Shelley, Keats, "Adonais"

December 1: PercyShelley’s “Adonais,” a cornerstone document for those interested inthe narrative of Romanticism, was published on this day in 1821. Keats had diedat age twenty-five earlier that year; in borrowing the Adonis myth to elegizehim, Shelley helped to immortalize the idea of the ‘Tortured Romantic,’ he whohas one eye upwards on the pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and one downwards onall that is in pursuit of him.

As Shelley and some others saw it, the pursuer groupincluded literary critics. Believing that what killed Keats was not so much histuberculosis as his hostile reviewers, Shelley’s poem portrays them as dragons,reptiles, worms, “carrion Kite” and “a noteless blot on aremembered name.” Some of Keats’s closest friends shared this contempt forhis 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 waswrit in water,” but his executors found room for the prefatory, “ThisGrave contains all that was Mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who, on his DeathBed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone.” This inscriptiontook some months to accomplish; by then, Shelley’s body had washed up on thebeach at Viareggio (his copy of Keats’s poems in his pocket), and been burnedin 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 byLeigh Hunt, it was given to Mary Shelley, and found in her belongings at herdeath, wrapped in a manuscript sheet of “Adonais.”

Not everyone shared or sympathized with the idea that hiscritics could kill him. Keats’s girlfriend, Fanny Brawne, protested that thisfable of his over-sensitivity gave Keats “a weakness of character thatonly belonged to his ill-health.” Byron scoffed that when he was rakedover by the critics, “Instead of bursting a blood-vessel—I drank threebottles of claret—and began an answer.” In Don Juan he would take another run at Keats’s “untowardfate”:

‘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.