Adonais: Poem No. 20 - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza 20
Line 172-180
The leprous corpse, touched by this spirit tender;
Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath;
Like incarnations of the stars, when splendour
Is changed to fragrance, they illumine death,
And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath.
Nought we know dies: shall that alone which knows  
Be as a sword consumed before the sheath
By sightless lightning? The intense atom glows
A moment, then is quenched in a most cold repose.


      By the influence of spring, even the rotting dead body under the earth mixing with the productive earth makes the beautiful, fragrant flowers grow on trees and plants. Nothing that is material is totally lost. Is then death the lot of the sentiment soul of man only? The soul seems to pass away for ever after a brief existence in the body.


      L. 172. Leprous corpse—the dead body within the grave, decayed and rotten and looking like the flesh of a leper; hence ugly and rotten. Touched....tender—influenced by this vitalizing spirit of spring.

      L. 173. Exhales...breath—transforms itself into flowers of sweet fragrance. Exhales itself—the foul-smelling dead body manifests itself in sweet smell (of flowers). Shelley means to say that by the law of nature, the decayed, ugly-looking dead body reduces itself into the productive power of the earth and feeds the plants on which bloom sweet-smelling flowers; therefore, it may be said that foul-smelling corrupt matter is transformed into beautiful, fragrant flowers in the spring season by the mysterious spirit of animation.

      L. 174. Like incarnation of the stars—the flowers seem to be the stars of the sky born on earth because of their bright colors and round shapes. When splendour...fragrance—it seems as if the brightness of the stars is changed into the fragrance of the flowers. Shelley had no difficulty in passing from one sense perception to another—from sight to smell, from smell to pity.

      L. 175. They...death—the flowers by their beauty seem to light up death itself. Dark death is startled to see his victim transformed into bright beautiful flowers L. 176. Mock the...beneath—the flowers laugh in scorn at the busy worms which feed upon the rotten dead body within the earth. They seem to triumph in their power of giving joy and light which the worms hate so much.

      LI. 177-180. Shall that alone....cold repose. Shelley reflects on the revitalizing energy of spring which brings fresh life and vigor to all objects of nature. The mysterious active principle of spring transforms even the dead and rotten matter of corpses into the fertilizing power of the earth and ultimately into fragrant and smiling flowers. In fact, matter does not die; it only transforms itself. We see this truth demonstrated all around us. But is then the human soul or the subjective mind, which alone has the power of knowing the objective (material) world, liable to death? If it be true that the soul is wasted while that body (being matter) continues to exist (in some shape or other) then the case would be as strange as if the sword within its scabbard should be burnt to ashes by some invisible lightning which destroys it alone but leaves the scabbard uninjured. Yet, this seems to be the truth. In contact with the lightning of death the human soul, which thinks and knows, burns up and flashes only for a moment and then is lost for ever in the cold and dark oblivion of inactivity like a burning sword being reduced to cold ashes.

      L. 177. Naought...dies—no material object of the earth is completely destroyed; matter transforms itself and exists at all times though in different forms. Shall that knows—shall only the human soul which is the source of consciousness (that which knows); it is the soul (mind) of man which knows the objective world of matter. Shelley is speaking of the subjective nature of the soul. L. 178. Consumed—destroyed. Before the sheath—while the scabbard which contains the sword remains as it is (i.e., undestroyed). L. 179. By sightless lightning—by some lightning which is so swift and bright as to be invisible. Shakespeare has "sightless couriers of the air" in Macbeth.

      LI. 179-180. The intense atom...moment—the soul or mind of man kindling and burning (intense) for a moment, like the sword within the sheath, struck by a lightning, glows up. L. 180. Then is...repose—then the soul (intense atom) is lost in the coldness and inertness of death.

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