Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central problem of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” has to do with the meaning and significance of intellectual beauty, in terms of both humanity as a whole and the poet’s life in particular. Although many readers of the poem have tried to define intellectual beauty, it cannot be identified with any one ideal. In fact, the poem links this spirit with several abstractions, including beauty, grace, thought, form, harmony, and calmness.

Perhaps the key to understanding intellectual beauty is to focus on what it is not, and it is clear that it is not part of the physical world. Many of Shelley’s philosophical notions derive from Plato’s, and in his poetry Shelley often uses (and transfigures) Plato’s belief that there are two kinds of reality: the visible or physical realm, made of constantly changing matter, and the intelligible realm of forms, or such purely mental phenomena as truth and beauty. Intellectual beauty resides solely in the intelligible realm and can only be apprehended in the visible world as an obscure, shadowy presence. It is nevertheless important to humankind, because it contains the ideals toward which each person must strive in order to achieve perfection. That is why Shelley associates intellectual beauty with human thought and insists that it is a crucial element in the attainment of human immortality and omnipotence, and the abolition of “dark slavery.” The fact that intellectual beauty is identified with man suggests...

(The entire section is 489 words.)