My colleague, office neighbor, and dear, dear friend Kate Chandler died yesterday of ovarian cancer. Kate, who taught courses in environmental literature and environmental writing, was the driving force behind our Environmental Studies program and also our campus farm. She was a luminescent soul and I will miss her more than I can say.
Kate was a Beatrix Potter scholar and several years ago contributed a post to this blog about Potter as a naturalist. (You can read it here.) Kate pointed out to me the accuracy of the flora and fauna in Potter’s animal stories, beginning with Peter Rabbit. Looking for balm for my sadness, I turned to a poem that she loved, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais, written in memory of John Keats.
Shelley wrote the poem as spring was blossoming, with all the irony that that entails. The return of the swallows is an allusion to Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” which concludes with Keats’s premonition of his forthcoming death: “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Unlike Keats, the swallows return the following spring:
Ah, woe is me! Winter is come and gone,
But grief returns with the revolving year;
The airs and streams renew their joyous tone;
The ants, the bees, the swallows reappear;
Fresh leaves and flowers deck the dead Seasons’ bier;
The amorous birds now pair in every brake,
And build their mossy homes in field and brere;
And the green lizard, and the golden snake,
Like unimprison’d flames, out of their trance awake.
Through wood and stream and field and hill and Ocean
A quickening life from the Earth’s heart has burst
As it has ever done, with change and motion,
From the great morning of the world when first
God dawn’d on Chaos; in its stream immers’d,
The lamps of Heaven flash with a softer light;
All baser things pant with life’s sacred thirst;
Diffuse themselves; and spend in love’s delight,
The beauty and the joy of their renewed might.
Kate felt that sacred thirst and she loved the creation story from Genesis that Shelley references: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”
At this point in the poem, Shelley is still fighting death and notes a distinction between nature and “that alone which knows.” Nature, because it is not self-conscious and thus does not know death as humans do, does not die. As Shelley puts it. “Nought we know, dies.” Each spring the “leprous corpse” of the earth is touched by the “spirit tender” and “exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath”:
The leprous corpse, touch’d by this spirit tender,
Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath;
Like incarnations of the stars, when splendor
Is chang’d to fragrance, they illumine death
And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath;
Nought we know, dies. Shall that alone which knows
Be as a sword consum’d before the sheath
By sightless lightning?—the intense atom glows
A moment, then is quench’d in a most cold repose.
Unlike the rest of creation, humans are separated from nature like a sword in a sheath. We are an “intense atom” that “glows a moment” before we are consumed by “sightless lightning.” Our brief blaze gives way to “a most cold repose.”
Shelley is not done yet, however. The stanzas I turn to next provided an epitaph for my son Justin, who drowned in the St. Mary’s River. Kate and I bonded over Justin because she herself lost a brother to drowning. She understood why I turned to the passage, “He is made one with nature.”
Shelley talks about a divine, creative, and “plastic” spirit—“plastic” because malleable–blowing through all creation. The material world is resistant to this spirit (“unwilling dross”), but if we open ourselves to it, we can become conduits, manifesting it on earth. This “Power,” Shelley says, worked powerfully through Keats and has now “withdrawn his being to its own.” We can call this Power “God,” even though Shelley does not. When we acknowledge the Power, we no longer feel like isolated swords:
He lives, he wakes—’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais. Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendor, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone;
Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan!
Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air,
Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown
O’er the abandon’d Earth, now leave it bare
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light.
Kate too is now a portion of the loveliness which once she made more lovely. Keats was a Poet who made nature more lovely through lyrics about nightingales, bright stars, and autumn afternoons. Kate was a Teacher who got her students to write and think about the woods and the river. Through her, the one Spirit worked so that people saw Nature in all its richness.
By the end of the poem, Shelley is more confident that not all has been lost. In mourning his friend, he has written himself to a new connection with “the fire for which all thirst.” “Cold mortality” does not get the last word:
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 through 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.
That Light, Beauty, Benediction and sustaining Love connect us to you, Kate, now and forever. Bless you as the Power withdraws your being to its own.