Splendor in the Ghosts: Shelley and Adonais Pt. 2

Another determinative factor in (ironically, and against Romanticism’s century XX master narrative) gauging that the Shelley who writes Adonais is a mature, if perverse, adult, is his conception of variegated nature, “halved” between benignity and the “ghastly, scarred, riven” component parts he identifies in Mont Blanc and revisits here. It is a realistic counterpoint to what in Wordsworth verges on fantasy— the poet (Wordsworth) stands atop Snowdon, surveys the “perfect image of a mighty mind,” and leaves it at that, while Shelley balances the perfection of the natural world with what in it is misshapen, ugly, and impotent. Why Wordsworth’s single-mindedness must fail in relation to Shelley’s sense of variegation, especially in 2015, is that it becomes too clear to practiced human consciousness that the mightiness of nature’s own consciousness cannot account for the devilish duplicity and capacity for self-mutilation of the human race. The twentieth century, which would dare place William Blake with Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, inverted Shelley into an idealistic humanist, which he intermittently was; but his most penetrating writing offers insights in a deeper, darker, miasmic wilderness space in which Shelley’s own brain, in mirroring “halved” nature, see-saws between his own creative and destructive capacities.

Indeed, one of the ambiguities which Shelley successfully builds into Adonais is his own innocence and/or culpability in regards to Man and Nature. Is he, as he suggests in the self-portraiture segment, half Cain, half Christ? Why is his brow “ensanguined,” suggesting that he is, himself, a kind of slave to forces which oppress him? As he also employs the metaphor of a deer fleeing from naked Diana, mistress of the hunt, what thoughts is he having which so torment him? Furthermore, all that the “nameless worm” is, Keats’ assailant, rings with ambiguities as to whether, in a subterranean way, Shelley identifies more with him, his remorse and self-contempt, then he does with flower-like, angelic Keats? To use a popular culture metaphor, Shelley appears to be a protagonist with hell-hounds on his trail. Shelley’s biography is, indeed, riddled with ambiguities, and it is not for nothing that the Second Gen. Romantics (Keats, Shelley, Byron) are often referred to as the “Satanic School.” Yet ambiguities make for better art (literary or otherwise) then simplicity, and what is tepid in Wordsworth and Coleridge becomes pungent in Shelley and Keats. It also stands to reason that, when Venus herself mounts Keats’ corpse and must be held back by Death, we have the seeds here of Gothic awareness which elevate Adonais out of wonted elegiac territory and make it memorable past these generic constraints. Twentieth century Romantic criticism is short on these insights, into narrative-thematic levels, and long on generalizations and tap-dancing around key issues. But erecting a twenty-first century Keats and Shelley, from awareness not just formal but imaginative, and colored by the lurid constraint of global loss and recession, seems like a potential imperative worth following through, necrophilia and all.