Shelley, Keats, "Adonais"

December 1: Percy Shelley's "Adonais," a cornerstone document for those interested in the narrative of Romanticism, was published on this day in 1821. Keats had died at age twenty-five earlier that year; in borrowing the Adonis myth to elegize him, Shelley helped to immortalize the idea of the 'Tortured Romantic,' he who has one eye upwards on the pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and one downwards on all that is in pursuit of him.

 

As Shelley and some others saw it, the pursuer group included literary critics. Believing that what killed Keats was not so much his tuberculosis as his hostile reviewers, Shelley's poem portrays them as dragons, reptiles, worms, "carrion Kite" and "a noteless blot on a remembered name." Some of Keats's closest friends shared this contempt for his critics, and saw his gravestone as an opportunity to register a complaint. Keats had wanted his grave in Rome to read "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," but his executors found room for the prefatory, "This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone." This inscription took some months to accomplish; by then, Shelley's body had washed up on the beach at Viareggio (his copy of Keats's poems in his pocket), and been burned in an ad hoc funeral pyre, the remains delivered to the same cemetery in Rome. Though not the heart, or something looking like it: plucked from the fire by Leigh Hunt, it was given to Mary Shelley, and found in her belongings at her death, wrapped in a manuscript sheet of "Adonais."

 

Not everyone shared or sympathized with the idea that his critics could kill him. Keats's girlfriend, Fanny Brawne, protested that this fable of his over-sensitivity gave Keats "a weakness of character that only belonged to his ill-health." Byron scoffed that when he was raked over by the critics, "Instead of bursting a blood-vessel—I drank three bottles of claret—and began an answer." In Don Juan he would take another run at Keats's "untoward fate":

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,

Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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