Nothing is more human than for man to desire naturally things impossible to his nature. It is, indeed, the property of a nature which is not closed up in matter like the nature of physical things, but which is intellectual or infinitized by the spirit. It is the property of a metaphysical nature. Such desires reach for the infinite, because the intellect thirsts for being and being is infinite.
JACQUES MARITAIN, Approaches to God
Years ago, a friend took a writing sabbatical in England and sent me an image of Percy Shelley‘s Memorial on a postcard. I thought then that it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The sculpture is a fitting memorial to a man who searched for truth by exploring Beauty through poetry. The memorial always reminds me of Shelley’s own poem “Adonais,” which he wrote as an elegy to John Keats, whose untimely death at the age of 26 from tuberculosis greatly saddened Shelley. But Shelley himself died young, drowning in a storm while sailing before he turned 30, the event so poignantly called to mind in the composition of the memorial. One might even find “Adonais” to be hauntingly prophetic of Shelley’s own early demise.
I weep for Adonais – he is dead!
Oh weep for Adonais! Tho’ our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow! Say: “With me
Died Adonais; till the future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!”
That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which thro’ the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trebling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am bourne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning thro’ the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
It might be argued that Shelley’s atheism precludes reading his work as a testament to the existence of God. I disagree. There are many paths and tributaries that feed in to the one Way to God and the artist can come close to God, can know God, through his art. Without doubt, Shelley sought truth and he sought it through Beauty. It would not be wrong to suggest that Beauty, in all its forms, was Shelley’s god. But God himself is the author of Beauty. He IS Beauty. As Keats so aptly wrote, “Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty.” Shelley’s quest for the infinite placed him squarely in the presence of all Truth, however unconscious of it he might have been. To paraphrase (badly) Flannery O’Connor, whether or not we understand it, know it, or believe it, it’s true just the same.
Shelley’s poetry certainly raises the heart, mind, and soul to God. It is infused with a beautiful sense of the spiritual, the eternal, and a grasping sense of truth that necessarily points from inside to somewhere outside of man and — as “Adonais” makes clear — an awareness that man is himself made for eternal life. Man is not all there is, Beauty is not an “accident,” and the gift of the ability to create beauty, harmony, and order is one proof that God exists. Art itself can prove the lie of atheism.
One can imagine Shelley being literally awakened by the kiss of Beauty, even at the moment of death. Remembering today with gratitude the gift of a beautiful poet, whose work points to God’s work in what surely must be a beautiful soul.
The Awakening of Adonis, by John William Waterhouse