Critical Analysis of Adonais Poem by P. B. Shelley

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      Excellence as a Poem: Adonais is one of the greatest poets in the English language. In the words of Shelley himself, "It is a highly wrought piece of art, and perhaps better; in point of composition than anything I have written." According to Glutton Brock, Adonais "combines music with abstract ideas as they have never been combined before." Though Shelley has taken up an ordinary theme—the death of a poet—he has, indeed, during the course of the poem, risen to the highests flights of imagination, bringing within the framework of the poem impassioned thoughts about Eternity and universal spirit. In the words of Clutton Brock again, "The poem is perfect in thought, in form and matter, for it starts with a familiar theme, and only gradually and by a natural process takes us into the unknown, moving from the pastoral country of poetry to Shelley's own untrodder wilderness and airy heights of thought." Viewed simply as an elegy, Adonais remains one of the greatest of the English elegies and can be compared with only a few like Mil ton's Lycidas, Gray's Elegy Written a Country Churchyard, Tennyson's In Memoriam and Arnold's Thyrsis.

      As a Pastoral Elegy: Classical Form Modified for his Own Ends: In form Adonais is a pastoral elegy founded on the tradition derived from the Greek pastoral poets, Bion and Moschus. This tradition had been adopted by Virgil and handed down by him to modern European poetry. It was used by Spenser in The Shepherd's Calender and more notably by Milton in Lycidas. A student of Greek pastoral poetry, Shelley has modeled Adonais on two poems written in the pastoral tradition of Theocritus—Epitaphium Adonidos by Bion and Epitaphium Bionis probably by Moschus. The influence of Bion's poem comes to light in the very opening lines of Adonais:

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!.
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears.

      which are but an echo of Bion's own lamentations: "Wail 'Oh! Adonais.' Fair Adonais is dead, dead is fair Adonais: the loves swell the lament."

      Though Shelley uses a classical form, he uses it for his own purposes. His Urania is not a cold imitation of the Greek Muse, but a living symbol of the spirit of high poetry, and his dead shepherd Adonais is no mere convention of pastoral poetry, but the ideal poet, the type of human genius and youth. The poem may be broken up into two distinctly different sections—the first consisting of the first thirty-eight stanzas, and the second of the remaining seventeen. The first section may be said to be cast entirely in the traditional pastoral mold. The opening of the poem, the invocation to weep, the long procession of mourners, the personified abstractions arriving "in slow pomp" are all in the true pastoral style. The ideas of Echo sitting "amid the voiceless mountains" so that "she can mimic not his lips", Echo feeding "her grief with his remembered lay", Adonais drinking poison, and Spring throwing "her kindling buds" are almost reproductions of ideas found in Moschus's poem. The picture of Urania's journey to Rome instantly reminds us of Bion's narration of Aphrodite's: "But Aphrodite, with her tresses unbound, wanders through the Oak-woods full of grief, unkempt, with bare feet..."

      In the second section, however, Shelley departs from the pastoral conventions, and now free from these shackles, soars higher and higher to express his profound thoughts on life and death. It is not surprising, therefore, that the last seventeen stanzas of Adonais are the wisest and noblest words on the subject of death in European literature.

      Shelley's Philosophy: The fate of Keats has moved Shelley to an impassioned rhapsody on the subject of death. He begins with that eternal question which has till now kept mankind baffled:

Whence are we, and why are we, of what scene
The actors or spectators?

      and then proceeds to consider the nature of the human soul, the possible origin of man's life, and the higher significance of death. He looks upon soul as deathless:

Dust to dust! but the pure spirit shall flow
Back to the burning fountain whence it came,
A portion of the Eternal, which must glow
Through time and change, unquenchably the same.

      From this Shelley is led to propound what looks like a pantheistic belief that death, dissolving the ties of the flesh, brings about the perfect union of the individual with the universal mind. So he finds comfort in the thought that Keats, dying, has now become "zone with Nature", heard in her sounds and seen and felt in her sights:

Spreading itself where'er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own:
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.

      This belief in the existence of a supreme Power is Shelley's nearest approach to God. Shelley looks upon this Power as supreme wisdom and as supreme liberty. Shelley views human life as a part of this Power and therefore heavenly in its essence. This spirit which animates the world clothes itself in the forms of evolutionary natural phenomena and compels these to assimilate themselves to it; such phenomena are forced by this in-dwelling power to develop towards their own perfections; they however; by their dull and dense materialism, try to delay the action of the Spirit, but the Spirit prevails in the end. Towards the close of the poem, Shelley's conception of life here and life hereafter rises to the level of exultation and replaces the gloom and sorrow of his mind. Life, he realizes, is only a temporary imperfect reflection of the Eternity and it merges into Eternity Hence to die is to be one with that Universal Spirit. Death, to Shelley, is no longer an ugly reality but is a waking from the dream of life and our savior against envy, calumny; hate and pain. "Death, in the poem," remarks Edmunds, "is the liberator of the soul, the key to all mystery, the spark that lights the fire of true life; death makes us one with the great Spirit of the Universe, annihilates the work of time, only to clothe it with eternity."

      Metre: The Spenserian stanza in which Adonais was composed consists of eight iambic pentameter lines followed by an Alexandrine rhyming ababbcbcc. At the time when Shelley wrote this poem, he had already made himself familiar with this measure in his Revolt of Islam. In Adonais, he shows himself to be the most consummate master of this measure since Spenser himself. His stanzas are not as gorgeous or majestic as those of The Faerie Queene or so sumptuous as those of Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, but they have a fire and a lightness and an exquisite perfection of form that neither Spenser nor Keats ever attained.

      One beauty of Adonais is that, when we read it, we are never required to stop and admire just some single fine line in which the sound is obviously and intrusively an echo to the sense; there are many beautiful lines in Adonais, but they are never thrust upon our notice. We are conscious only of a constant current of harmony; the setting of perfect music to noble words, so that sense and sound blend together and contribute to the general unity of effect. Shelley's verse in Adonais is full of variety He relies for his effects, principally upon overflow, change in the place of the caesura or pause, alliteration, elision, and repetition. He can produce at will, by the aid of many open vowels, a strangely aerial harmony. Adonais does not contain a single line of which the meter can be called inexcusably irregular. He has used only one line that can be called irregular; and has done so to produce a particular effect:

The weight of the superincumbent hour.

      Here in the strong stress on weight followed by a strong caesura, and in the run of syllables gradually accumulating force to reach the heavy emphasis of the two closing feet, the poet is evidently trying to fit the sound to the sense. This line reminds us at once of the magnificent line of Ode to the West Wind, where sound and sense have received a similar blending:

Vaulted with all thy congregated might.

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