October 21, 2017
Tortured RomanticsOn this day in 1821 Percy Shelley's "Adonais," his elegy to John Keats, was published in England in the Literary Chronicle. The poem has become a cornerstone document for those interested in Shelley (left) or Keats, or in all that is best and incredible in Romanticism. By linking Keats's death at the age of twenty-five to the Adonis myth, Shelley helped 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.
Among the latter group, and not that far behind Time, Mutability, et al., is the literary critic. Believing that it was not Keats's tuberculosis but his hostile reviewers who, more or less literally, killed him, Shelley's poem portrays them as dragons, reptiles, worms, "carrion Kite" and, best, "a noteless blot on a remembered name." 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 in the other direction, reflecting 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":
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
The poem portrays Shelley as one who also has a mark "like Cain's or Christ's" on his forehead, who believes that "Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity," and who will soon follow by water to where his friend has gone:
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
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