Shelley raises in his poem a very marked contrast between the death of Adonais (Keats) as a mortal man succumbing to ‘the common fate,’ and the immortality of his spirit as a vital immaterial essence surviving the death of the body: he uses terms such as might be adopted by any believer in the doctrine of ‘the immortality of the soul,’ in the ordinary sense of that phrase. It would not however be safe to infer that Shelley, at the precise time when he wrote Adonais, was really in a more definite frame of mind on this theme than at other periods of his life, or of a radically different conviction. As a fact, his feelings on the great problems of immortality were acute, his opinions regarding them vague and unsettled. He certainly was not an adherent of the typical belief on this subject; the belief that a man on this earth is a combination of body and soul, in a state—his sole state—of ‘probation’; that, when the body dies and decays, the soul continues to be the same absolute individual identity; and that it passes into a condition of eternal and irreversible happiness or misery, according to the faith entertained or the deeds done in the body. His belief amounted more nearly to this: That a human soul is a portion of the Universal Soul, subjected, during its connexion with the body, to all the illusions, the dreams and nightmares, of sense; and that, after the death of the body, it continues to be a portion of the Universal Soul, liberated, from those illusions, and subsisting in some condition which the human reason is not capable of defining as a state either of personal consciousness or of absorption. And, so far as the human being exercised, during the earthly life, the authentic functions of soul, that same exercise of function continues to be the permanent record of the soul in the world of mind. If any reader thinks that this seems a vague form of belief, the answer is that the belief of Shelley was indeed a vague one. In the poem of Adonais it remains, to my apprehension, as vague as in his other writings: but it assumes a shape of greater definition, because the poem is, by its scheme and intent, a personating poem, in which the soul of Keats has to be greeted by the soul of Chatterton, just as the body of Adonais has to be caressed and bewailed by Urania. Using language of a semi-emblematic kind, we might perhaps express something of Shelley’s belief thus:—Mankind is the microcosm, as distinguished from the rest of the universe, which forms the macrocosm; and, as long as a man’s body and soul remain in combination, his soul pertains to the microcosm: when this combination ceases with the death of the body, his soul, in whatever sense it may be held to exist, lapses into the macrocosm, but there is neither knowledge as to the mode of its existence, nor speech capable of recording this.
As illustrating our poet’s conceptions on these mysterious subjects, I append extracts from three of his prose writings. The first extract comes from his fragment On Life, which may have been written (but this is quite uncertain) towards 1815; the second from his fragment On a Future State, for which some similar date is suggested; the third from the notes to his drama of Hellas, written in 1821, later than Adonais.