The Poem

“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,...

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Forms and Devices

“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 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 “awful Loveliness” 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...

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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.