Adonais: Poem No. 21 - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza 21
Line 181-189
Alas that all we loved of him should be,
But for our grief, as if it had not been,
And grief itself be mortal! Woe is me!
Whence are we, and why are we? of what scene
The actors or spectators? Great and mean
Meet massed in death, who lends what life must borrow.
As long as skies are blue and fields are green,
Evening must usher night, night urge the morrow,
Month follow month with woe, and year wake year to sorrow.


      It is regrettable that the soul in Adonais should pass away. It is regrettable that we are all mortal, that death is the lender of whom we borrow life for a time. Hence, sorrow for the dead is the eternal lot of human beings.


      L 181. All we....him—the qualities of the soul of Adonais—his Dreams, Desires, Adorations, etc., which made the inner man (Shelley is not speaking of the dead body of Adonais) L. 182. But for...been—would seem never to have existed at all except for our memory which laments the passing away of Adonais's soul. L. 183. And grief...mortal—alas! We, who mourn for Adonais, are mortal also; i.e., our grief, too, will terminate with our death.

      LI. 181-183. Shelley here regrets that the soul of Adonais should pass away forever and except for a memory in those who loved him, he should now seem not to have existed at all; even that memory which makes them grieve for him is short-lasting, for they, too, are mortal. Woe is me—alas!

      L. 184. Whence...spectators?—Shelley here raises the metaphysical problems of life and the world—Where do we (our souls) come from? Why do we come to this world? What is this world where we do our parts and see others play their parts as actors on a stage or as spectators? Life is compared by Shakespeare in Macbeth to "a poor player that struts and frets his moment upon the stage and then is heard no more." L. 185. Great and mean—the best and the worst among us: all creatures high and low.

      LI. 185-186. Great and mean...borrow. In the first shock of grief at the death of Adonais (Keats), Shelley gives himself up to a pessimistic philosophy of life. He thinks that matter is indestructible and re-appears in various shapes, while the soul of man disappears for ever. The soul of Adonais is gone for ever; never to return. We all are mortal, and life is but a walking shadow on the stage of the world. Death is the permanent fact, life is a temporary escape from it—but only by death's permission. Whatever we need for our earthly existence—a body; the senses, etc.—are borrowed from death; but death only too soon calls for the debt; we must repay him and cease to exist.

      L. 186. Meet...death—are made one in death. Who lends....death is like a money-lender; life is a poor borrower. Death lends to life what it requires for earthly existence, e.g., a body; the senses, etc., but soon it demands these back and life has to pay up. With the paying up, life on earth is ended. In other words, death is the true and eternal thing, life is only a temporary escape from death. Cf. Swinburne's conception of life in Atalanta in Calydon "Life that endures for a span...with death before and after."

      LI. 186-189. The sense is: Since we are mortal, as long as the universe exists and men are born on earth, men are to grieve month after month, year after year deaths and losses of their near and dear ones.

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