Shelleys elegiac poem, Adonais, is in his own words, a highly wrought piece of art (Abrams, 718). In creating this sweeping homage to John Keats upon learning of his death, Shelley faithfully adhered to the classical pastoral form of the Greek tradition. Honoring friends who have died young with the pastoral elegy is a poetic tradition of more than two thousand years. Miltons Lycidas, Shelleys Adonais and Arnolds Thyrsis are examples of English pastorals (Holman, 345).
Adonais comprises the major hallmarks of the pastoral lament in terms f its definitive content structure, its rural, natural symbolism and classical Greek allusions, and its development of tone from outrage to abrupt acceptance and epiphany. Shelley paid strict attention to the framing of Adonais. In its creation, he adheres to the classic archetype for the pastoral elegy. The first four stanzas involve invoking the Mother muse while simultaneously accusing her blind negligence for the death of his friend and her charge.
By the fourteenth stanza, all of Nature is weeping and mourning the tragedy of losing someone so beautiful and young; from he birds to the trees and flowers, from the reptiles to freshly dawned Spring herself. Then, the fellow shepherds come to pay respects in stanzas thirty to thirty-five, including Lord Byron and a meek incarnation of Shelley himself. Ultimately, the poet suggests that his friend is actually in a better place for having died and hints at a life eternal. Pastoral poems are generally epic in length, and have formally structured stanzas.
There is, however, no formal rule as to the number of stanzas or, for that matter, the number of lines within those stanzas. This form is dictated wholly by subject matter and referential style. In Adonais, the choices of symbols and allusions are as consequential to the classification of the poem as they are to its meaning. The use of rural, natural imagery is the definitive essence of the pastoral elegy. Pastoral, of course, is derived from the same root word as pasture. In these, the beloved friend is represented as a fallen shepherd who has left his flock bereft and without an heir-apparent leader.
Shelley believed Keats to be among the writers of the highest genius ho have adorned our age (Abrams 718). His death at such a young age was a major loss to the Romantic movement (little did they realize that dying young would become a trend among them), and many Shelley among them were stunned; much like a herd without a delineated path. Incorporated into the natural images of larks, hyacinths and reptiles are references to Greek mythology. Adonais is an adaptation of Adonis, who was so beautiful that the goddess of love herself, Venus, fell in love with him.
This captures the notion that Keats was something too beautiful for this world he was doomed by his brilliance to die. Adonis was killed by a wild boar, thought to be the embodiment of what is ugly. Shelley believed that Keats tortured soul was driven to its end by the harsh words of critics; modern-day boars. Shelleys mercurial tone in Adonais not only serves as a catharsis for his rage at Keats death, but it also contributes to the classical structure of the elegiac pastoral which begins on a somber note and ends on one of hope.
First, he shakes his fist at the heavens for tealing his friend and robbing the world of his talent. Then, he casts blame on the imitators and hangers-on; letting them know in no uncertain terms that they can never take Keats place as shepherd of the flock. Ultimately, after every corner of the idyllic valley had wept for its loss, Shelley arrives at the epiphany that Keats/Adonais cannot truly die he lives on in memory, in poetry and in eternity. While the change in tone does seem abrupt, such is the nature of epiphany or revelation, and it is also structurally correct for the elegiac astoral format.
It is darkly ironic that Shelley should have written Adonais. He died young in a boating accident and was reported to have had a volume of Keats poetry in one pocket and a Sophocles play in the other when he drowned. Some might deem this some kind of propelled fascination or self-fulfilling prophecy. Shelley was, however, the heir-apparent shepherd and faithful keeper of the Keatsean negative capability. His mastery of the pastoral form lives on in eternity in Adonais; and so does Keats legacy, distinct from his own remarkable body of work.