Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

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...

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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 that this power, despite its divine attributes, does not derive from God or the supernatural. It teaches humanity to love, esteem, and fear itself rather than a separate divinity—in essence, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is an attempt to replace traditional worship with a religion that celebrates humankind and its potential to perceive and attain perfection. The role of intellectual beauty in this religion is to dispel the fears and sufferings associated with the physical world by revealing to its disciples the deeper truth of the realm of ideals.

Beyond intellectual beauty’s significance to humanity as a whole, the poem describes the importance of the spirit in the poet’s life. As a boy, the poet sought to communicate with beings existing beyond the physical world, ghosts and heavenly spirits, but was not answered. When the boy turned to philosophy, however, “musing deeply on the lot/ Of life,” the shadow of intellectual beauty fell over him in a sudden visitation. This suggests that intellectual beauty is to be found through philosophy rather than simple religious faith in “God and ghosts and Heaven.” The autobiographical section of the poem is important because it allows the poet to speak with the authority of a prophet who has had direct communion with the object of his worship. Inasmuch as he represents humanity, the poet’s experience supports the idea that humankind as a whole could be inspired and transfigured by intellectual beauty, escaping through this spirit the “dark reality” of death.

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