Study Guide

Adonais Form and Meter

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Form and Meter

Spenserian Stanza

Firstly, Adonais is a pastoral elegy, written in Spenserian stanzas, a type of meter developed by—you guessed it—Edmund Spenser. Now that's a lot to digest, but don't worry. You'll have time to chew it all properly. Let's break it down a little, beginning with what exactly meter is in the first place:

Meter

Meter is a poem's rhythm, or the beat patterns within the lines. When you read a line, you emphasize certain syllables more than others. For example, read the next line and notice the sounds you make in your head when you read it:

Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be (8)

Hear the rhythm there? In your head, it should sound something like this: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM

If we use bold and italic to emphasize the stressed syllables, it looks like this:

Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be (8)

Now, each of those pairs of syllables (daDUMs) is called a foot. It's basically the smallest unit of the beat pattern. There are lots of types of metrical feet, but in this case, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called an iamb. And because there are five iambs in a line, we can say that this line is written in iambic pentameter (penta- means five). This just so happens to be the most common form in classic poetry.

Now, Spenserian stanzas are groups of nine lines each, the first eight of which are written in iambic pentameter. The ninth line in each stanza has one extra iamb:

She faded, like a cloud which had outwept its rain. (90)

Count the iambs there? Yep, there are six. That makes the final line in each stanza written in iambic hexameter ("hex-" means six). Got it? Great. There's just one other component of Spenserian form to tackle: rhyme.

Rhyme

Spenserian stanzas follow a particular rhyme scheme: ABABBCBCC, in which each letter stands for a particular end rhyme. Confused? Check out Stanza III as we break it down:

Oh, weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep!
Yet wherefore? Quench within their burning bed
Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep
Like his, a mute and uncomplaining sleep;
For he is gone, where all things wise and fair
Descend—oh, dream not that the amorous Deep
Will yet restore him to the vital air;
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.
(19-27)

Notice the rhymes? If we put an "A" by every line that rhymes with the first rhyming word, and a "B" for the second, and so forth, it looks something like this:

Oh, weep for Adonais—he is dead! A
Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep!
B
Yet wherefore? Quench within their burning bed
A
Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep
B
Like his, a mute and uncomplaining sleep;
B
For he is gone, where all things wise and fair
C
Descend—oh, dream not that the amorous Deep
B
Will yet restore him to the vital air;
C
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.
C (19-27)

The poem follows the ABABBCBCC format for Spenserian sonnets. Now that wasn't so bad, was it? Finally, let's talk about what makes the poem a pastoral elegy.

Pastoral Elegy

An elegy is a poem about, or for, a dead person (or thing). Shelley wrote Adonais in honor of Keats, who had recently died. One common type of elegies among classic poets is the pastoral elegy, which combines a focus on nature (think: pastures full of sheep, mountains, babbling brooks, yadda yadda) with mourning. Shelley definitely has some nature in his poem. Check out Stanza XVI:

Grief made the young Spring wild, and she threw down
Her kindling buds, as if she Autumn were,
Or they dead leaves; since her delight is flown,
For whom should she have wak'd the sullen year?
To Phoebus was not Hyacinth so dear
Nor to himself Narcissus, as to both
Thou, Adonais: wan they stand and sere
Amid the faint companions of their youth,
With dew all turn'd to tears; odour, to sighing ruth.

Spring? Check. Buds? Check Autumn leaves and dew? That's a check. Yup, this is definitely a pastoral elegy. Check out John Milton's Lycidas for another example of the famous form.

This is a Tribute

And now, for the question you've all been waiting to ask Shmoopers: why? Why go with Spenserian stanzas? Why rock a pastoral elegy? Well, in a poem that is paying tribute to the greatest poet of all time (at least in the top three), Shelley is breaking out the big guns. He's writing in a highly traditional, highly formal way to honor the poetry of his beloved buddy Keats. He takes his form cues from very established patterns and themes of poetry's biggest hitters (Spenser and Milton, to name two), in part because he wants to let the world know that Keats belongs right up there with the best of 'em. He uses this super-traditional form to make sure he was giving Keats all the possible props he could.

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