Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” identifies the source of heightened visionary imagination, beseeches its continued presence, and proclaims its power to save the world. The poem’s inception lies in the Zeitgeist of Romanticism (c. 1780-c. 1830), a time of social and political upheaval. The French Revolution (1789-1799), fueled by the American Revolution (1775-1783), had threatened to overthrow the power of the aristocracies of Europe and replace them with a more democratic and humane society. England, fearing contamination by its neighbor, had reacted with harsh measures designed to avert uprisings among its own people, who were already suffering the displacing effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Although the bright hopes of the French Revolution had been darkened by the Reign of Terror and then by the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, the ideals of the revolution—liberty, brotherhood, and equality—became Shelley’s lasting ideals for humankind. Still, he had come to believe that these ideals could never be realized under then-current intellectual and religious beliefs, that the Judeo-Christian religion and the moral code it had engendered bore responsibility for the injustices that humankind suffers.
At Oxford, Shelley had coauthored a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism (1811; with Thomas Jefferson Hogg), arguing that there is no valid evidence for God’s existence. Because of the heretical nature of this pamphlet, Shelley was expelled from Oxford. Simple atheism, however, could not satisfy Shelley’s essentially religious spirit. He sought some explanation for those states of consciousness that lead to creative inspiration. Those moments of transcendence seem to be explained only by some force or power beyond the senses. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is his most direct statement of the nature of this force.
Calling the poem a hymn heralds its spiritual nature: Hymns are often addressed to a god, as is Shelley’s poem, and express religious feelings through language that connotes religion. Shelley calls his god an “awful” (that is, “inspiring awe”) Power (spelled with a capital P). This god’s train is “glorious,” and this god “consecrates” all it touches. Shelley “worships” this god. The term “grace” is used twice. In one usage, grace is a mysterious quality endowed by the spirit on observable objects; in another sense, grace seems to be some special quality that the devotee comes to possess. Grace is an ambiguous quality, a quality of both the observed and the observer.
The Holy Spirit bestows on humanity all those benefits that religion is believed to bestow: It grants “Love, Hope, and Self-esteem”; it gives some hope for human immortality (by preventing “the grave” from becoming “a dark reality”); it causes the speaker to “love all humankind”; it gives hope that it will eventually “free/ This world from its dark slavery.” The speaker’s experience when the Holy Spirit fell on him was as ineffable as the religious mystic’s experience of union with God; the speaker does not try to express what happened objectively; he tries to express only the emotions he felt: “I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!” Like the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, from this moment, Shelley has wholly dedicated himself to this spirit.
The Holy Spirit addressed, however, is not an anthropomorphic god. It is “intellectual” Beauty, that is, a Beauty not apprehended by the senses, but only by the mind. Neither is it an aesthete’s beauty; it is a Platonic beauty of “human thought or form,” a Beauty of “[e]ach human heart and countenance.”
Stanza 1 describes not the spirit, which cannot be apprehended, but its “awful shadow” that “floats among us.” It is unpredictable, but its presence is suggested by similes to objects in...
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