February 24, 2018

Tortured Romantics

On 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":
    'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
    Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
Shelley's poem is not all to blame for the 'fragile flower' myth. Keats wanted his gravestone 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."

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:
    ...The breath whose might I have invoked in song
    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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