The poet weeps for Keats who is dead and who will be long mourned. He calls on Urania to mourn for Keats who died in Rome (sts. 1-VII). The poet summons the subject matter of Keats poetry to weep for him. It comes and mourns at his bidding (sts. VIII-XV). Nature, celebrated by Keats in his poetry, mourns him. Spring, which brings nature to new life, cannot restore him (sts. XVI-XXI). Urania rises, goes to Keats' death chamber and laments that she cannot join him in death (sts. XXII-XXIX). Fellow poets mourn the death of Keats: Byron, Thomas Moore, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt (sts. XXX-XXXV). The anonymous Quarterly Review critic is blamed for Keats' death and chastised (sts. XXXVI-XXXVII).
The poet now urges his readers not to weep any longer. Keats has become a portion of the eternal and is free from the attacks of reviewers. He is not dead; it is the living who are dead. He has gone where "envy and calumny and hate and pain" cannot reach him. He is "made one with Nature." His being has been withdrawn into the one Spirit which is responsible for all beauty. In eternity other poets, among them Chatterton, Sidney, and Lucan, come to greet him (sts. XXXVIII-XLVI). Let anyone who still mourns Keats send his "spirit's light" beyond space and be filled with hope, or let him go to Rome where Keats is buried. Let him "Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb. / What Adonais is, why fear we to become?" He is with the unchanging Spirit, Intellectual Beauty, or Love in heaven. By comparison with the clear light of eternity, life is a stain (sts. XLVII-LII).
The poet tells himself he should now depart from life, which has nothing left to offer. The One, which is Light, Beauty, Benediction, and Love, now shines on him. He feels carried "darkly, fearfully, afar" to where the soul of Keats glows like a star, in the dwelling where those who will live forever are (sts. LIIILV).
Shelley did not hear of the death of Keats in Rome, in February 1821, until some weeks later. The relations between the two were not close. They had met and there had been a few letters exchanged. Shelley had shown sympathy when he learned of Keats' intention to go to Italy for his health and had invited him to be his guest. Shelley also knew of the attacks of the reviewers on Keats' poetry. His own poetry had fared no better than Keats' at the hands of the Tory reviewers. When the report of Keats' death reached him, he was convinced that Keats had been hounded to death by the reviewers, so he decided to write a defense of Keats and an attack on the Tory reviewers. The result was Adonais, which he wrote in the spring and published in the fall of 1821. To make doubly clear his aggressive intention in the poem, he provided it with a preface in which he called the Tory reviewers "wretched men" and "literary prostitutes." The reviewer of Keats' Endymion in the Quarterly was accused of murder. Adonais and its preface brought down on Shelley the wrath of the conservative reviewers. Blackwood's Magazine attacked him with special savagery. The reception of Adonais deepened Shelley's despairing conviction that he had failed as a poet. He wrote on January 25, 1822, to Leigh Hunt: "My faculties are shaken to atoms . . . I can write nothing; and if Adonais had no success, and excited no interest what incentive can I have to write?"
Shelley gave his elegy a title that pointed clearly to his intention to attack the reviewers. Adonis in classical mythology was killed by a boar; Adonais (a variant of Adonis coined by Shelley) was killed by reviewers. It was in the tradition of elegy to use proper names taken from classical literature. Shelley's coinage may have been intended to forestall the misapprehension that the poem was about Adonis. Adonais was close enough to serve his purpose. For his stanza he picked the Spenserian, which was perhaps unfortunate. The long nine-line Spenserian can be a kind of bushel basket to poets inclined to wordiness, as Shelley was.
For his primary models in writing a formal elegy, Shelley went to two Sicilian Greek poets, Bion and Moschus. He had translated part of Bion's "Lament for Adonis" and Moschus' "Lament for Bion." His borrowings from them are very extensive and constitute the weakest part of his elegy, namely, the first half, which is full of personifications that are given speaking and acting roles. His indebtedness to Moschus is particularly great. In Moschus, groves and gardens, nymphs, Echo, the Loves, towns and cities, the muse, and pastoral poets mourn for Bion. When Bion died, trees dropped their fruit and blossoms faded, according to Moschus. In Bion's "Lament," Shelley found the death of Adonis from the attack of a boar, the description of the corpse in death, the thorns tearing the feet of Venus as she walked, the Loves cutting off their curls to cast on Adonis, washing his wound and fanning his body, and a good deal more that is also in Moschus.
The poem begins with a confident assertion that the fame of Keats will live forever. Shelley then addresses five stanzas to the muse Urania which do little to advance the movement of the poem and which furnish a critical estimate of Keats that posterity has not supported. Shelley felt that Keats was a promising poet, not a poet who had achieved greatness. Stanzas IX through XIV are devoted to the thoughts and feelings which went into Keats' poetry; they are very swollen with personification and metaphor and are probably the least interesting part of the poem. Stanzas XV, XVI, and XVII likewise contribute little to the elegy. Adonais becomes interesting when Shelley, following the lead of Moschus, mediates on the return of spring in all its freshness and sadly contrasts it with the finality of death, from which there is no return: "Alas! that all we loved of him should be, / But for our grief, as if it had not been, / And grief itself be mortal." Stanzas XVIII through XXI move the reader by appealing to common experience.
Stanzas XXII-XXXV are devoted to what in elegy is sometimes called the "procession of mourners." Urania, properly the muse of astronomy but who had been made the heavenly muse of lofty poetry in Paradise Lost by Milton, is first in the procession. The most interesting part of this overlong section of the poem assigned to Urania is her attack on the Tory reviewers who are called "herded wolves," "obscene ravens," and "vultures" by Shelley. The human mourners, Byron, Thomas Moore, Shelley himself, and Keats' friend Leigh Hunt follow Urania. Shelley's self-portrait in stanzas XXXI-XXXIV, besides being overlong, is marred by the self-pity which is the common denominator in all his poetic self-portraits. Of the four poets included, only Hunt can be considered an admirer of Keats' poetry. Shelley liked Keats' unfinished "Hyperion" but not much else by Keats. Byron didn't like it and Moore was apparently not familiar with it. Other prominent living poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, and Robert Southey, the poet laureate, are not included in the "procession" probably because they were Tories. Since Keats was not well-known as a poet in his lifetime, Shelley faced a practical difficulty in forming a procession.
In stanzas XXXVI and XXXVII Shelley turns to the anonymous reviewer of Keats' Endymion in the Quarterly Review (now known to be John Wilson Croker) and calls him a "nameless worm," a "noteless blot," a snake, and a beaten hound. His punishment will be remorse, self-contempt, and shame. With the attack on the Quarterly reviewer, the mourning section of the poem ends and the consolation section begins (XXXVIII). Keats has been released from the burden of life: "He has outsoared the shadow of our night; / Envy and calumny and hate and pain, / . . . Can touch him not and torture not again . . . He is made one with Nature." He has been absorbed into Shelley's rather elusive deity, the nature and function of which we can derive only from his poetry. The deity which Shelley variously calls a Power, the one Spirit, and the One is responsible for all the beauty in the world. It "wields the world with never-wearied love, / Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above." Keats, who created beauty by his poetry, will continue to create beauty as part of the one Spirit. Shelley's god is not a personal god but a force, and Keats will not retain his personal identity in the hereafter as part of this force. In stanzas XLV and XLVI, he classes Keats with those poets who died too young to achieve the full maturity of such poets as Thomas Chatterton, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Roman poet Lucan.
Stanzas XLVII-LII form a unit addressed to the person who still mourns Keats in spite of Shelley's exhortation to bring mourning to an end. In stanza XLVII, a difficult stanza, such a person is invited to reach out imaginatively in spirit beyond space. Then he will see existence in true perspective and be filled with hope. He will see the true relation between life and death and realize that life constricts and death releases. In stanzas XLVIII-LI, the mourner is invited to go to Rome where Keats is buried. There "in the shadow of the tomb," in beautiful surroundings (in the preface to Adonais, Shelley says of the cemetery where Keats is buried that "it might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place."), he will remember what Keats has become and will lose his reason to mourn. Keats is with the One, unchanging ultimate reality. To be with the One is to be in "the white radiance of Eternity," by comparison with which life is a stain. Death is a release into Eternity.
In the last three stanzas of the poem, Shelley turns to himself. He asks himself why he should want to cling to life any longer. His hopes are gone, "a light is passed from the revolving year, / And man, and woman; and what still is dear / Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither." This is one of Shelley's many despairing confessions of his unhappiness and one of his most explicit death wishes. Shelley's desire to be absorbed into the One Spirit, to join Keats seems motivated more by despair than by ardent desire to be with his deity, which is called Light, Beauty, and Benediction. Shelley's impulsive nature gives the concluding stanza an intensity which is belied by the hatred of life revealed in stanza LIII.
Shelley's most famous poem suffers by comparison with Milton's Lycidas, the standard by which English elegies will inevitably be judged. Shelley says much less than Milton in many more words, and the most eloquent parts of Adonais are not equal to the most eloquent parts of Lycidas. Shelley is merely prolix where Milton is meaningful. A close examination of Adonais shows that rhyme frequently determined his choice of words. Adonais does not have a firm structure; its development seems haphazard. The image of Keats given by Shelley is that of a weakling killed by reviewers. The biography of Keats reveals a quite different Keats — a manly, slightly belligerent poet not apt to be profoundly discouraged by harsh criticism. (In the preface to Adonais, Shelley remarks that "the poor fellow seems to have been hooted from the stage of life . . . ) The heaven in which Shelley places Keats is not Christian; it is not Milton's heaven where "tears are wiped forever from [our] eyes." Shelley's consolation section could hardly have been very consoling to Keats' relatives and friends. Adonais is, however, an often forceful and certainly generous defense of an insufficiently appreciated brother poet.