Romantic Elegy and the Politics of Lamentation


Romantic Elegy and the Politics of Lamentation: A Reading of Shelley’s Adonais

Adonais is an elegy written as a response to Tory critics' onslaught on Keats. Shelley wanted to take revenge on Tory critics not in the political arena of verbal joust but in the higher ground of literary tradition. He chose to write an elegy to commemorate Keats. He had two objectives in his composition: one was to defend Keats and himself from the calumny of Tory critics's, and the other was to fight Wordsworth. Wordsworth, who used to be Shelley's hero before his political renegade, was now the major enemy to fight in Shelley’s mind all the more because he still remained “the most natural and tender of lyric poet" even after his political apostasy. He had to exceed Wordsworth through his private war of poetry not only to revenge Keats but also bring justice to the Hunt group in the history of English poetry. Shelley’s Adonais is a subversion of Wordsworth’s elegy in its logic of lamentation. The mourner’s grief, for example, was discretely contained in Wordsworth’s elegy, whereas it is offered in Adonais as the only way of going beyond human mortality. The consolation based on the idea of the mourner’s reunion with the mourned in the afterlife proves impossible from the outset because the division of life and death is inexorable and irreversible. Shelley’s nature, unlike Wordsworth’s, does not respond to human passions at all, leaving no room for sympathetic communication between them. The mourning process in Adonais is now taken over by Shelley himself who, unlike other mourners, willingly and completely identify himself with the mourned. This self-apotheosis appears to be a “metaphysical suicide" to some scholars, but to me only a rhetorical device required by Shelleyean elegy. Shelley’s literary “martyrdom" at the concluding stanza should be understood as his efforts to convince readers of Keats' (and his own) apotheosis without compromising his atheist conviction. Adonais is indeed a peculiar elegy with a skeptic view of life, its lack of consolation, and the mourner’s complete identification with the mourned, all of which, however, make it the finest romantic elegy ever produced in the history of English poetry. 

Journal of the 19th century Literature in English 18-1(2014)


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