Pastoral Elements in The Poem Adonais

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      Pastoral Convention in Elegy: A pastoral poem, romance, or play is one which portrays, in an idealized fashion, the simple life of shepherds or of simple rustic people. The pastoral tradition that originated in the ancient Greek literature was revived during the Renaissance by writers like Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and Sir Philip Sidney. Spenser's Shepherdes Calendar. Shakespeare's As You Like It, Milton's Lycidas and Comus, and Sidney's Astrophel, followed the pastoral tradition. Simple setting but deep significance is usually the principal feature of the pastoral form. 'Elegy' literally means a lyric poem of lamentation for the dead. Adonais is obviously an elegy because here the poet laments the death of a contemporary John Keats, who has died a premature death. But it is cast in a pastoral form.

      The Reasons for Shelley's Choice of Pastoral Convention: Shelley may have been inspired by the earlier example set by Milton (Lycidas) and Sir Philip Sidney (Astrophel). He chooses the pastoral form also because he wishes to lift his poem above the level of the immediate present, that is reality, and lend credibility to the unlimited free play of fancy he is so fond of. Moreover, the use of the pastoral form also helps him lend a touch of universality to his lamentations.

      How Shelley Follows the Pastoral Convention in Adonais: Shelley has modeled Adonais, the most sublime of English elegies, on the pastoral fiction which originated in the ancient Greek literature. In doing so, he has chosen two particular elegies written in the pastoral tradition of Theocritus—the Epitaphium Adonidos by Bion, and the Epitaphium Bionis attributed to Moschus. In the first poem, the poet Bion narrates the lamentations of the Goddess Cypris over the death of her mortal lover Adonais, and the second poem is an elegy written on the occasion of Bion's premature death. The first poem, the elegy by Bion, has played a particularly dominant role in shaping Shelley's Poem. Echoes of Bion's poem keep returning time and again as we go through Shelley's Poem and it is not without significance that the very opening lines of Adonais:

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

      have the closest resemblance with Bion's "Wail 'Oh! Adonais.' Fair Adonais is dead, dead is fair Adonais: the Loves Swell the lament."

      As regards the use of the Adonais legend, Shelley makes his intention clear in the Second Stanza of Adonais. In the myth, Cypris mourns the premature death of her lover Adonais, killed by a boar. In Shelley's poem, Urania, the goddess of heavenly love mourns the tragic and early death of her son, Adonais, "pierced by the shaft which flies in darkness." Adonais, in Shelley's Poem, represents the poet Keats who, too, died a premature death while the killer "shaft which flies in darkness" obviously stands for the irresponsible and heartless criticism of the anonymous reviewer of Keats's Endymion which, Shelley thought, broke Keats's heart and put him to an early death. Also, Shelley has replaced the common man-women relationship with the more exalted mother-son relationship in order to heighten the quality of his poem and to rob the Greek legend of its erotic element which would be quite out of place in an elegy.

      The Two Sections of Adonais. While tracing the pastoral elements in Adonais, we may divide the poem into two distinct sections. The first section consists of the first thirty-eight Stanzas while the second includes the last seventeen.

      The first section, as we find, is cast in the traditional pastoral mold. The opening of the poem, "I weep for Adonais," and the invocation to weep are in keeping with the tradition. The question put to Urania—"where wert thou, mighty Mother"—reminds one of the characteristic elegiac device employed by Theocritus: "Where were ye then when Daphnis pined away; where were ye, Nymphs...". Then follows a long procession of mourners. Dreams, Splendour, Desires and Adorations, Persuasions, Destinies, Gloom, Phantasies, Sorrow; Pleasure—all personified and represented as Adonais's "flocks"—arrive one by one "in slow pomp" to mourn his death in the true pastoral style. The lament by Nature for her poet is just an echo of the idyllic lament for Bion in Eitaphium Bionis. The idea of water turning into tears, Echo lamenting "amid the voiceless mountains" that she can no more mimic the dead poet's lips, and Spring throwing down "her kindling buds" are almost literally borrowed from Moschus's poem.

      In Stanzas XVIII to XXI, Shelley narrates his own sorrow and refers to the return of Spring when the objects of Nature have renewed their joyous tone. Nought, we know, dies. But men "the intense atom glows a moment, then is quenched in a most cold repose". This idea, too, is borrowed from Moschus's lines: "Alas! when the mallows die in the garden, and the green parsley and the twining arise with its bloom, they live again and grow another year. But we men, the great and wise, as soon as we die, deaf in the hollow earth we sleep well, ay, a long unending sleep that knows no waking." The idea that Urania has suffered "a wound more fierce than his" (Adonais's) is adapted from Bion's poem. The picture of Urania speeding to Rome is again drawn from Bion: "But Aphrodite, with her tresses unbound, wanders through the Oak-woods full of grief, unkempt, with bare feet..." Urania's lamentations beside the corpse of her son are almost like those of Bion's Aphrodite: "Stay Adonais! stay hapless Adonais, that I may reach thee for the last time.....kiss me so long as a kiss can live....." The human mourners who follow are poets, disguised as shepherds in the pastoral fashion.

      The second section of the poem shows a definite departure from the pastoral tradition. The sorrow of the first section is now replaced by joy and hope. The poet forbids the mourners to weep for Keats because now, "he wakes or sleeps with the enduring dead". He realizes that Keats has now merged with the eternal and can no longer be touched by the evils of the world—"tis Death is dead, not he" and, therefore, there is no reason to mourn. It is in this section of the poem that Shelley is found at his best. Here he has discarded; the shackles of the convention that he follows in the earlier section and is free to allow imagination, which is his forte, to soar higher and higher to attain the sense of hope, joy and exuberance, so characteristic of Shelley, and somewhat missing in the earlier section. With the changing mood of the poem, he has now regained his optimism and has changed his attitude towards death from one of fear to one of nonchalance. He knows that the Eternal spirit is beyond the reach of death and it remains for ever:

The One remains, the many change and pass,
Heaven's light for ever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity;
Until Death tramples it to fragments.

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