Why someone might be drawn to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais in a major recession is no mystery— an elegy on the death of his contemporary John Keats, it explores one poet’s struggle with mortality, what constitutes life and death as a chiasmus, and metaphysics among the human race in general. Some quirks of Adonais that make it even more simpatico with macabre 2015— as has not been widely noted in Romantics scholarly criticism, Adonais, as a long poem, evinces consonance with both visionary spiritualism and horror-movie level luridness, down to the convulsions of Keats’ corpse as female “splendors” engage in necrophilia-related antics with it. That, in fact, most of the poem represents, textually, a procession past Keats’ corpse, with different characters issuing speeches over it, and with the corpse itself always visible, has as a subtext which suggests a temperament rather morbid in relation to physical mortality, and uneasy with processes of change, time, and mutation of matter into other matter.
However, a few constituent elements redeem the poem past mere adolescent morbidity. Shelley’s suggested system of metaphysics is a quirky one— that “life,” being bound to time and change, stands opposed to eternity, or a kind of eternal fire (or “burning fountain”), where all worthwhile matter returns. What Shelley calls “splendors”— not exactly apparitions or ghosts, but pieces of the eternal fire which girds up the statelier half of visible reality, and which may take, like Urania (Venus) and her sisters, semi-human form— are what animate (he suggests) a consciousness such as his or John Keats’. Meanwhile, most of the human race, to Shelley, seems to be constituted by “phantoms,” “invulnerable nothings,” vultures, ravens, wolves, and other vicious predators. About humanity, Shelley is a realist-bordering-on-misanthrope here, and what Adonais demonstrates is that the idealism Shelley is often given credit for is balanced by a firmer, harder grasp of human frailty and foible then Shelley’s often featherweight “Romantic” image suggests. In fact, if I declare Adonais to be Shelley’s masterpiece, the most lucid, cohesive, ideologically and intellectually sound of his major poems, it is because (for one thing) it inverts adolescent escapism (to an extent) into a very adult realization of just how vicious, scabrous, and mortifying human life and death is, in a world where “invulnerable nothings” are allowed to hold sway over the likes of Keats and Shelley, and “unwilling dross” resists splendor.