In this blog, I would like to discuss how reading and print culture influences Percy B. Shelley’s poem, Adonais. As it is written for John Keats, it seems to be framing a textual conversation. There is an anxiety present in the poem about the nature of reading and writing, and more importantly, the nature of authorship. As the poem demonstrates, critics received some poetry, such as Keats’, with unfavorable opinion. By commemorating Keats, Shelley not only questions the public sphere in which poetry is received but also sympathizes with Keats as he laments his own fate as a poet. When Shelley exclaims, “Death feeds his mute voice, and laughs at our despair” (27). He sees himself in the same position as Keats as a poet and writer. Their popularity is determined by groups of critics with political loyalties. Their harshness determined the poet’s fate and was one of the reasons Keats might have been underappreciated during his time.
One instance of this consternation regarding the reception of poetry occurs when Adonias’s dead body is carried by figures who admired him and is joined by critics who did not. As Keats critics have been attributed to crushing his spirit and health, Shelley seeks to vindicate that suffering by immortalizing him in writing. He may have not done this out of compassion but as a political statement about authorship, implying that it is not entirely in the hands of criticism. He claims that poetry has an immortal quality that transcends material culture. Shelley finds that it is the poet’s duty to highlight a poet’s genius and elevate this poetic spirit. He perhaps combats that which makes print temporal and ephemeral. Though print allows for permanentization, if works are left underappreciated by the public, they are forgotten. Because criticism is shaped by politics, it further divests individuals from the ability to recognize genius. Shelley saw that like Keats, he could be judged not by the quality of his work but why his political affiliation.
For Shelley, death constitutes a freedom from suffering. Keats is depicted to be united with a higher entity or force but not a scriptural deity. Such a view of death is platonic as Shelley sees poetry as a means of reaching higher principles, ideas, and forms. In death, one is united with the highest form. He says that Keats is “made one with Nature…He is a presence to be felt and known…spreading itself where’er that Power may move” (370-375). Shelley refers to this deity as a “Power” and it is where Keats finds peace in being released from the “torture” (350) of living world.
By bringing to life a mythological figure, Shelley also pays tribute to Keats as a poignant figure in the poetical tradition. In Adonais, he is less mournful of Keats’ death and perhaps more enraged at the condition authors find themselves when put under scrutiny by the public. In this poem, Keats seems to have been defeated by such criticism, but in immortalizing him, Shelley claims to give writing and poetry power over critical reception.