“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is written in seven twelve-line stanzas with an abbaaccbddee rhyme scheme. The word “intellectual” means nonmaterial, and “intellectual beauty” refers to an “unseen Power” that shines on “human thought or form.” As a mental phenomenon, intellectual beauty is an ideal that transcends “This various world,” which it visits like an “awful shadow.” The poem’s religious attitude toward this power is reflected in the use of the word “hymn” in the title.
In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem uses a series of similes to describe intellectual beauty to the reader. Its main characteristics seem to be universality and evanescence: Intellectual beauty visits “This various world” and “Each human heart and countenance,” but it is “inconstant” and fleeting, “Like memory of music fled.” The number of contrasting similes in the stanza suggests that this power is essentially ineffable, “yet dearer for its mystery.”
The second stanza mourns intellectual beauty’s inconstancy. The poem asks why this “Spirit of Beauty” is not always present to illuminate “our state,/ This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate,” but decides that this question is unanswerable. In the third stanza, the poet considers the sages and poets who use the names of “Gods and ghosts and Heaven” in a “vain endeavour” to explain away “Doubt, chance, and mutability.” He insists, however, that “life’s unquiet dream” will be given “grace and truth” by intellectual beauty, not by the myths of religion.
Stanza four continues the praise of intellectual beauty which, according to the poet, has the power to make man “immortal, and omnipotent” if it remains in man’s heart. Although intellectual beauty does not provide people with ideas, it does nourish “human thought . . ./ Like darkness [does] a dying flame.” The stanza ends with a prayer to the spirit to stay with man, “lest the grave should be,/ Like life and fear, a dark reality.” The poet turns to autobiography in the fifth stanza, describing himself as a boy searching for ghosts and hoping for “high talk with the departed dead.” He “called on poisonous names,” which in the context of the poem are words such as “God and ghosts and Heaven,” and was not answered, but then the shadow of intellectual beauty fell over him and he “shrieked, and clasped [his] hands in extacy!” Stanza six goes on to describe how he dedicated himself to intellectual beauty in the hope that this “awful Loveliness” would liberate “This world from its dark slavery.”
The seventh and final stanza shifts to a “solemn and serene” autumn afternoon. Having given the reader a sense of intellectual beauty and his own relationship to that mysterious power, the poet asks it to give an autumnlike “calm” to his “onward life.” The poem ends with a prayer reaffirming the poet’s allegiance to intellectual beauty and his commitment “To fear himself, and love all human kind.”
“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” takes the form of a religious address to an object of worship, beginning with an invocation, in which intellectual beauty is described and praised, and ending with a prayer. Moreover, the language used throughout the poem is religious. With its “own hues,” the invisible power “consecrate[s]” everything human, giving “grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream”; it has the power to make man “immortal, and omnipotent” and may even be able to redeem “This world from its dark slavery.” The poet presents himself as having been intellectual beauty’s ardent follower from the time the spirit’s shadow fell over him when he was a boy. In fact, the poet’s conversion is nearly hysterical...
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in intensity: He shrieks as he clasps his hands in an attitude of prayer. Even in the present, the older poet dedicates himself to the “awfulLoveliness” with “beating heart and streaming eyes,” and his final prayer is for intellectual beauty to grant him “calm.”
Although the poem uses religious terminology, it does not advocate an established religion. The beliefs of Christianity, for example, are described scornfully as “Frail spells,” and the poet describes the religious phrases he learned as a child as the “poisonous names with which our youth is fed.” According to the poet, intellectual beauty teaches him “To fear himself, and love all human kind”; God is not included in this formula. Thus the religious language of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” serves to express both the poet’s reverence for the spirit of ideal beauty and his repudiation of traditional beliefs.
While the religious sentiments of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” are clear, intellectual beauty itself remains a vague concept, and Percy Bysshe Shelley uses similes throughout the poem to suggest, but never to limit, intellectual beauty’s qualities. Some of these similes describe the invisible power as being “Like moonbeamsbehind some piny mountain shower,” “Like clouds in starlight widely spread,” “like mists o’er mountains driven,” and “like the truth/ Of nature on my passive youth.” Since intellectual beauty is invisible, it cannot be given an exact physical description, so Shelley uses imagery that is partially obscured, cloudy, or misty. At times he even turns to another abstraction, such as “the truth of nature.” When it manifests itself to the poet, intellectual beauty is described as an “awful shadow.” The image of the “shadow” must be taken in a figurative rather than literal sense—it gives the reader a sense of the spirit’s mysteriousness and indicates that intellectual beauty can never fully manifest itself in the physical world. At most, the poet can apprehend its reflection or shadow.
Shelley’s decision to write a hymn to a nonmaterial power is typical of the poet, who believed that the physical world was less important than “human thought or form.” Moreover, it is significant that “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is a prayer to an invisible spirit rather than to the kind of anthropomorphic deity that Shelley deplored.
Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. A well-researched life of Shelley, going back to his ancestry, with emphasis on the ways his outward life affected his thinking. Few discussions of the poetry, but provides knowledge of the events of his life at the time his poems were written.
Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” In Modern Critical Views: Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom calls Shelley a great poet and takes to task those who might disagree with him. Gives a brief but thorough critical survey of Shelley criticism.
Mawer, Noel Dorman. “Reverie, Process, and the Spirit of Beauty: Shelley’s ’Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.’” Essays in Literature 15 (Spring, 1988): 27-34. A detailed study of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and its reflection of Shelley’s longing to return to the Eden of childhood consciousness.
Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A clearly written basic text that discusses influences on Shelley, both biographical and philosophical. Contains a one-page critical summary of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.”
Welburn, Andrew J. Power and Self-Consciousness in the Poetry of Shelley. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Argues that in all Shelley’s poetry, there is a central consciousness that did not radically change, but simply grew deeper as he matured. Contains a five-page section on the hymn.
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romantic Poetry. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. This is perhaps the best introductory guide to Romantic poetry, giving full extracts from six major poets, including Shelley, and an overview of Romantic poetry.