John Keats died 200 years ago this month, on February 23, 1821, the loss lamented in the elegy Adonais published a few months later by Percy Bysshe Shelley whose own death came the following year. The remains of both famous Romantic poets lie in the same cemetery in Rome.
It took seven weeks for the devastating news of John Keats’s death, aged 25, in Rome to reach Shelley, who was then staying at Pisa. The news came in an anguished letter from Leigh Hunt, the critic, essayist and fellow poet.
Almost immediately, Shelley began work on the elegy Adonais, the most famous and most influential response to the tragedy of Keats: the opening stanza includes the lines ‘… his fate and fame shall be / An echo and a light unto eternity’.
Shelley had the poem printed in Pisa in July, 1821, giving copies to his friends before sending it to his publisher in London. The work remained close to Shelley’s heart, literally, as we shall see, until the very end.
Composed in 55 Spenserian stanzas, Adonais was inspired in parts by the Greek elegies of Bion and Moschus, both of whom Shelley had translated, and Milton’s Lycidas which, similarly, sought to immortalise a friend who had died, in that case Edward King who drowned at sea, as was Shelley’s own destiny in 1822 at the age of 29.
The Spenserian stanza, invented by Edmund Spenser (1552–99) for his long allegorical poem The Faerie Queen, was a major innovation in English poetry. It comprises nine iambic lines, the first eight being pentameters and the last a hexameter or alexandrine, with the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc.
Keats is lamented under the name of Adonais, the Greek god of beauty and fertility, together with other poets who had died young: Thomas Chatterton, Sir Philip Sidney and Lucan, the Roman. Keats’s deathbed is visited by various figures, allegorical and contemporary, including Lord Byron, described as ‘the Pilgrim of Eternity’.
Shelley, the atheist, accepts the physical fact of death but insists on a kind of Neoplatonic rebirth in the everlasting Beauty of the universe…