Adonais is the first writing by Shelley which has been included in the Clarendon Press Series. It is a poem of convenient length for such a purpose, being neither short nor decidedly long; and—leaving out of count some of the short poems—is the one by this author which approaches nearest to being ‘popular.’ It is elevated in sentiment, classical in form,—in substance, biographical in relation to Keats, and in some minor degree autobiographical for Shelley himself. On these grounds it claimed a reasonable preference over all his other poems, for the present method of treatment; although some students of Shelley, myself included, might be disposed to maintain that, in point of absolute intrinsic beauty and achievement, and of the qualities most especially characteristic of its author, it is not superior, or indeed is but barely equal, to some of his other compositions. To take, for instance, two poems not very different in length from Adonais—The Witch of Atlas is more original, and Epipsychidion more abstract in ideal.
I have endeavoured to present in my introductory matter a comprehensive account of all particulars relevant to Adonais itself, and to Keats as its subject, and Shelley as its author. The accounts here given of both these great poets are of course meagre, but I assume them to be not insufficient for our immediate and restricted purpose. There are many other books which the reader can profitably consult as to the life and works of Shelley; and three or four (at least) as to the life and works of Keats. My concluding notes are, I suppose, ample in scale: if they are excessive, that is an involuntary error on my part. My aim in them has been to illustrate and elucidate the poem in its details, yet without travelling far afield in search of remote analogies or discursive comment—my wish being rather to ‘stick to my text’: wherever a difficulty presents itself, I have essayed to define it, and clear it up—but not always to my own satisfaction. I have seldom had to discuss the opinions of previous writers on the same points, for the simple reason that of detailed criticism of Adonais, apart from merely textual memoranda, there is next to none.
It has appeared to me to be part of my duty to point out here and there, but by no means frequently, some special beauty in the poem; occasionally also something which seems to me defective or faulty. I am aware that this latter is an invidious office, which naturally exposes one to an imputation, from some quarters, of obtuseness, and, from others, of presumption; none the less I have expressed myself with the frankness which, according to my own view, belongs to the essence of such a task as is here undertaken. Adonais is a composition which has retorted beforehand upon its actual or possible detractors. In the poem itself, and in the prefatory matter adjoined to it, Shelley takes critics very severely to task: but criticism has its discerning and temperate, as well as its ‘stupid and malignant’ phases.