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From Poet to Poet or Shelley’s Inconsistencies in Keats’s Panegyric: Adonais as an Autobiographical Work of Art


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  • 1  Quoted in Redpath (383).

Adonais, in short, is such an elegy as poet might be expected to write upon poet. The author has had before him his recollections of Lycidas, of Moschus and Bion, and of the doctrines of Plato; and in the stanza of the most poetical of poets, Spenser, has brought his own genius, in all its ethereal beauty, to lead a pomp of Loves, Graces, and Intelligences, in honour of the departed. (Leigh Hunt, “Unsigned Review of Adonais”, The Examiner, 7 juillet 1822)1

I have engaged these last days in composing a poem on the death of John Keats, which will shortly be finished; and I anticipate the pleasure of reading it to you, as some of the very few persons who will be interested in it and understand it. It is a highly wrought piece of art, perhaps better in point of composition than anything I have written. (Lettre de Shelley à John et Maria Gisborne, 5 juin 1821, Complete Works, X 270)

1When Shelley said of Adonais, not long after its completion, that it was its most accomplished piece of art, “better in point of composition than anything [he] ha[d] written” while mentioning, in his Preface, the “feeble tribute of applause” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 392) it nonetheless represents, he does not to seem to want to hide his own sense of personal satisfaction, nor does he fail to confess certain obvious limitations in his work as a Romantic elegist. We must indeed respect him for his candour, here shrouded in paradox, as well as for the bold double-sidedness of this critical confession which, while putting forward a great poetic success, also openly discards the original objective of his elegy – the honourable tribute one pays to the memory of a dead poet, with a strong conviction that cannot bear the egotistical whims of a falsely humble writer. This leads us to one of our main theme and source of interest, that of the narcissistic elegist or the biographical art of an auto-elegiac poetic narrative which places the author in the foreground, on the same equally important plane as the form of the poem. In this new scheme of things, where tightly woven influences and formal intricacies often include a reader that needs to be educated and a tradition that needs to be improved, the status of the self-centred elegist and the funerary topoi he chooses to manipulate, superimposing individual purpose to collective grief, would then have more value than the simple object of mourning.

  • 2  On this theme, see William A. Ulmer’s seminal article, “Adonais and the Death of Poetry” (438).
  • 3  We could add here that, in Matthew Arnold’s work, the elegist’s survival is dependent upon a repet (...)
  • 4  “Where wert thou mighty Mother, when he lay, / When thy Son lay, pierced by the shaft which flies (...)
  • 5  This expression, we owe it to William A. Ulmer (445).
  • 6  “Keats’s actual death is actively forgotten in Shelley’s memorial act of writing Adonais”. (See Sa (...)

2“The canonizer is worthy of the saint”, says the Blackwood’s, as it tackles the ironic question, now tinged with an added layer of black humour, of the fellow poet’s canonisation and the illusions of posthumous grandeur for which a consecrated elegist has most daringly sacrificed a part of his revered subject: “Here an hour—a dead hour too—is to say that Mr. J. Keats died along with it! Yet this hour has the heavy business on its hands of mourning the loss of its fellow-defunct, and of rousing all its obscure compeers to be taught its own sorrow, &c. Mr. Shelley and his tribe have been panegyrised in their turn for power of language.” (Anon. 697) Yet this problematic substance of the post-Miltonian elegy, whose secular essence lies in its “dynamics of consolation”, also flaunts as many tokens of a heightened credibility as possible by relying on the new epic values of its modern historicism2. These values, we find them well-performed by an author-actor, first a hero then a playwright, who willingly takes up the entire stage, standing at the centre of the elegiac scene to better reveal himself to the public gaze. And, in the end, a multi-talented elegist does not fail to remind us that common beliefs are not strong enough for the entire body of a submerged plot to resurface on its own. Thus Lycidas’s pastoral orthodoxy, where Christ is silenced and its assistance denied, stems from a progressive re-evaluation of the religious concepts of life and death: “Weep no more, wofull shepherds weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead, / Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar (…) So Lycidas, sunk low but mounted high, / Through the dear might of him that walkt the waves (…) (v. 165-67, 172-73)” (163). As for Shelley’s elegy, Adonais, heir to Milton’s throne, like its Victorian counterpart, Thyrsis,3 it turns its dialectic of immortality in survival, “a Love in desolation masked”, into an iconic pretext for the omnipotent writer and his wider spectrum of visionary outbursts in terms of cultural and Romantic canonisation: “A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift – / (…) a Power / Girt round with weakness (…) On the withering flower / The killing sun smiles brightly (XXXII, 280-81, 286-87)” (400). Similarly, Shelley’s slippery slope of historicist displacements or misplacements provides him with a better grasp of the subjective sphere of elegiac memory. This all-encompassing power of influence he seems to exert over the rotations of history and the recollections of the dead, he acquires it fully when he learns how to master, with greatness, the historical meaning of his elegy. There, at this point in time and space, roles are inverted between a Keats reliving his youth as a traditional poet of canonical dimension and an Adonais which survives as a metonymic voice of both individual and monumental historicity. A descendant of Urania, “mighty Mother”4called to her son’s bedside, both prone to the same sense of desertion and neglect, Shelley, bewitched by the former, henceforth restored to her proper rank of “historicist Muse”5, seems to be speaking out in her favour. But as he seems to disregard his long-lasting attachment to the contemporary memorial and the vivid influence of his deceased peer6, he can, from here onwards, entirely devote himself to the cult of narcissistic memory, that which links him back, as wished, to the last branch of this elegiac genealogy:

O weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep!
Yet wherefore? Quench within their burning bed
Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep
Like his, a mute and uncomplaining sleep;
For he is gone, where all things wise and fair
Descend;—oh, dream not that the amorous Deep
Will yet restore him to the vital air;
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.
(III, 19- 21 & 25-27, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 393).

3Shelley is here voluntarily following his elder’s footsteps. In Wordsworth, indeed, the contemplative and specular dilemmas of the first Narcissus of Romantic memory, renowned character (“the rememberer”) of the Prelude which likes to represent and commemorate a past that is both autobiographical, both cultural, emerge from a semblance of poetic aporia dressed in the simpler form of a myth with no outcome. It depicts this young hero with a tilted head who, unable to take his eyes off the riveting sight of “his own image”, still manages to stay out of danger and onto safe grounds. His obsessed gaze fixed on the few imperceptible shimmers of a quiet lake, another metaphor for his endless imagination, he now belongs to a protected category of bodies and spirits that no longer deserve to drown. The “discovery” of the self, further distanced from mortal sin, can therefore be sufficiently appreciated by the poet. And after having deprived the famous myth of its fatal ending, Wordsworth invites us to contemplate, with him, a sketched version of his new lyricism or what he conceives to be a poetics of infinite impossibilities:

As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
(…) now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sunbeam now,
And motions that are sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet
(IV, 246-49 & 258-61, Prelude 138).

  • 7  Shelley, Adonais; An Elegy, in Reiman & Powers, eds., Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 396.

4Taking these inner quarrels of poetic ego and speculations of an unprecedented self particularly to heart, Shelley indulges, with ease, in this type of antinomic associations when, in Adonais, he draws his strength by praising the weak or lets himself be filled with elegiac frustration thinking he might have mistaken ancient piety for contemporary pity, divine reverence for perverted empathy: “To Phoebus was not Hyacinth so dear / Nor to himself Narcissus, as to both / Thou Adonais: wan they stand and sere / Amid the faint companions of their youth, / With dew all turned to tears; odour, to sighing ruth [pity] (XVI, 140-44)”.7 Grief’s antinomy reaches its apex when an elegist, now gnawed with doubt, first opens up privately to his peers before changing, almost immediately, his poetic mode to that of public confession. Torn between plain truths and thoughtless mistakes, he surprises us, along with Lord Byron, by classifying his work in the category of the controversial “panegyric”; that which one writes in defence of an afflicted death or in honour of an inferior being, as a result, he admits, of a repeated error on his part regarding certain key principles of narcissistic hierarchy:

  • 8  See Shelley’s letter to Lord Byron of 8 June 1821 (The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley 297). Takin (...)

I need not be told that I have been carried too far by enthusiasm of the moment, by my piety, and my indignation, in panegyric. But if I have erred, I console myself by reflecting that [it was] in defence of the weak – not in conjunction with the powerful. And perhaps I have erred from the narrow view of considering Keats rather as he surpassed me in particular, than as he was inferior to others: so subtle is the principle of self?8

5In this semi-authentic format (did Shelley, poet of mischief, really conceive a Keats / Adonais better than him in the complex art of “surpassing” oneself?) of an elegy bordering on self-consolation resides another mode of logical associations which seems to characterise our elegist and his taste for stylistic devices, higher tools of deceit he relies upon as part of his poetic expertise. The central trope in Adonais is the metalepsis. An expression of literary transfers, linguistic “permutations” – its etymological signifier – or shifts in meaning, it stands half way between the understatement and the ellipsis. Moreover, it qualifies as one of the major deceptive tropes Shelley knows to be an influential agent of poetic dupery producing verse which says one thing to mean another. Thus the path to metaleptic reconfiguration, in Adonais, whether it acts upon the traditional perceptions of an elegiac past or the workings of cultural inheritance, would also correspond to an enriched vision of poetry shaped by the combined beauty of its simultaneous forms. According to Shelley, the process of loss which is generated by such a speculative art must indeed be systematically compensated by some other phenomena; in other words, new structural arrangements which include his own appositions or superimpositions of regenerated ideas and influences. The cohesive movement of the metalepses, in Shelley’s elegy, which always seems to favour the translation of the protagonists’ unexpected cues into undecipherable messages, then governs a dual rhetoric of temporality and imagination in the hope of masking certain dislocations of its figurative language: “It is a dying lamp, a falling shower, / A breaking billow;—even whilst we speak / Is it not broken? (XXXII, 284-86)” (400).

6In addition to being linguistic, the new elegiac configurations of a Shelley re-enacting and re-writing the story of his subject-Keats, also seems to us of a mythological and hybrid nature, tinged with a tint of speculative folly. In parallel with this legendary historicism, whose originality lies in its ability to transform an original sense of grief into some other form of art while relying on its constant and inspiring strangeness, our elegist lets himself be easily seduced by the animal variations of the Adonis myth, fascinated as he is by its labyrinthine gallery of monstrously ironic figures. We could quote, for example, the devouring pen and huntress-like prose of the brutish critic which fools us into believing that to free his prey he has to kill it:

He [Shelley] believed, what we now happily know was not the case, that Keats’s health has been impaired and his life shortened by the ruffianly attack made on his poetry (…); and so he perceived a satisfactory and serviceable likeness between the quadrupled that killed Adonis and the biped that assaulted Keats, beats both, as it seemed to him and seems to many after him (Hales 90).

7This easy prey of a man, now included, against personal will, in the world of martyred souls, bearing the wounds of animal or critical fury, also lies amongst bodies which have lost part of their human shape and reputation to a chain of ridiculous distortions. As much physical as it is metaphysical, delirious as it is destructive, the anamorphic proliferation of these “monsters of life’s waste” extends to the “world of living men” as well as to the fabulous creatures of the elegy. For Shelley, they are so many ominous symbols of a starved and rapacious morbidity, spreading reptile obscenity, corruption and malediction to the four winds of a veiled heaven marred by some elegiac vision of hell:

O gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?
Defenceless as thou wert, oh where was then
Wisdom the mirrored shield, or scorn the spear?
Or hadst thou waited the full cycle, when
Thy spirit should have filled its crescent sphere,
The monsters of life’s waste had fled from thee like deer.

The herded wolves, bold only to pursue;
The obscene ravens, clamorous o’er the dead;
The vultures to the conqueror’s banner true
Who feed where Desolation first has fed,
And whose wings rain contagion;—how they fled,
When like Apollo, from his golden bow,
The Pythian of the age one arrow sped
And smiled!—The spoilers tempt no second blow,
They fawn on the proud feet that spurn them lying low.

The sun comes forth, and many reptiles spawn;
He sets, and each ephemeral insect then
Is gathered into death without a dawn,
And the immortal stars awake again;
So is it in the world the living men:
A godlike mind soars forth, in its delight
Making earth bare and veiling heaven, and when
It sinks, the swarms that dimmed or shared its light
Leave to its kindred lamps the spirit’s awful night’
(XXVII, XVIII & XIX, 235-61, Shelley's Poetry and Prose 398-9, my emphasis).

  • 9  “A loose, slack, not well dressed Youth met Mr. Green and myself in a lane near Highgate. Green kn (...)

8And when indeed this elegiac bestiary takes on anthropomorphic shapes or dead artists are viciously animalised, Shelley succeeds in capturing Keats into an ever-changing art of annihilating permutations so majestically poetic as they are bestial. Moreover, this extended field of speculation goes even further by denying the spectral poet, Keats, who, according to Coleridge, held death in his “living hand”,a long coveted “posthumous existence”.9 Therefore Shelley could, in turn, become this “frail Form / A phantom among men”, another Adonais, mimicking Acteon’s ways, as he suffers from the mythological perversion of a self-devouring “father-mind”. The metaphor is both Shakespearean, in that it describes an elegiac hero, poet of vices and transgressions, haunted by the treacherousness of “his own thoughts”, and Keatsian, in that it embodies the physicality of a wild nature, and its well-known propensity for vengeful assimilations:

Midst others of less note, came one frail Form,
A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature’s naked loneliness,
Acteon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued like raging hounds, their father and their prey.
(XXXI, 271-79, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 399n).

  • 10  “The comparison of human fears, hatreds and evil thoughts with hunting dogs that pursue a deer emb (...)

9This double association, Shelley had made it his own, as early as Prometheus Unbound: “FIRST FURY. We are the ministers of pain and fear / And disappointment and mistrust and hate / And clinging crime; and as lean dogs pursue / Through wood and lake some struck and sobbing fawn (…) (I, 452-55)”.10 It was then to be, in Adonais, the autobiographical foundations of a posthumous world of which Keats, stigmatised poet and deserter, would have been purposely excluded, but in which Shelley, the last reigning elegist and sole successor to Romantic authority, visibly craving for unrivalled immortality, had but to wait for a celebrated death freed of all its Keatsian overtones.

  • 11  Here Shelley uses the word “effluence” instead of “influence” in the theological sense of the term (...)

10For a large number of its readers, Adonais is indeed the result, in Shelley, of an urgent desire to lay beside Keats in the sacred temple of all those illustrious men who have died before him: “And many whose names on Earth are dark / But whose transmitted effluence cannot die / So long as fire outlives the parent spark, / Rose, robed in dazzling immortality. ‘Thou art become one of us,’ they cry (…)” (XLVI, 406-10, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 403). But if the poet-elegist says he wants to die, let us remind ourselves that he, many times, expresses the wish to do so in the name of a “transmitted effluence [which itself] cannot die”.11 To commit metaphorical suicide without disappearing completely, to fade away without fearing to be forgotten, such is the Romantic fantasy, “intensified with the course of history”, which consumes Shelley and which inspires him to favour, all along, a steady mode of “auto-elegiac reflexivity” (Ulmer 438). The product of its impatient contradictions, Adonais then succumbs to much more than certain half-sinful rituals of mourning. These are the same rituals Tennyson evokes, in his own elegies, when he broaches the question of the inadequacy of words in expressing a partially masked sense of despair: “I sometimes hold it half a sin / To put in words the grief I feel; / For words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within (5, 1-4)” (Tennyson 6). A renowned atheist, Shelley therefore welcomes, with Chatterton-like beatitude, the grandiose but anti-religious catharsis of the artistic suicide or what Blanchot calls, talking about the suicidal poet as a “great asserter of the present”, a death which “occurs at a chosen hour” and which climaxes as an “apotheosis of the ‘absolute’ moment”: “(…) suicide holds the power of an exceptional assertion, remains an event which we can be content to call voluntary, which is not worn away by time and extends beyond premeditation” (19, my translation). Under the shams of guilt and masks of dispossession, there seems to be both a suicidal activity and passivity which allow different parts of the poet’s creation to be infinitely mobile until they eventually topple over the edge of poetic reality into a metaphysics of immutability. It is this fixed point in time and art where contraries are united, at the fragile juncture of a material and immaterial world, that Shelley, less of an accursed writer than Chatterton because a more mature and gifted Romantic youth, wishes to reach by curbing his fears of going just slightly beyond his own limits: “I am glad you like ‘Adonais,’ and particularly, that you do not think it metaphysical, which I was afraid it was. I was resolved to pay some tribute of sympathy to the unhonoured dead, but I wrote, as usual, with a total ignorance of the effect that I should produce—” (P.B. Shelley, “Letter to Horatio Smith of 14 September 1821”, Essays 157). Such an “effect” is ignored and yet sought after by an elegist who perfectly understands the posthumous heritage of his elegy and moribund tradition of the genre: “(…) the genre within which Shelley writes Adonais died with Lycidas”, says Richard Cronin (169). Like the sadly missed Adonais, Keats’s mythological doppelganger, its structural counterpart, Adonais, the poem, is one of those elegies which make readers shudder at the chilling prospect of a death to come. After having cast the heart of the subject aside, the shadowy form that surrounds it is also about to die by imitation, in other words by following the example of its mythic creator – a well-thought out suicide, orchestrated, first and foremost, to have the end of a genre brilliantly correspond to the last glorious breaths of a great master of that genre. If both lay dying at the same time, then the double project of Adonais’ resurrection coupled with the rebirth of a tradition in decline is widely justified. For Shelley remembers Wordsworth’s golden rules according to which the essence of poetic originality lies in the art of good “taste” and in the good accomplishment of one’s “task”, when the poet is prolific enough in terms of synaesthesic sequences and their rhythm always punctuated by such a suggestive paronomasia: “[Every original poet] has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed” (Selected Prose 408). But it is the all-talented author’s duty to accomplish, beforehand, a more traditional and biographical reconstructive work whereby the remaining pieces of his pre-posthumous story are finally put together. He is then able to indulge in the only elegiac option left to achieve post-apocalyptic victory over the reflected instinct and fervour of any suicidal impulse which is that of the “metaphysical anatomy” (Mary Shelley, The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley x) of his after-life. But to venture past the frontiers of immediate memory offers no other equivalent, for Shelley, than to build his elegiac diptych on alternate and redundant cycles where the smiles of Death echo the promises of a resurrected genius, whether embodied by “Cain or Christ”:

In the death chamber for a moment Death
Shamed by the presence of that living Might
Blushed to annihilation, and the breath
Revisited those lips, and life’s pale light
Flashed through those limbs, so late her drear delight.
‘Leave me not wild and drear and comfortless,
As silent lightning leaves the starless night!
Leave me not!’ cried Urania: her distress
Roused Death: Death rose and smiled, and met her vain caress.
(XXV, 217-25, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 398).

11Emancipated from the time when Urania was crying plaintively at her lost aspirations, bemoaning her fate in a world of acceptance and allegorical breaches, the poet’s humanity gives way in the face of the mythically divine “centre and circumference of knowledge” in poetry: “Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth; / As from a centre, dart thy spirit’s light / Beyond all worlds, until its spacious might / Satiate the void circumference: then shrink / Even to a point within our day and night (XLVII 417-21)” (404). Then by further distancing himself from the central inertia of these empty spheres, through poetic satiety or scientific precision, the poet-philosopher, enlightened creature conscious of its existential wretchedness, relies on the force of elegiac maieutics to finally free himself from certain archetypal cycles: “Who mourns for Adonais? oh, come forth / Fond wretch! And know thyself and him alright (XLVII, 415-6)”. In Shelley’s case, they often revolve around an omnipotent Nature or a hostile Death. The latter, to quote the strongest presence first, here anthropomorphised for lack of masculine strength, is now tinged, as Keats would have it, with the crimson colours of a women’s blush. Therefore, Shelley cannot pass out on the cruel pleasure of a caressing but embarrassing, tender but deadly grin, making death look more alive and human in that it contributes to the metaphorical thaw of Adonais’s death-chamber and the resulting warmth of the poem’s “eternal sunshine”. He also cannot shy away from the erotic tension of such a physical or sensual state of posthumous frenzy and its many inadequate pantomimes of laughter and seduction when the temptation of an attractive suicide is thus illustrated by what Bergson defines as “something mechanical in something living” (29). In the arms of Urania, nostalgic goddess, her heart in a flutter as she experiences once again the thrills of a first love, Death, the other main character and pernicious rival of this staged elegy conceived as a Gothic theatre of lovers seems to be rehearsing no other than a preliminary scene. As in the case of Keats and Shelley, this scene announces a second awakening to life, beyond the veiled glimmers of a dead poet’s dream, but amidst a super-natural flood of “stormy visions” and prophetic revelations: “Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—He hath awakened from the dream of life— / ’Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep / With phantoms an unprofitable strife, / And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife / Invulnerable nothings (XXXIX 343-51)” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 401). For even if “nothings” are “invulnerable”, writes Shelley, in this metaphysical depiction bordering on poetic absurdity, a successful transgression of grief appears to be an insane but realisable project. For this suicidal elegist who nevertheless works hard at extending the field of probabilities in terms of poetic survival, this allows a long anticipated reversal of perspective to occur from what is purely elegiac to what is entirely universal. And when the paradox finally ends of an eccentric state of self-centred trance which seems to question the purpose of grief in the blurriness of personal failures, there only remains the plastic unity or humanising, energetic, generative consistency of Shelley’s work in terms of his aesthetics of reality and his domestication of death:

Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?
Thy hopes are gone before; from all things here
They have departed; thou shouldst now depart!
A light is past from the revolving year,
And man, and woman; and what still is dear
Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither.
The soft sky smiles,—the low wind whispers near:
’Tis Adonais calls! oh, hasten thither,
No more let Life divide what Death can join together.
(LIII, 469-477, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 405).

  • 12  My emphasis. For this part of our reflection, we rely once again on William A. Ulmer’s analysis wh (...)
  • 13  On this particular theme, see Derrida (34).
  • 14  Quoted in Raymond (237). The exact reference in Adonais which seems to have inspired Trelawny’s sp (...)
  • 15  “From Leghorn he [Trelawny] made the short journey to Pisa and climbed to that upper floor of the (...)

12Death, in all its forms, whether ancestral, reminiscent or projected is indeed at the heart of Adonais: the death of the appraised poet, the death of the one who praises him, the death of those who once upon a time mourned the loss of Keats and Shelley or even the death which threatens the reader of the elegy, himself plunged into mourning by the poet’s own affliction. Against the “Thanatopic regression” and Freudian violence of a work of art which tells the Romantic genius that he “has to die” without any hope of self-transgression12, Shelley, by defining elegiac memory as a form of “interiorised death,”13 offers another alternative and suggests looking at the “morbidity of poetic influence” (Ulmer 448) from a better angle. In this context, the memories of a poet-elegist eager to be remembered for the excellence of his art form, never seem to be tarnished by the predictable flaw of endless epiphanic derelictions. But, on the contrary, they tend to celebrate the autobiographical stamp of a new poetic consciousness, which immediately widens the realm of temporal coincidences. Out of all these actualised poetic pasts, inherited from Keats or from other ancient elegists like Bion, Moschus or Milton, Shelley chooses to promote one single elegiac presence – his own –, which he visually inscribes as a trompe-l’œil, in such a way that it is made to reappear whenever he or the reader wishes. As hoped, it has lost a somewhat considerable part of its Keatsian filter for the univocal blatancy of the Shelleyan rituals and their almost singular familiarity to transcend the feelings of indignation fostered by what is still perceived as a strange reversal of situation amongst influential poets. Therefore when Trelawny concludes his funerary oration in honour of his poet-friend’s tragic death by simply “paraphrasing”, or clumsily eulogising, lines from Adonais – “I restore to nature, through fire, the elements of which this man was composed, earth, air and water; everything is changed, but not annihilated; he is now a portion of that which he worshipped”14 – or, when the time comes, Mary Shelley wraps her husband’s heart in the last pages of an old edition of his poem15 – “He lives, he wakes—’tis Death is dead, not he; / Mourn not for Adonais (XLI, 361-62)” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 402) —, the ceremonial of a regenerated self-elegy by means of poetic purification, only partially surprises us et confirms the insolent hypothesis that this pre-posthumous work of art was indeed addressed to him and not Keats. And while at Shelley’s funeral, both the elegist’s body and a copy of Keats’s poems, a source of inspiration as resistant as it is denied, are destroyed by fire, the ashes of one poet and the verse of another are mingled in the course of this ultimate Romantic dissemination. Finally, during such a dispersal of flesh and ideas, words and thoughts whose purpose was to put forward, one last time, certain narcissistic values which Shelley strove to egotistically keep for himself despite this obvious chaos of undifferentiated influences, the story of Adonais is entirely re-written. In the end, the nature of a unique elegy is altogether questioned as are its vain efforts of distinguishing poets in creative matters of life and death.

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Shelley, Mary. The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Edward Moxon, 1839.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley, Mary, ed. London: Edward Moxon, 1845.

——. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. 1977. Reiman Donald H. ed. New York: Norton, 2002.

——. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ingpen, Roger & Peck, Walter, E., eds. 10 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926-30.

Tennyson, Alfred (Lord). In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Ross, R.H., ed. London: Norton, 1973.

Ulmer William A. “Adonais and the Death of Poetry” Studies in Romanticism 32 (1993) 425-51.

Wordsworth, William. “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface of the Lyrical Ballads”. William Wordsworth: Selected Prose. Hayden, John O. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.

——. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850 by William Wordsworth. Wordsworth, Jonathan, M.H. Abrams & Stephen Gill, eds. London: Norton, 1979.

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1  Quoted in Redpath (383).

2  On this theme, see William A. Ulmer’s seminal article, “Adonais and the Death of Poetry” (438).

3  We could add here that, in Matthew Arnold’s work, the elegist’s survival is dependent upon a repetitive and overwhelming struggle – as is illustrated by its chiasmic structure – against the unfair abandonment and desperate loss of the poet-friend: “There thou art gone, and me thou leavest here / Sole in these fields! yet will I not despair.  /  Despair I will not (…) (v.191-93)”. My emphasis. Haunted by the memory of Clough’s bohemian spirit, who has breathed elegiac motifs of Romantic wanderings and erudition into the mind of an attentive successor, Arnold makes sure to canonise this scholarly spectre by questioning, in the process, his own poetic resistance as well as the egotistical potentialities of such a speculative immortalisation: “Our Gypsy-Scholar haunts, outliving thee! / Fields where soft sheep from cages pull the hay, / Woods with anemonies in flower till May, / Know him a wanderer still; then why not me? (v.197-200)”. My emphasis. See Arnold, Matthew, “Thyrsis” (998).

4  “Where wert thou mighty Mother, when he lay, / When thy Son lay, pierced by the shaft which flies / In darkness? Where was lorn Urania / When Adonais died? (II, 10-13)”. (See Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 392).

5  This expression, we owe it to William A. Ulmer (445).

6  “Keats’s actual death is actively forgotten in Shelley’s memorial act of writing Adonais”. (See Sandy 86).

7  Shelley, Adonais; An Elegy, in Reiman & Powers, eds., Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 396.

8  See Shelley’s letter to Lord Byron of 8 June 1821 (The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley 297). Taking advantage of this image, dear to Shelley, of the erroneous panegyric in order to add critical venom to its review of Adonais, The Literary Gazette condemns the Romantic elegist for his utter contempt of memory, death and common sense. The disgrace of a Cockney eulogy therefore transforms Keats’s death and the so-called weaknesses of the consumptive poet into a panegyric of posthumous betrayal: “But death, even the death of the radically presumptuous profligate, is a serious thing; and as we believe that Keats was made presumptuous chiefly by the treacherous puffing of his Cockney fellow gossips, and profligate in his poems merely to make them saleable, we regret that he did not live long enough to acquire common sense, and abjure the pestilent and perfidious gang who betrayed his weakness to the grave, and are now panegyrising his memory into contempt. For what is the praise of the Cockneys but disgrace, or what honourable inscription can be placed over the dead by the hands of notorious libellers, exiled adulterers, and avowed atheists”. Anon., « The Review of Adonais », The Literary Gazette, 8 December 1821, quoted in Redpath, ed., The Young Romantics and Critical Opinion, 1807-1824: Poetry of Byron, Shelley, and Keats as Seen by Their Contemporary Critics, 377-78.

9  “A loose, slack, not well dressed Youth met Mr. Green and myself in a lane near Highgate. Green knew him and spoke. It was Keats. He was introduced to me and staid a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he came back and said: ‘Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!’ – ‘There is death in that hand’ I said to, when Keats was gone! yet this was I believe before the consumption showed itself distinctly” (Coleridge,quoted in Hale-White 67). On a both morbid and disturbing encounter between Coleridge and Keats, see the letter to George and Georgiana Keats of the 15 April 1819: “Last Sunday I took a Walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield park I met Mr. Green our Demonstrator at Guy’s in conversation with Coleridge—I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable—I walked with him a[t] his alderman-after dinner place for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical Sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch—single and double touch—A dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition—so my metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness—Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—Southey believes in them—Southey’s belief too much diluted—A Ghost story—Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I had heard it all the interval—if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate. Good Night!” (The Letters of John Keats 88-89). “This living hand, now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold / And in icy silence of the tomb, / So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights / That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood, / So in my veins red life might stream again, / And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is— / I hold it towards you” (John Keats: The Complete Poems 384). “I [Keats] have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence” (359).

10  “The comparison of human fears, hatreds and evil thoughts with hunting dogs that pursue a deer embodies both the myth of Acteon (a hunter who was turned into a deer and devoured by his own hounds for seeing Diana naked) and an image deriving from it in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: ‘That instant was I turn’d into a hart ; / And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, / E’er since pursue me’ (I, I, 21-23)” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 149 &149n).

11  Here Shelley uses the word “effluence” instead of “influence” in the theological sense of the term “emanation” which not only refers to the way the Son proceeds from the Father, but is also linked to the philosophical phenomenon of a neo-platonic influence which describes the overflowing and necessary production of spirits and bodies of a divine nature. By mentioning “effluence” in this very passage of Adonais, Shelley seems to purposely unite the many meanings and fluxes of an elegiac trinity, that of inheritance as rebirth, that of divine continuity in the creation of a work of art or fusion of the poets’ bodies with the forms of their poems and, finally, that of the present emission of an elegiac “over-influence” as a future source of posthumous communion: “Dust to the 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, / Whilst thy cold embers choke the sordid hearth of shame (XXXVIII, 338-42)” (401 & 403n).

12  My emphasis. For this part of our reflection, we rely once again on William A. Ulmer’s analysis who quotes, on this matter, two enlightening examples. On morbid influence, he distinguishes a burdensome tradition symbolised by the patriarchal figure of an inhibiting precursor – Milton in Keats’s poetry – from the “monumental sublimity” of a work of art – the Elgin Marbles (Ulmer 448).

13  On this particular theme, see Derrida (34).

14  Quoted in Raymond (237). The exact reference in Adonais which seems to have inspired Trelawny’s speech is the following: “‘He is made one with Nature: there is heard / His voice in all her music (…) He is a portion of the loveliness / Which once he made more lovely (…) (XLII, 370-71 & XLIII, 379-80)” (Shelley’s Prose and Poetry 402).

15  “From Leghorn he [Trelawny] made the short journey to Pisa and climbed to that upper floor of the Tre Palazzi, to which the women had hastily returned from the now haunted house at Lerici. He told them of the ceremonial burning, stressing only what was beautiful, nothing of what was painful; and he offered Shelley’s heart to Mary. She shuddered away from it that day, but later desired it; and it was obtained for her from Leigh Hunt who had begged it from Trelawny and was loth to surrender it. Thirty years afterwards, she having died, and the people searching among her effects, it was found—now no more than browned dust and withered leaves—in a copy of the old Pisa edition of Adonais, at the page which says, ‘’Tis Death is dead, no he’” (Raymond 238).

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Caroline BERTONÈCHE, « From Poet to Poet or Shelley’s Inconsistencies in Keats’s Panegyric: Adonais as an Autobiographical Work of Art »e-Rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3
Caroline Bertonèche graduated from the University of Oxford in British Romantic Studies and has just completed a doctoral thesis on the workings of poetic influence in John Keats's art and life at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris III. Her research and publications include works on the Keatsian pre-posthumous myth, on the poet-painter relationship between Keats and Joseph Severn, on Keats's pictorial and epitaphic inheritance as well as on the combined influences of Romantic medicine and poetry.

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