This translation by Percy Bysshe Shelley of ‘Elegy on the Death of Adonis’ was written in 1817-18, three years before he wrote ‘Adonais’, following the death of the poet John Keats. The fragment deals with the myth of the death of Adonis, killed while hunting.
The myth of Adonis serves as a model for the death of Keats, dead while young and beautiful. Shelley’s poem ‘Adonais’, on the death of Keats, was intended as ‘the image of my regret and honour of poor Keats’. Keats had died of tuberculosis in Rome seven weeks earlier, at the age of 25.
It was widely believed that Keats’s death was hastened by an adverse review of Endymion in the Quarterly Review – Shelley refers to critics as ‘the herded wolves’ and ‘the obscene ravens’. Shelley’s poem is simultaneously grand in scale, and domestic in feeling; while its view of literary politics is satirical, it sees Keats’s death both as a release, and as a kind of comfort – ‘What Adonaïs is, why fear we to become?’ Shelley avoids complacency in the work: though Keats is seen as a steadfast star, Shelley sees himself as storm-tossed – ‘I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar.’
For Shelley the work was ‘a highly wrought piece of art, perhaps better in point of composition than anything I have written’, and ‘the least imperfect of my compositions’. He was aware that there was a certain amount of competition between him and Keats: ‘I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.’