Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Turning to Dante: Shelley's Adonais Reconsidered

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Turning to Dante: Shelley's Adonais Reconsidered

Article excerpt

As often, if not always, in his agonistic creative relationship with Shelley, Byron just about got there first in terms of responding to something of the imaginative range offered by Dante's example, even if the roughly contemporaneous Prometheus Unbound is a more impressive instance of a comparable phenomenon. In The Prophecy of Dante, composed in 1819 but published in 1821, Byron writes from the persona of Dante--a bold move that allows for a sense of veiled autobiography. In places one suspects he is dealing with the Noble Lord as much as the Florentine poet. "For I have been too long and deeply wreck"d / On the lone rock of desolate Despair" (I. 138-9) catches the throwing-it-all-to-the-winds cadence of for "I have thought / Too long and darkly, till my brain became, / In its own eddy boiling and o"er wrought, / A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame" of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (3. 55-8; qtd from McGann). Again, the first Canto of The Prophecy of Dante rakes over the still burning coals of the separation from Lady Byron as it closes with a sardonic reference to "that fatal she" (I. 172), the mother of his children, "who hath brought / Destruction for a dowry" (I. 173-4). The feelings of Byron's Dante are mixed: he has been "taught / A bitter lesson" (I. 175-6), but he affirms his essential freedom: "it leaves me free: / I have not vilely found nor basely sought, / They Made an Exile--not a slave of me" (I. 176-8). The poem is saved from tame postures of deference by such acts of appropriation.

Ways in which Byron and Shelley overlap in their response to Dante include a sense that Dante puts the poetic self at the centre of a poem, not to indulge ego, but to record experience, especially experience that can be called visionary. At the same time, what is recorded in Dante can be the poet's often at least half-admiring response to speakers who very much put their ego to the fore. Shelley's portrait of Rousseau in The Triumph of Life as someone preoccupied by the self is an instance Dante's influence here. Shelley catches Rousseau's conviction, one never wholly dismissed by the poem, that his is the exemplary fate of modern subjectivity; he asserts that he "was overcome / By my own heart alone" (241-2), and that "I"--the word held in towering aloneness at the end of a line--" Have suffered what I wrote, or viler pain!" (279-80; poetry and prose qtd from Shelley, Major Works).

Byron and Shelley share, too, an artistic awareness that lerza rima can be adapted to English, especially in the service of onward flowing feeling, a stream of sensation being central to their desire to leave behind custom and tradition even as they draw from it what they think is most valuable. Shelley, in particular, realises that lerza rima can be adapted to a vision of experience that is alive to possibility and resistant to closure. Moreover, they respond to Dante in a fashion that allows them to challenge British philosophical and cultural traditions: Dante charts a trajectory that to a Romantic-period reader looks like a move from seen to unseen, empiricism to idealism, a movement that Byron evokes in the opening of The Prophecy of Dante. It is typical of his poetic ambivalence, however, that Byron recalls "the base / Of the eternal Triad" (I. 12-13) from the perspective of being "Once more in man's frail world!" (I. 1). Finally, they evolve an awareness of Dante as a poet of liberty. (2) Indeed, in places Dante emerges as a precursor of modern hope for unification. A long section in Canto 2 of Byron's poem discusses the contemporary ignominy and tyranny suffered by Italians and ends with the vision: "we, / Her sons, may do this with one deed--Unite!" (2. 144-5). (3)

Shelley appears to have read Byron's poem in August, 1821, after its publication in April, 1821, and admired it greatly. He told Byron that the poetry was "indeed sublime" (Jones, II. 347). It certainly leaves an impression on The Triumph of Life in the lines about "the sacred few, who could not tame / Their spirits to the Conqueror, but as soon / As they had touched the world with living flame / / Fled back like eagles to their native noon" (128-31). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.