Plotinus in ‘Mont Blanc’ and ‘Adonais’

Piecing together the religion and philosophy of a poet is often a thankless task. So fluid and flexible are they, so entirely at the service of the poetic event, that the effort to reconstruct them may spoil the poetry while leaving unsatisfied the thirst for intellectual coherence. Yet the power of Shelley’s verse depends on the degree to which we take seriously his self-image as a prophet and a religious teacher. Its beauty cannot be abstracted from its moral and liberative thrust, and this in turn is inextricable from the underlying metaphysical doctrine. Sketching the doctrine in broad strokes, we may distinguish three aspects: a vision of Love and Beauty, manifested in the universe; an ideal of Mind or of creative Imagination; and the sense of an impersonal and inconceivable ultimate reality, which Shelley sometimes calls `God’. In the present essay I shall argue that the contours of this philosophy come into clearer focus if we relate them to the three dimensions of transcendental reality in Plotinus: the Soul, the Mind, and the One. Two poems in particular, `Mont Blanc’ and Adonais, acquire greater authority and formal beauty when more attention is paid to their Plotinian resonances.

Shelley came under Neoplatonic influence when he joined the `Orphic’ circle of Thomas Taylor in November 112. Taylor held that Plotinus `was the first, who, having penetrated the profound wisdom of antiquity, delivered it to posterity without the concealment of mystic symbols and fabulous narrations’ (quoted, Woodman 12). In Queen Mab (113), `the World Soul, which Shelley encountered in his reading of the Timaeus in Taylor’s translation, is mystically conceived as the animating power of the universe of which the individual soul is the microcosmic form’ (Woodman 0). The poem confusingly syncretizes the World-soul with D’Holbach’s materialistic `Necessity’. In 116, `Mont Blanc’ and the `Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ show a loftier Platonic vision. Later, Shelley’s Neoplatonism was refined through his work on translating Plato in 117, his immersion in Italian literature, his intensive reading of Plato in 120, until it found its ripest expression in Adonais (121).

Usually Shelley is content with an undifferentiated concept of `intellectual beauty’ – close to that of the Symposium – to which he then gives godlike traits as `some unseen Power’ (`Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’). In reading `Mont Blanc’ and Adonais, however, it is well to bear in mind the distinctions that Plotinus makes between the Soul, as the principle of life and love, the Mind, as the realm of intellectual beauty, and the One or the Good as transcending this realm. Shelley may stress the continuity between the three dimensions more than their differences. Nonetheless, if we collapse them into a vague `intuitive awareness of something permanent, something apart from the flux of sense experience’ (Vivian 570), we cannot do justice to the spiritual drama of these poems.

In `Mont Blanc’, two goals of Shelley’s religious questioning are presented. The first is the sublime impersonal Absolute which is symbolized by the summit of Mont Blanc and which has many of the traits of Plotinus’s One. Usually the poem is taken to express awe at the inhuman power of Necessity ruling the universe. But this does not do justice to the sublime tone of:


Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,

Mont Blanc appears, – still, snowy, and serene. (60-61).


Of the One, Plotinus writes:

One should not enquire whence it comes, for there is no “whence”: for it does not really come or go away anywhere, but appears (phainetai) or does not appear. So one must not chase after it, but wait quietly till it appears, preparing oneself to contemplate it, as the eye awaits the rising of the sun. (Enneads V 5.8, trans. Armstrong).

Viewers of Mount Fuji will savour the analogy between the appearing and disappearing of a mountain and this feature of mystic awareness of the One.

As in Plotinus, Shelley’s absolute is beyond Mind, and it is other than Mind. It is also beyond existence (epekeina tes ousias). Could Shelley be alluding to this idea when he writes: `It is infinitely improbable that the cause of mind, that is, of existence, is similar to mind’ (`On Life’, 119, Shelley VI 197)? If he moves beyond `reality as defined by the Intellectual Philosophy’ (the level of Mind) and `know[s] imaginatively the Power, which is unknowable’, this is not a `purely suppositive’ movement (Wasserman 101); rather the apprehension of the absolute is sustained by two sources: the Neoplatonic tradition, and the poet’s own contemplative sense of ultimate reality, with which the symbol of the mountain chimes:


Power dwells apart in its tranquillity

Remote, serene, and inaccessible (96-97).


Plotinus, too, speaks of the One as `alone and isolated from all other things’ (Enn. V 5.13). When the One is thought of as the Good it is conceived in terms of Power: `he is the productive power of thoughtful intelligent life… he has infinity in the sense of power’ (Enn. V 5.10); `for it has all power; that which comes after it has not all power, but as much as can come after it and derive from it… He does not need the things which have come into being from him. (Enn. V 5.12). `Mont Blanc’ evokes the One in terms of power, which is not yet, as in Adonais, the power of self-diffusing love: `the power is there,/The still and solemn power’ (127-8); the word `there’ (repeated in the following lines) is the ekei used by Plotinus to name the Intelligible World. Shelley used it for the earthly paradise in Queen Mab (VIII, IX).

Shelley hailed this coldly impersonal idea of God as a liberation from centuries of Christian cruelty and superstition. In the `Essay on Christianity’, also dating from 1816, he interprets Jesus Christ as teaching a similar doctrine: `It is important to observe that the author of the Christian system had a conception widely differing from the gross imaginations of the vulgar relatively to the ruling Power of the universe. He everywhere represents this power as something mysteriously and illimitably pervading the frame of things’ (Shelley VI 230). Perhaps influenced by the argument of Hume’s Epicurus (in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapter xi), Shelley was inclined to see the creative power as sharing the limits and imperfections of the world it had produced: `Though evil stain its work, and it should be/Like its creation, weak yet beautiful’ (Prometheus Unbound III i, 14-15). Shelley is not a passive spectator of the One: he questions it and he interprets its voice. His prophetic role is to make felt the voice of the Absolute cutting through the world’s `codes of fraud and woe’ (1) and introducing a heavenly order into the tragic chaos of mutability.


The secret strength of things

Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome

Of heaven is a law, inhabits thee!

And what wert thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,

If to the human mind’s imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy? (139-144).


Mind and cosmos are governed by the One. Yet Shelley introduces a distinctive, modern twist in suggesting that this cosmic order and the absolute itself remain a hypothesis of the human mind. `If the human mind did not, in silence and solitude, plunge into these realms of speculation… – then, in effect, the Principle itself (“thou”) would have no significance’ (Vivian 57). However, it seems clear that the `silence and solitude’ are the mountain’s. They symbolize the absolute to the poet’s imagination. The emphasis is not on the process of imaginative apprehension but on the ultimate that it falteringly glimpses.

The other theme of `Mont Blanc’ is the universal Mind, which embraces the forms of all things, and of which the individual mind is a portion; this roughly corresponds to Plotinus’s Nous. If one attempts to explain Shelley’s `Intellectual Philosophy’ exclusively in terms of the British empirical tradition one has to give more weight to Berkeley than Shelley’s lack of interest in him allows. Shelley differs from Berkeley in not associating Mind with a creator God, in distinguishing Mind from the supreme Power, and in refusing to make a sharp distinction between the Mind and the human mind (see Wasserman 75): in each of these respects Shelley is closer to Plotinus. What the poem has to say about the dimension of mind is complicated and obscure. `Shelley has not arrived at any conclusion about the ultimate nature of the mind’ (Vivian 575). But the Plotinian resonances of this account allow us to situate them firmly in the total structure. The snow gathered on the mountain may represent Mind in its supreme form, before it expresses itself in the world and human minds. In Prometheus Unbound II iii, 39-40 the metaphor is reversed; the snows of the impending avalanche gather `in Heaven-defying minds/As thought by thought is piled’.

In `Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth’s loftiest flight corresponds to Shelley’s level of Mind: `A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought’ (100-1). The sublime simplicity and detachment of the One does not emerge in Wordsworth even at his most visionary. It is Shelley’s domain, as the poet of height, whose imagination habitually vaulted at an altitude inaccessible to other poets. This difference between the level of One and that of Mind is elided by Jerrold E. Hogle when he identifies the Power as natura naturans and sees its withdrawal as pointedly alluding to Wordsworth’s `something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns’ (Hogle 109).

Coleridge in his `Hymn Before Sun-rise’ is moved to prayer by Mont Blanc: `I worshipped the Invisible alone’, and thinks of God who created it: `Who sank thy sunless pillars deep in Earth?’ Hogle claims that Shelley subverts a version of the `metaphysics of presence’ by using Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s metaphors for other ends; but it might be closer to the mark to say that he rewrites Coleridge’s Christian piety in Plotinian terms. To say that Shelley gives no account of the origins of thought except `a movement of transfers between differences that has no one original point of departure and recalls no singular author’ (Hogle 114) is to miss the role of the One. To see Shelley as aiming at `the recovery of interacting “waves” without an origin from within [Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s] tyrannical assertions of an origin that is finally God’ (Hogle 114) does little justice to Shelley’s fascination with the ultimate origin of things. When he redrafts his predecessors’ language for a more comprehensive religious vision, tinged with agnosticism, his motive is not an unreasonable phobia about divine origins, but a keener nostalgia for the absolute. To say that `the Power is a sheer “becoming other” or a going out of itself in self-extensions of its “electric life”‘ (Hogle 117) misses Shelley’s sense that the emanations from the One leave its self-sufficiency inviolate (as in Plotinus). The poem analyses the imaginative movement back to the origin in a way that might recall Freudian analyses of transference, but the imaginings are not unmasked as mere delusion. Hogle goes too far in claiming that the Power is intrinsically self-deconstructive and that this is Shelley’s revolutionary message.

However, there is a residual ambiguity in the poem. The mountain suggests both Plotinian transcendence and some purely materialistic Power. The Demogorgon scene in Prometheus Unbound also leaves it unclear how the `deep truth’ that is `imageless’ (II iv, 116) is to be conceived – whether as materialistic necessity or a sublime elusive absolute. In Adonais, Shelley makes a great imaginative effort to overcome the materialism articulated in the poem’s despairing first stanzas, rising by degrees to his strongest affirmation of the Plotinian absolute. To reduce Shelley’s religiosity to a theory of imaginative projections underestimates the validating experience of inspiration, or grace, which underlies his `sceptical’ soundings of the `deep truth’ and gives them a positive cast.

Adonais is lucid where `Mont Blanc’ is murky, and it culminates in an image of the One which is vividly focused and unambiguously benevolent despite the sacred dread it still inspires. The Platonism is more orthodox and more authoritative than anywhere else in Shelley, as if the Greek elegiac mood had brought his imagination into perfect accord with the tradition. The Plotinian dimension of the poem has been understudied. `The Plotinian theory of emanation is rather prominent in the relation of the One and the Many, in Keats’s being made one with Nature and the Eternal’ (Notopoulos 292). But there is more to be said than this. Plato’s Phaedo is a major source for the theme of immortality, as are the Symposium and Phaedrus for the theme of Intellectual Beauty. But the conclusion of the poem is not adequately explained solely by reference to Plato: `in his death he [Keats] has become united with the true essence of Intellectual Beauty, which will shine for him in all the vivid and unfading and imageless reality which Plato ascribed to it’ (Notopoulos 291). The vagueness of this can be remedied if we distinguish between the `Eternal Beauty’ of which Keats’s soul has become a portion (corresponding to the Plotinian World-soul, the third hypostasis in the triad) and the dimensions of Mind and One (the second and first hypostases). In the lines


Dust to the dust! but the pure spirit shall flow

Back to the burning fountain whence it came,

A portion of the Eternal. (stanza 3).


Notopoulos sees a borrowing from Phaedo here, and adds that `the Platonism of this passage is refracted through the Plotinian doctrine of emanation of souls from the One’ (Notopoulos 294). He notes that the burning fountain is Plotinian, though coming to Shelley from the Platonic tradition rather than from a direct reading of Plotinus. `The one Spirit’s plastic stress’ (st. 43), recalling the Cambridge Platonist Cudworth’s notion of Plastic Nature, conforms to Plotinus’s view that the power bringing the universe into being is nature’s self-contemplation, while nature is born of Soul’s self-contemplation, Soul derives from Mind’s self-contemplation, and the latter comes into being through and as contemplation of the One.

Shelley gives each element of the triad an empirical content. Thus the Soul of the cosmos is associated with love (`love’s delight’, st. 19) which is expressed in loveliness. The figure of Urania, based on Plato’s heavenly Aphrodite – `the eldest daughter of Uranus, born without a mother, whom we call the Uranian’ (Plato, Symposium 210 E, trans. Shelley VII 174) and Milton’s Muse, belongs to this dimension. Plotinus identifies this figure with the Soul:

The heavenly one (ourania), since she is said to be the child of Kronos, and he is Intellect, must be the most divine kind of soul, springing directly from him, pure from the pure, remaining above, as neither wanting nor being able to descend to the world here below… Now since Aphrodite follows upon Kronos… she directed her activity towards him and felt affinity with him, and filled with passionate love for him brought forth Love (Eros), and with this child of hers she looks towards him. (Enn. III 5.2)


Her warmth, life, passion are opposed to the coldness of death:


Where wert thou mighty Mother, when he lay,

When thy Son lay, pierced by the shaft which flies

In darkness? (st. 2).


A possible echo of Psalm 91.5-6 (`You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, not the pestilence that stalks in darkness’) fits the tactic of converting biblical diction into the currency of a Romantic and Platonic faith.


Following pastoral convention, all Nature, led by Urania, mourns the dead poet. Critics unable to share Shelley’s delight in classical allusions and conceits – largely derived from Italian and Spanish poetic tradition – find this elegiac machinery tiresome. But it seems that Shelley’s high play here corresponds to Plotinus’s notion of play as contemplation: `Are we now contemplating as we play? Yes, we and all who play are doing this, or at any rate this is what they aspire to as they play’ (Enn. III 8.1).

Again and again we are reminded that the corpse cannot be brought back to life:


Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair. (st. 3)


The harmony between his poetic thoughts and the natural world also seems irrevocably broken:


All he had loved, and moulded into thought

From shape, and hue, and odour, and sweet sound,

Lamented Adonais. (st. 14).


But the very supposition of such sympathy between the poet and nature prepares the later declaration that his soul is one with the soul of nature, following a technique of redefinition based on Petrarch’s Trionfi: `potential ideas, representing a new or advanced perspective, are first prevented from becoming actual, but are subsequently allowed to realize themselves’ (Weinberg 191). The credibility of the consolatory topos is also prepared by the full-scale evocation of the World-soul in stanza 19, with its pantheist revision of Genesis (`the great morning of the world when first/God dawned on Chaos’). Moreover, delusive impressions that Adonais’s corpse is not really dead prefigure the final declaration that his soul still lives (st. 10, 25). The `leprous corpse’ which `exhales itself in flowers’ (st. 20) deflates the literal usage of the myth of Adonis as vegetation God, borrowed from Bion, which lies in the background in stanzas 1-2; its true value as a metaphor for the spiritual reviviscence of Adonais appears only in the second part. The Adonis legend thus helps to cement together the pastoral and Platonic conventions.

The first stage in the apotheosis of the dead poet associates him with the World-soul: `He is made one with Nature’ (st. 42). Empirically, this means only that his poems have become part of our perception of Nature:


There is heard

His voice is all her music, from the moan

Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird..


But Shelley does not avoid the metaphysical foundation of this vision:


while the one Spirit’s plastic stress

Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there,

All new successions to the forms they wear..


This is still not the ultimate reality: `Both poets have for a time coalesced with Nature’s “plastic stress”, though neither poet when thus immersed can properly grasp the divine reality, the “ideal prototype”, behind what was being shaped’ (Woodman 175).

Some critics claim that Urania is presented in a merely ironic way and is dismissed in the second half of the poem: `She exists only within the myth of Adonis, and when Shelley abandons the myth, Urania disappears… Those who remain with Urania, playing with lovely images, ultimately delude themselves’ (Woodman 169-70). However, the Plotinian theme of Soul suggests a continuity between the time-bound mourning lover of the first part and the `never wearied love’ (st. 42) or `sustaining Love’ (st. 54) of the second part. Urania in her lower aspect is `chained to Time, and cannot thence depart!’ (st. 26). This is puzzling, for in the source here, Bion’s Lament for Adonis, it is because Aphrodite is a goddess that she cannot follow her dead lover. (One might be tempted to find here a confused echo of Enn. III 5.2 – Aphrodite’s dependence on Kronos taken as dependence on chronos, Time.) The Plotinian thesis that time originates as Soul disperses itself in the manifold (Enn. III 7.11) may be illuminating here. Urania is associated with this downward-oriented aspect of Soul. She can offer only the immortality of the ever-renewed cycles of nature. In the second half of the poem a higher aspect of Soul is emphasized. It is envisioned as the ‘one Spirit’ (st. 43), the creator rather than the captive of the natural world.

Though Urania, in this subtle sense, lives on in the second part of the poem, it is a mistake to claim that she is fused with the One itself, regarded as identical with `one Spirit’ of stanza 42. The Plotinian distance between the World-soul and the utterly transcendent One seems to me to be retained in Adonais: Urania is fused with the love that emanates from the One rather than with the One itself. This distinction may be less marked in other poems: `Many of the epithets used to decribe “Emilia” in Epipsychidion… anticipate the epithets applied to the “One” of the third part of Adonais‘ (Baker 247). But here again it seems that the idealized Emilia’s epithets – `light, and love, and immortality/Sweet Benediction in the eternal Curse’ (20-1) – are those of Soul as it emanates from the One rather than of the One itself. Emilia’s beauty is `in that Beauty furled/Which penetrates and clasps and fills the world (102-3), but she is not identified with the ultimate source of that beauty.She is a Mirror (30), which suggests not identity with the One but a mind or soul fully receptive of the One’s light (see Adonais, st. 54).

The second stage of the apotheosis sees Adonais as taking his place in the domain of Mind, which is distinct from that of Soul and from the One. Shelley envisions Mind not as the world of Forms or of self-thinking intellect, but more accessibly as the realm of poetic thought and as the world of immortal fame inhabited by great creative spirits. He focuses on one aspect of Plotinus’s doctrine – the idea of Mind as a communion of individual spirits (`spirit’ occurs in this sense in 4, 29, 32, 3, 40, 45, 47, 55), as `a living richly varied sphere; a thing all faces, shining with living faces; all the pure souls running together into the same place’ (Enn. VI 7.15) – and finds an empirical counterpart for this in the immortal fame of great poets, who form an elect company. This Intelligible World is populated by individual poets, whose portraits are scattered throughout the poem: Milton, `third among the sons of light’ (st. 4), the four mourners: Byron, Moore, Shelley, Hunt (st. 30-35), and `the inheritors of unfulfilled renown’ (st. 45), Chatterton, Sidney and Lucan. As in the case of the poet’s survival as a note in nature’s music, here again posthumous survival may be amount to nothing more than a metaphor for undying reputation. `If Shelley has in mind any specific location for the region to which Adonais has risen, it is the third heaven of Dante’s Paradiso‘ (Baker 249). This is the sphere of Venus, the abode of lovers. Its amalgamation with the Plotinian Intelligible World is inspired by Dante’s reference to how certain Intelligences (angels) move the sphere of Venus by the intellect alone (Paradiso VIII, 34-7). Emilia, in Epipsychidion is also imaged as a star (2, 60); she too belongs to Dante’s `third sphere’ (117), and as its `pilot’ she is associated with Venus (Urania!). The line `Thy spirit’s sister, the lorn nightingale’ (st. 17) suggests a further association between the two poems, for it recalls not only the `Ode to a Nightingale’ and the nightingales (adones or adonides) of Moschus’s Lament for Bion, but also Emilia, `my adored Nightingale’ (10).

The dimension of Mind is evoked as early as stanza 1: `his fate and fame shall be/An echo and a light unto eternity!’ and is developed in stanzas 4-5. Mind is constrasted with death and darkness, just as Soul is. But the stress falls less on physical corruption than on the spiritual terrors of death: `he went, unterrified/Into the gulph of death’ (st. 4). The light of Soul is warm sunlight. The Mind, as it appears in this life, is a burning fire, which death extinguishes: `extinct in their refulgent prime’ (st. 5), `quenched in a most cold repose’ (st. 20), `the spirit’s self has ceased to burn’ (st. 40). It is once imaged as a sun: `The sun comes forth, and many reptiles spawn’ (st. 29). But this very passage shows that at death Mind assumes its true shape, that of a star, in `the spirit’s awful night’. Not in the cyclic loveliness of nature, but in the immutability of Dantean `immortal stars’ (st. 29), `joyous stars’ (st. 41), does immortality find its definitive figure. On the level of Soul the opposition is between Adonais’s loveliness and the shaft of darkness (death and corruption); on the level of Mind it is between his virtue and the vileness of his enemies (st. 3, 40). The magnificent outbursts of indignation sharpen the image of the poet’s mental virtue. The pastoral and Platonic dimensions of the poem are held together at this level by the fact that Adonais’s tomb is presented from the start as `a grave among the eternal’ (st. 7), located in the Roman cemetery which recurs in the latter half of the poem; and by the fact that Adonais is never presented as a real shepherd at all, but as a shepherd of thoughts (st. 9), well-fitted to be `gathered to the kings of thought’ (st. 4). After the section on Soul (st. 41-43) we have the fullest vision of the starry realm of Mind (st. 44-46). The imagery of light and dark reaches its strongest concentration about this theme: `Like stars to their appointed heights they climb’ (st. 44). The Roman cemetery is now unfolded as imaging the glory of mind, one of the many gentle transformations which unite the mourning and consolation in the poem.

The dimension of the One seems to emerge unprepared, and in a shocking contradiction to what precedes.The One appears — like the supreme Beauty in Plato — exaiphnes, `on a sudden’ (Symposium 210E, trans. Shelley VII 206), in a way that attests its sovereign independence:


The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven’s light forever shines, earth’s shadows fly. (st. 52).


The majesty of the incantation is helped by its foundation in the most basic Platonic teaching. Cameron, who thinks Shelley could not have entertained the notion of Heaven (and who misses the purely Platonic, non-Christian reference of the word here) is forced to imagine that the words `Die/If thou wouldst be which thou dost seek’ are an ironic apostrophe to the hostile Christian critic Southey (Cameron 442)! The accent in this third phase of the apotheosis seems to reverse that of the first phase in joyously affirming death and devaluing the loveliness of Nature as mere distraction from absolute reality. There is an apparent incoherence in the account of Adonais’s life beyond the grave: is he


a portion of the loveliness

Which once he made more lovely (st. 43).


or has he disappeared into the pure simplicity of the One?:


Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments. (st. 52).


Let us note that the same tension between a rejoicing in the plurality of the world and a cult of the purity of the One runs through Plotinus’s philosophy too. Soul and Mind add something to the One and stain its pure radiance: `the first one of all, on which the others depend, we must let be what it is, adding nothing further to it’ (Enn. V 6.6). The tension can snap either in a Gnostic rejection of the world as evil – to which Shelley partly inclines in speaking of `the eclipsing Curse/Of birth’ (st. 54) – or in a Stoic affirmation of the cosmos as supreme reality, which cuts off the ascent to the One. How deep this tension runs may be seen from Plotinus’s tendency to see even the emergence of Mind from the One as the result of tolma, rebellious daring (see Torchia 37-8).

In Adonais the One, though making its majestic entrance without immediate preparation, has been intimated from afar throughout the poem. We are led to it through the realms of Soul and Mind, and the final section recapitulates themes of Soul and Mind, since the One is the final inner truth of both. Mind does not constitute a self-sufficient realm, but yearns back to its source in the One: `the pure spirit shall flow/Back to the burning fountain whence it came’ (st. 3).

Both Soul and Mind are evoked in the lines


Rome’s azure sky,

Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak

The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak. (st. 52).


Sky and flowers belong to the natural world quickened by Soul; they blend here with the monuments of Mind. The One is what ensouls the world –


That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,

That Beauty in which all things work and move (st. 54).


— and minds are its mirrors of it


Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of

The fire for which all thirst. (st. 54).


This stanza tempts many readers to fuse Soul, Mind, and One together in a single World-soul; but within the unity of the One, its Light and its Beauty, it is important to maintain the distinctions established by Plotinus. Porphyry dubbed Soul, Mind and the One the three `hypostases’ but it is truer to Plotinus to think of them, with Shelley, as three perspectives on a single reality. If the empirical support for the Soul theme is the beauty of nature and poetry, and that for the Mind theme is the virtue and fame of genius, the theme of the One draws support from both of these; it is what underlies Soul and Mind. They are what they are because they proceed from it, the supreme Good. In addition to these effects at the level of Soul and Mind, the phenomenology of the One has its own distinctive trait: it is a final purity that rejects all the shadows and transfusions of earthly life. The One corresponds to a deep disillusionment with life and longing for death. In its sheer transcendence of what we have been able to envision so far, it is a ripping of the `painted veil’ which reveals the life beyond life, which is the true heart of life. `Die,/If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!’ (st. 52). These accents cannot be mistaken for Byronic bravado or mere funeral oratory. Death had struck at Shelley from every side, and he evidently senses its imminence for himself (whereas the author of `Lycidas’ dies only to his youth, turning happily to `pastures new’).

To equate the One with `the Divine light of the World-soul’ (Baker 251) is incorrect unless one stresses that the One transcends the World-soul as its enabling principle. `Panpsychism’ (Baker 252) is an inadequate description of Shelley’s metaphysics. To say that Shelley combines Love and Eternity, Asia and Demogorgon, in the One (Baker 252), is misleading unless one adds that Love and its activity remains subordinate to the One, which is not active, but simply `remains’ or, at best, `shines’. It is only partly correct to say that `Sometime after 119, “Demogorgon” was metamorphosed from an essentially passive principle to an active or informing principle by fusion with the principle of love’ (Baker 252). Shelley now seems to recognize a fully transcendent absolute, no longer merely a projection of human imagination, or sharing the defects of the world it produces. The One is an unambiguously benevolent force, unlike Demogorgon or the Power of `Mont Blanc’, yet in its utter transcendence even of the light and love that emanates from it, it inspires a sacred terror which leaves no room for the irony of the close of `Mont Blanc’.

The One, as in Plotinus, calls forth a conversion, a turning, whereby all things return to it as their source. Adonais has assumed in death this posture of contemplation of the One, and his example draws the poet to undergo the same formation into luminous mind under the drawing-power of the One. In Plotinus mystical contact with the One is prepared by a long period of theoretical instruction and practice in virtue. But the moment of grace comes unbidden. Shelley has us believe that it happens as he writes. First the invitation coming from the One, via Adonais, is heard:


the low wind whispers near:

‘Tis Adonais calls! (st. 53).


The majestic naming of the Light, Beauty, Benediction, Love that issue from the One (st. 54) climaxes in `now beams on me’ and what this feels like is thrillingly conveyed in the closing stanza. The radicality of his poetic calling spurs Shelley to a final blind embrace of the absolute. To sing the beauty of nature and the glory of mind is not enough: mind itself beacons to the highest simplicity of the One. The final incantation (`The breath whose might I have invoked in song/Descends on me…’) recalls Enn. VI 7.36:

Up to this point one has been led along by instruction and settled firmly in beauty, which has engaged one in thinking, but now one is carried out of this dimension of thinking by the surge of the wave of Mind itself and lifted on high by a kind of swell, and one has seen, suddenly, not seeing how one has seen, for the vision, filling the eyes with light, allows one to see nothing else but that light.

The One itself does not think (Enn. V 6; VI 7.37-42); it is beyond the duality of knowing and known; and to draw near to the One involves a surrender of thinking, which is experienced as ecstasy, but which is also fearful: `in proportion as the soul goes toward the formless, since it is utterly unable to comprehend it…, it slides away and is afraid that it may have nothing at all (Enn. VI 9.3). To leave behind the world of form `the intellect must return, so to speak, backwards, and give itself up, in a way, to what lies behind it’ (Enn. III 8.9).

Rather than say that `there is an apparent “absence of progress” from one point in the discourse to another: each stanza recasts essentially the same vision of immortality in different terms, giving the impression that, from whatever point in the cosmos one is looking, a single reality is perceived’ (Weinberg 194), one can note advances to new perspectives in stanzas 39, 41, 44, 47, 52, punctuating the ascent through Soul (st. 41) and Mind (st. 44) to the One (st. 52), and the naked emergence of the poet himself in stanzas 54-5 is an electrifying closing twist. Weinberg is looking at the conclusion in light of Dante’s Paradiso (he sees stanzas 1-17 as an Inferno and stanzas 1-37 as a Purgatorio), but this leads to an undifferentiated reading which misses the Plotinian architecture (Weinberg does not mention Plotinus).

We are now in a position to see how outrageously dismissive is the view that `the imported Platonism of the last five stanzas has the same straining, thinness of tone associated with a far less mature and more blatant work, the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”‘ (Holmes 657). We can also counter the subtler suspicion that the Shelley’s tone of passionate conviction here is a wilful self-intoxication, an unstable feat of wishful thinking. The rhetoric of these stanzas is a delicate balancing-act:

The energy which fuels the final section of Adonais proceeds not from any conviction of Keats’s apotheosis but from contrary resources of indignation. It is only by continually adverting to the horrors of present existence in this “dull dense world”… that Shelley can generate, rhetorically, conviction in himself and his readers about some other order of exemplary existence. (Beatty 227).

It is emotion rather than reason that guides Shelley’s exploitation of `a mixture of Stoical, Platonic, Pantheist, Deist, and popular sentiments’ (Beatty 226). Unlike Dante, who had a stable doctrinal foundation, Shelley had to work with home-made conceptions:

Writing within an esoteric tradition both alien and isolated from the European traditions of thought which surrounded him, he is forced ultimately to look into himself and find his divinity there. He has somehow to make his poetic faith, which in the end he recognizes as a `willing suspension of disbelief’, a matter of religious faith, which is to say, a matter of absolute truth. (Woodman 177).

Shelley saw Platonic immortality as one of `those ideas which exalt and ennoble humanity’, though `until better arguments can be produced than sophisms which disgrace the cause’ the desire for immortality is `the only presumption that eternity is the inheritance of every thinking being’ (quoted, Woodman 7).

If we may glimpse, underlying Adonais, a reflectively appropriated structure of Platonist doctrine, reproducing some of the diversity and inner coherence of Plotinus’s thought, not merely as a source for consolatory topoi but on the same level as the investment in Christian belief that sustains Milton’s `Lycidas’. The poem is indeed a revision of Milton’s, repeating his retrieval of Greek pastoral myth for a contemporary religious vision. Both elegies reflect a crisis of young manhood: Adonais was completed on June , 1821; Shelley was 29 on August 4th; `Lycidas’ was written in November, 1637; Milton was 29 on December 9th. Milton’s crisis is resolved by turning to life, to `pastures new’; Shelley’s by accepting the call of death, embraced in Plotinian resolution. In both works high and artificial literary neo-classicism masks a deep existential thrust which is revealed by the oneiric power of the images deployed and the unbroken confidence of the diction.

Shelley shows little familiarity with Saint Augustine, who provides the strongest counter-force to the Plotinian tradition by absorbing Plotinian mysticism into an experience of a personal God of grace and salvation (in Confessions VII and IX). Shelley was repelled by Christian history and the imaginative platitude of popular Christianity; the spiritual Christianity of Paul, John and Augustine remained a closed book to him. His challenge to Christians today is to imagine their faith as powerfully as he imagined his.



Armstrong, A.H. (trans.). Plotinus I-VII. Loeb Classical Library, 1966-4.

Baker, Carlos. Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.

Beatty, Bernard. ‘The Transformation of Discourse: Epipsychidion, Adonais, and some lyrics’. In: Essays on Shelley, ed. Miriam Allott. Liverpool University Press, 1982.<

Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Shelley: The Golden Years. Harvard UP, 1974.

Hogle, Jerrold. ‘Shelley as Revisionist: Power and Belief in Mont Blanc’. In: The New Shelley, ed. G. Kim Blank. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 10-27..

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. Penguin Books, 1987.

Notopoulos, James A. The Platonism of Shelley. Duke UP, 1949.

Reiman, Donald H. and Sharon B. Powers (eds). Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. New York and London: Norton, 1977.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Complete Works, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck. New York: Gordian Press, 1965.

Torchia, N. Joseph. Plotinus, Tolma, and the Descent of Being. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

Vivian, Charles H. ‘The One “Mont Blanc”’. In: Reiman and Powers, pp. 569-79.

Weinberg, Alan M. Shelley’s Italian Experience. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Wasserman, Earl R. ‘Mont Blanc’. In: Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George M. Ridenour. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965, pp. 69-102.

Woodman, Ross Greig. The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley. University of Toronto Press, 1964.


From: K. Kamijima et al., ed. Centre and Circumference. Tokyo: Kirihara, 1995, pp. 466-81.