Copyright J V Ward. 14th August 2003

The Constant Theme of Death in the works of Keats and Shelley.

Shelley's Adonais may be viewed as a meditation on the meaning of death by way of theorising on its consequences. Firstly the idea that death is the equivalent of extinction is examined and this theory having proved untenable, various possibilities are examined out of which a resolution is concluded. Elements of these meditations are also to be found in Keats' works.

The proposition that death is the equivalent to extinction is examined in the first section of Adonais, a piece permeated with frigid imagery. The head of the deceased is bound with ‘frost’, his heart is ‘cold’, his lips ‘icy’ and his cheek ‘frozen’ suggesting the permanent cessation of life. The water imagery in ‘dew’, ‘Iiquid’ and ‘vapour’ suggest weeping for the loss of life, an image which culminates in ‘She faded, like a cloud which had outwept its rain’. The two images combine in the 'frozen tears’, the substitute for pearls in the anadem, which suggest the immutability of death coupled with the irrevocability of loss.

The death of Adonais is paralleled with the death of nature. We read that ‘Lost Echo sits amid the voiceless mountains’ and the personification of Morning fails to arrive at her appointed station to animate the day. Spring casts 'Her kindling buds, as if she Autumn were’. The legendary Adonis was the god of nature and consequently the landscape dies with him. Shelley makes Adonais the proprietor of nature expressing his poetic descriptions as ‘All he had loved and moulded into thought’. Shelley adroitly links Adonais to the natural world by making the imagery apply equally to Adonais and to the dying flora as for example:

‘The bloom, whose petals nipt before they blew
Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste.

Also the ‘broken lily’ can apply ambivalently either to a natural flower or to the deceased.

The irrevocability of death is reinforced with the confident and arrogant personification of Death who ‘laughs at our despair’, is depicted as ‘The eternal Hunger’ and whose justification is ‘the law of change’. Under this authority ‘suns perished, others sunk extinct in their refulgent prime’. [Italics added]

However the impression of permanence is subverted by comments subtly secreted in the text. Milton, 'The third amongst the sons of light', going ‘unterrified into the gulf of death’ expresses an expectation of future hope. We read that ‘his clear Sprite/ Yet reigns o'er earth’ giving an indication of immortality. Also Adonais ‘lies, as if in dewy sleep’ [Italics added] and one of the Dreams cannot be convinced that Adonais is dead, mistaking her own tear for his. This keeps open the promise of an awakening which is to be explored in the second movement.

Keats also uses the imagery of frigidity to portray the perpetuity of death. The opening of The Eve of St Agnes abounds with frigid imagery which prevails over the creatures' protective coverings of feathers and wool. The overbearing cold is linked to ‘the sculptured dead’ the effigies which ‘seem to freeze’ and are 'Emprisoned’ in ‘icy hoods and mails’. ‘Sculptured’ and 'freeze’ convey not only an image of cold but of permanence and tangibility which defeats the fond aspirations for their salvation of the Beadsman whose very breath is ‘frosted’. The triple image of cold, immovability and tangibility is established early in the text for later use. The awakening Madeline perceiving the palpable Porphyro as ‘pallid, chill and drear’ is constrained to think in terms of mortality in exclaiming ‘For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.’ Similarly the chilly atmosphere surrounding the statuesque Porter, in ‘uneasy sprawl', and the immutable arras ‘rich with horsemen, hawk and hound’ reinforces the morbidity of the mansion from which the lovers are escaping but where Angela and the Beadsman are doomed.

The continuation of Adonais is Shelley's meditation on the meaning of death: he asks ‘Whence are we, and what are we?’. This movement depicts the regeneration of life from which the eponymous character is excluded. Species of fauna ‘Like unimprisoned flames, out of their trance awake’ and birds locate ‘mossy’ building materials from the enlivened ‘field and brere’ as is appropriate to Adonis the god of rebirth. To a partial extent Adonais takes part in this renaissance as ‘The leprous corpse ... /Exhales itself in flowers’ suggesting the idea that his being has been sublimed into the spirit of the universe although Shelley reserves the poignancy of this revelation until the finale with the explicit ‘He is made one with nature’ However we read that 'He will awake no more’ [Textual italics], the ‘He’ person being Keats' life self inasmuch as the part of Keats which has gone is the bereaved's perception of him: ‘all that we loved of him should be .... as if it had not been’. The conception of mourning being linked to nature is reinforced by the coincidence of ‘skies are blue, and fields are green’ with the concepts of ‘woe’ and ‘sorrow’.

For the dead person, the corpse turned into flowers is a triumph as it can ‘mock the merry worm that wakes beneath’. The irony of the deceased's gain and the mourners' loss is demonstrated in the demeanour of the poet himself as he intrudes into the central portion of his own work. The living poet is a ‘frail Form’ 'Girt round with weakness’ whose life is tormented by his own thoughts. The imagery of death as in ‘last cloud of an expiring storm’ intimates the paradox that the dead continue to exist but the living maintain an aura of death.

In the midst of this debate we collect clues interspersed in the text as to the final resolution of the meditation. The ‘flowers of gentle breath’ inspired by the late Adonais, the anemones of the mythical Adonis are star shaped blooms, ‘incarnations of the stars’. The immutability of ‘immortal stars’ mentioned alongside ‘a godlike mind soars forth’ prepares the reader for the resolution of the problem when Adonais is transmuted to a star in the denouement.

In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats explores the paradoxes of death and its function as the consummation of life's endeavours. Keats described in his letter to Bailey (22/11/1817) that his ‘favourite speculation’ was ‘that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we call happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone’. This explains the poet's dissatisfaction at being ‘too happy in thine happiness’; he is unable in this life to experience ‘a Life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’. His earthly sensations are expressed as ‘a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’. Having proposed and rejected ‘a draught of vintage’ the symbol of earthly delectation and indeed found ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’ unsatisfactory because he ‘cannot see what flowers are at my feet’, the poet contemplates the idea of death: he is ‘half in love with easeful Death’. [Italics added]. The line ‘called him soft names in many a mused rhyme’ calls to mind Keats' early work Can Death Be Sleep, When Life Is But A Dream which proposes that ‘future doom .... is but to awake’. The speculation continues with ‘Now more than ever it seems rich to die’ [Italics added] although the reservation ‘with no pain’ carries a suspicion of trepidation. The climax of the cogitation occurs when the poet realises that upon death he would ‘have ears in vain’ and he is brought down to earth (figuratively and literally) in ‘To thy high requiem become a sod’.

Keats reserves the resolution of the conflict for the finale although we may read a preview of the revelation in The Eve of St Agnes. The lovers may be seen as a paradigm of earthly existence. The comestibles of the midnight feast although elaborately described as delectable are noticeably lacking in nutritive qualities and therefore lack fulfilment. Madeline is dissatisfied with the visible incarnation of her lover and Porphyro being an alien in the stronghold seeks refuge in another world. Their leaving the mansion represents their death. As they depart ‘away into the storm’ ‘like phantoms’ they are ‘beset with fears’ yet paradoxically they leave behind them the world of death. Their enterprise is sustained by Porphyro's vision ‘I have a home for thee’ [Italics added] and it is this ‘home’ in another life which is their quest.

The nightingale's immortality is conferred on it by reason of its completeness in its worldly existence. Like Urania it is ‘chained to time and cannot thence depart’ and, like the figures on the Grecian urn, by its immutability it has attained fulfilment by embodying the beauty/truth ethos. Mankind, personified by the emperor/clown characterisation, receives an intimation of truth and beauty from the ‘light winged Dryad’, an ethereal being which provides an expectation that man progresses towards immortality. Again the key word is ‘home’ which signifies the expectation of a future abode to be contrasted with the mundane ‘corn’ which is ‘alien’. The name of the lachrymose Old Testament character punningly serves as a personification of ruth and represents all those who cannot accept the earth as ‘home’. The bell acts as a summoner which leads the poet to his inner ‘sole self’ and is simultaneously a funeral dirge. The bell's ‘toll’ punningly represents the price paid for the use of a highway, a safe passage to a better place. The duality of the bell's purpose indicates that death is not finality but the goal of life. This sentiment is illustrated less emotionally but more succinctly in Why Did I Laugh Tonight?:

‘Yet could I on this very midnight cease,
And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds.
Verse, Fame and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser -­- Death is Life's high meed.’

In the conclusion of Adonais, Shelley concurs with Keats' verdict that ‘life is but a dream’ as Adonais has ‘awakened from the dream of life’ but goes further, detailing the prerequisites for fulfilment in the hereafter. ‘Dust to the dust’ is not merely an echo of the Christian funeral service which refers to the destiny of human remains but signifies a hell of non‑existence to which ‘the nameless worm’ and like are consigned as there is nothing in their earthly life to fulfil in the next. The ‘pure spirit, that is Adonais and those of poetic vision, ‘flow/ Back to the burning fountain whence it came’. The imagery of flame denotes that this privilege is reserved for those of a fiery disposition such as Chatterton, Sidney and Lucan who have gained immortality by way of their ‘transmitted effluence’ and ‘cannot die/ So long as fire outlives the parent spark.’

Shelley provides evidence for his proposition in the fire imagery of the pyramid tomb of Gaiuis Cestius who, as Tribune of the Plebs, was perceived by Shelley to be a protector of the masses and therefore exalted in his estimation. Cestius being one of those ‘Who waged contention with their time's decay’ has justified his earthly existence and become one ‘that cannot fade away.’ A hint of the Pythagorean doctrine of the transmutation of souls may be found in a pun on ‘sublime’ which ostensibly refers to the ethereal aspect of the pyramid but which can also refer to the chemical process of evaporation of delicate matter from baser material.

Further evidence of the spirit's journey beyond the tomb may be discovered in To William Shelley:

‘Here its ashes find a tomb
But beneath this pyramid
Thou art not .......’

The particulars of post mortal existence are however unavailable to us while we remain in our mundane existence:

‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity’

The light and glass imagery denote that in life we see the ‘white radiance of Eternity’ yet are prevented from experiencing its full effect because of the distorting effect of the ‘many-coloured glass’. We can see that there is something there but we cannot comprehend it. Shelley is indebted for this metaphor to St Paul who expressed a similar sentiment ‘For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’. [I/ Corinthians 13]

Evidence of Shelley's confidence in his expressed philosophy may be obtained from a Freudian reading of ‘my spirit's bark is driven ... to the tempest given.’ Shelley's enthusiasm to follow the ‘star’ of Adonais in his ‘spirit's bark’ expresses what Freudians designate ‘thanatos', the death wish. This reading becomes credible when we consider that Shelley met his death in a perilously navigated craft.

It seems that neither poet deems worthy of consideration the conventional Christian doctrine of death being a ‘knell which summons thee to Heaven or to Hell’ yet both repudiate the notion of death being finality. The concept of extinction after death is examined only that it might be refuted. Keats and Shelley examine the ramifications of the meaning of death and each without detailing particulars concludes that it leads to a ‘home’ or an ‘abode where the Eternal are’.

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night