also called Venus Urania.

Urania leads a procession of mourners to Adonias' graveside where mythological and historical greats weep for him, from the illustrious poets, Thomas Moore and Lord Byron, to the very forces of nature itself: the Ocean, the Winds, the Morning Dew.

As these mourners cry for the lost Adonais, the speaker condemns those he blames for the death, those who by force or by cunning cut down the hero. Those enemies, the speaker suggests, will suffer most for their misdeeds, while Adonais' spirit lives on eternally.

As the poem closes, the speaker calls for an end to mourning, recognizing that Adonais has achieved the happiest state of all: He has become one with nature, even as his name and spirit endure in the form of art, of poetry. This poetic spirit, immortal and unchanging, will be a source of beauty, inspiration, and light for all ages to come.

Poem Analysis

Again, Shelley's poem is a pastoral elegy, a poem of mourning that relies on nature imagery to honor the dead. The poem also belongs to the Romantic period, an artistic movement prevalent in Europe around the turn of the 19th century. Romanticism's most important concerns were the forces of nature, the quality of beauty, the study of mortality, and the place of the individual in respect to all these.

Romantic poets forcefully opposed the stodgy rationalism of the Enlightenment, a late 18th century movement based upon the cultivation of the reason and the abandonment of the emotions. Instead, Romantics celebrated the misfits, the Noble Savages, and the unschooled peasants that were attuned to the forces of the natural world and uncorrupted by the artificiality of civilization. They were all about emotion.

By the time Shelley appeared on the scene, the Romantic movement had fallen largely out of favor and both he and Keats worked in relative obscurity. Indeed, in the years before his death, Keats' work had been subject to some pretty wicked criticism, most significantly John Wilson Corker's 1818 savaging of Keats' Endymion. Shelley seems to refer most pointedly to Corker in this poem.

No wonder Keats' death at the age of 25 would rattle Shelley. After all, Keats was, by most accounts, one of the greatest poets of his generation and certainly further advanced than any of the now-acknowledged greats had been at his age.

Thus, Shelley's poem condemns Keats' literary critics not because he and Keats were close--they weren't. But, perhaps to Shelley's mind, if a rock star like Keats could die young, penniless, critically condemned, and quickly forgotten, what hope would a lesser poet, even one as great as himself, have?

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