Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 7. Epipsychidion; Adonais

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 7. Epipsychidion; Adonais

The second year at Pisa (1821) brought new friendships and interests; and Shelley’s poetry, henceforth, is more largely coloured, or even inspired, by personal intimacy. The Letter to Maria Gisborne, of the preceding August, had commemorated a purely intellectual friendship. Unlike Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot—its only rival among English letters in verse—it “imitates” neither Horace nor anyone else, but, on the contrary, reveals, with transparent and spontaneous frankness, the Shelley of sparkling and sprightly converse, of fun shot through with poetry, and poetry with fun, of human thoughtfulness and keen common-sense, whom only his best friends knew. Epipsychidion, Adonais and the lyrics written to Jane Williams are monuments of kinds of friendship more passionate and more individually Shelleyan, yet as diverse as the poetry which enshrines them. Shelley had lately translated the Symposium of Plato. In Emilia Viviani, he thought he saw realised the visionary beauty which, from “youth’s dawn,” had beckoned and whispered to him in all the wonder and romance of the world. A similar apparition had, at least once before, crossed his path, in the wife whom he still sincerely, if not passionately, loved. The situation was complex, and not in all its aspects favourable to poetry. The rejected fragments show that he did not without effort refrain from the mere defiant bravado of one facing a groundless or specious charge. In what remains, nothing is ignoble, nothing prosaic; but the passages in which he is explaining and justifying are distinguished by their plainer phrasing from those in which, as in the rapturous close, he soars, with beating wings, above earth and its laws and limits to pierce into the rare universe of love. The Godwinian doctrine of free love is, doubtless, discernible, on a last analysis, in the justification; but that doctrine is taken up into the sublime Platonic faith that love permeates the universe, and cannot, therefore, be completely mirrored in the facet of any one human form. Thus, in defending his passion for Emilia, Shelley is led to an argument which cuts away the ground of the exclusive and absorbing adoration of her which much of his language suggests. She is no mere symbol; her womanhood and her beauty are real; but beauty more universal and enduring than her own is gathered up in her, as light in the sun, and this ideal value, though the emphasis fluctuates, is never absent from Shelley’s thought. Yet, the comparison which he invokes with the Vita Nuova is not wholly just; the virginal passion of Dante repudiates every suggestion of union, even in marriage; while Shelley’s spiritual passion finds adequate utterance only in the rapt imagery of possession.

The romance of Emilia Viviani had a somewhat sordid sequel, and Shelley felt the bitterness of disillusionment. But illusion had brought him thought, vision and song, which were not illusory. Epipsychidion enshrines a rare and strange mode of feeling, accessible only to the few; we pass, nevertheless, into a larger air when we turn from this Platonist bridal hymn to the great elegy with which, a few weeks later, he commemorated the death of Keats. The two poets had never been intimate, and neither thought of the other’s poetry, as a whole, so highly as it deserved. But Shelley put Hyperion on a level with the grandest poetry of his time. Grief for a dead friend has hardly more part in Adonais than in Lycidas; but it is, in a far greater degree, an impassioned lament for a poet. The death of Edward King gave Milton an occasion for a meditation of unequalled splendour upon poetic fame; the death of Keats is felt by Shelley as a calamity for poetry, and for everything in nature and humanity to which poetry gives enduring expression, and the very soul of poetry seems to utter itself, now in sorrow, now in retributive indignation, through his lips. It is something more than literary artifice, or the example of antique elegy, that leads him to picture muses and seasons, dreams, desires and adorations, joining in his lament.

  • All he had loved and moulded into thought
  • From shape and hue and odour and sweet sound
  • Lamented Adonais;
  • and, Adonais being, for Shelley, chiefly the poet of Hyperion, his chief mourner is the heavenly muse Urania. Even the persons who are represented beside his grave, Byron, Hunt, Moore, Shelley himself, are there not as friends but as fellow-poets. The stately Spenserian stanza, to which Shelley communicates a new magnificence of his own, accords well with the grandeur of the theme. Solitary as he was, and echoless as his song, for the moment, remained, he knew that he was speaking out of the heart of humanity, and not merely “antheming a lonely grief.” And, in the triumphant closing movement, he gave expression more sublime than either Milton or any ancient elegist had found, to the immortality of poetry. The poet, like the lover, could transcend the limits of personality, and become at one with eternal things.