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...
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in moments of change: It is like “summer winds” moving among flowers, moonbeams seen behind a mountain of pine trees, “clouds in starlight,” “memory of music fled.” In the first decades of the twentieth century, under the influence of the Imagists and the poet-critic T. S. Eliot, critics chastised Shelley for his vague imagery. Other critics would reply that, although these images may be difficult to visualize, they evoke a world of change and mutability: rainbows on a river, mist driven over mountains, “moonlight on a midnight stream,” the ever-changing music of an Aeolian harp.
From stanza 2 until the end of the poem, Shelley addresses the Holy Spirit directly, in a kind of prayer, asking “[W]here are thou gone?” The question is unanswerable, as it is the question of mutability, the mutability of phenomena, as well as the mutability of the contradictory experiences and emotions of human beings: “love and hate, despondency and hope.” This eternal question has always haunted humankind, and it accounts for the false claims of institutional religion. The speaker negates these claims: “No voice from some sublimer world hath ever/ To sage or poet these responses given.” These claims are “frail spells”; they fail to account for “Doubt, change, and mutability.” Only Beauty’s light lends purpose to human life.
The fifth stanza is the pivotal section of the poem. The speaker recounts that in his youth he had called on the “poisonous names” that religion teaches. He had sought for ghosts, trying to establish contact with the dead. This section of the poem ends with the irregular rhythm and the repetition of “I was not heard: I saw them not.” The word “not” gives a flat, unexpected, and final sound to this declaration and prepares for the speaker’s encounter with Beauty: “Sudden thy shadow fell on me.” The speaker’s mystic experience occurs in spring, when the wind (wind = breath = spirit) rouses resurrection in nature. The speaker experiences sudden new life and creativity and ecstasy. From this moment, the speaker has dedicated all his powers to the Spirit. Recalling John Milton’s prayer to the Holy Spirit in Paradise Lost (1664, 1667), that the spirit will give him the extra power, beyond human effort, to say the unsayable (“And justify the ways of God to men”), the speaker prays that the spirit of Beauty will give him that extra power to be a kind of Messiah to an enslaved humanity.
The poem concludes with the speaker’s continued dedication to the Spirit. Although to Shelley’s “passive youth,” the poet William Wordsworth’s nature had supplied inspiration, he now denies nature’s powers. In the autumn of his life, only the spirit of Beauty can supply the calm and harmony that he now needs. It has taught him life’s most valuable lessons: “[t]o fear himself” (in his inspired imaginative powers) and to “love all human kind.” In A Defence of Poetry (1840), Shelley declares that the secret of all real poetry is Love, and it is through the agency of poetry that the world will change. As he proclaims in the rousing conclusion of A Defence of Poetry, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The form of Shelley’s hymn is the dignified, complex ode form. This ode is divided into seven twelve-line stanzas of iambs, each stanza rhyming abbaaccbddee, with the first four lines in pentameter, the sixth line in hexameter, the next four in tetrameter, and the final line again in pentameter. The choice of the ode form, with its strict meters and rhyme schemes, to express the mutability of all living things and to express an ineffable experience, produces an ironic tension between content and form. It suggests that the speaker needed the rigid form of the ode to prevent mutability from disintegrating into chaos.
Much of Shelley’s poetry is difficult to classify philosophically. Shelley was well schooled in the scientific thinking of his time, and at times he seems to be a materialist and a skeptic. At other times he perceives a dualism that allies him with the Greek philosopher Plato. With the exception of Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is his fullest and most direct statement of his Platonism. It is also an avowal of his hopes for humanity. However, even Shelley’s idealism was qualified into a kind of tragic optimism. In the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” he does not flinch from seeing clearly the sorrows and sufferings that pervade humankind. Despite the tragedy of human life, he holds out hope that, ultimately, poetry will, through time, ameliorate human suffering.