What are critical approaches of Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty?"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are several critical approaches that can be taken toward an analysis of Shelley's ardent "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." Three such approaches will be provided here, but others are defined in the link provided below this response.

  • Biographical - This critical approach relates to the author's life, philosophies, and his thoughts towards his work.

This 84-line ode was written while Shelley and his wife visited Lord Byron in Geneva Switzerland and viewed the spectacular beauty of the natural environment; certainly, as a Romanticist, Shelley has sought transcendence in Nature and in the Spirit of Beauty. Like the Sublime of which Emerson spoke, Shelley writes that the spirit "visits with inconstant glance/Each human heart and countenance." In the fourth stanza, the poet writes,

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal, and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart. 

Having replaced the third of the Christian values (faith) with "Self-esteem," Shelley provides the Romanticist emphasis upon the individual, demonstrating his tremendous respect for the human spirit and imagination.

  • Narratological - This approach examines the poem's structure by means of which the reader views a constructed reality.

With the use of the word "hymn," Shelley's poem takes the form of a religious invocation. However, the religious language of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is not given in the traditional sense of religion as Shelley does not include God; rather, it expresses the poet’s reverence for the spirit of ideal beauty and Shelley's rejection of traditional beliefs.

As this spirit of intellectual beauty is indefinable as the "awful (full of awe) shadow of some unseen Power," Shelley uses similes to describe it such as

as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower.

and

Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance

While the poet addresses Intellectual Beauty, it does respond to him; nevertheless, he contemplates much in his efforts to contact this sublime spirit, recalling his efforts even as a boy because Christian values brought him no spiritual solace. But, once he finally makes contact with Intellectual Beauty, the poet makes a vow,

 I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine – have I not kept the vow?

Breaking from the Wordsworthian tradition of worshipping the manifestations of this Beauty in nature, Shelley by realizes that it is Intellectual Beauty that should be worshipped.

Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth

  • New Criticism - This approach analyzes the literary work is in its text and its language. 

An ode with the rhyme scheme of abbaaccbddee elevates the verse to its lofty thoughts and tone.Shelley seeks to define Intellectual Beauty through imagery such as "awful shadow," as well as many contrasting similes that suggest this spiritual power is existentially ineffable, “yet dearer for its mystery.” Its inconstancy is mentioned in stanza 2, but Shelley concludes“life’s unquiet dream” will be given “grace and truth” by intellectual beauty,not religious myths. Further, in stanza 6 the poet describes his dedication to intellectual beauty, hoping “awful Loveliness” (metaphor)would free “This world from its dark slavery,” a metaphor for man's mental cloudiness that does not allow this spiritual power to enter his soul. 

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