By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), wrote ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ in 1816 during the same holiday at Lake Geneva that produced the novel Frankenstein (written, of course, by Percy’s wife, Mary Shelley). Below, we offer a summary and analysis of ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, stanza by stanza.
Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ is an ode, a poem in praise of the idea of ‘intellectual’ beauty. Here ‘intellectual’ denotes more than just the mind, but also the spirit: the poem is about how the world of physical, visual beauty – the aesthetic world of nature around us – is but a mask that conceals (but also reflects) the deeper spiritual beauty that is invisible and non-physical.
Shelley immediately establishes this fact in the first stanza, with his repetition of ‘unseen’ within the poem’s opening two lines. ‘Awful’ in the first line doesn’t just mean terrible, but carries a memory of the word’s original meaning, i.e. awe-inspiring or ‘awesome’. (Shelley may be playing on this double meaning to convey the concept of the Sublime, whereby nature is both beautiful and terrifying in its scale and power.)
This ‘intellectual beauty’ flits from one natural thing to another, much as the (similarly unseen) wind goes from flower to flower. The repetition of another word, ‘inconstant’, also conveys the idea that this beauty is constantly shifting in its focus and place.
We observe this deeper beauty in different places at different times. Shelley’s reference to ‘memory of music fled’ chimes with his description of music vibrating in the memory long after the singing voices have stopped: there is something intangible and mysterious about the power it wields over us.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
Now we’re firmly into ‘ode’ territory: Shelley directly addresses beauty as ‘BEAUTY’, as if it’s a god or goddess. Indeed, for Shelley, beauty does ‘consecrate’ everything that it shines on, and the religious flavour of that verb should not be lost upon us. We’re in the familiar territory of the Romantics here: nature is divine in its powers.
However, note that here, beauty is ‘gone’: a reminder of its ‘inconstant’ nature, like a lover who comes and goes, leaving us as they please. Asking this question is a big philosophical undertaking: it’s like wondering why humankind has such potential to love and to hate, to despair and to hope. The mystery of ‘intellectual beauty’ continues.
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given:
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
No ‘voice’ (e.g. of a god) has ever answered the questions posed in the previous stanza. Religion remains our best attempt to grapple with such big questions. But for Shelley, the ‘light’ of intellectual beauty, with all its enigmatic power, comes the closest to resolving these questions, even though they remain a mystery.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
Even if mankind were immortal and all-powerful like a god, this spiritual beauty would continue to carry a place within our hearts. It is intellectual beauty which creates the spark between lovers (note how their ‘sympathies’ are said to ‘wax and wane’: love, too, is inconstant). Shelley bids it not to desert mankind, because to do so would be to expose ‘the grave’ as ‘a dark reality’.
In other words, this spiritual beauty offers a ‘nourishment’ to us, and especially to poets like Shelley, because it inspires us to think that we may not ‘die’ when our bodies lie in the ground and rot: we will have become part of something greater, this world of intellectual beauty.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
Shelley now turns to that other stalwart of Romantic poetry: the recollection of childhood as a site of importance in the poet’s intellectual and spiritual development. (Compare Wordsworth here, with his declaration that ‘The Child is father of the Man’.)
When he was a boy, Shelley tells us, he went looking for ghosts as a way of connecting with ‘the departed dead’. No ghosts answered, but instead, Shelley discovered the spirit of beauty (or ‘BEAUTY’), and that was a revelation to him which filled him with ‘ecstasy’.
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
Shelley has retained this bond with intellectual beauty into adulthood, and spent many hours in communion with it, as a way of holding back the night. For Shelley, this spiritual beauty is a way of freeing the world ‘from its dark slavery’ (another common Romantic idea here: liberation). ‘LOVELINESS’, that near-synonym and handmaiden of ‘BEAUTY’, can provide that numinous and ineffable wonder which the poet’s words fall short of doing justice to.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
Shelley concludes ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ by affirming that a belief in the power of this beauty which pervades everything will inspire the poet with reverence for the life of the mind and a universal sympathy for all humanity (‘and love all human kind’).
Just as ‘the truth / Of nature’ had such a profound effect on his ‘passive youth’, now, as he grows older (the mention of ‘summer’ earlier in the stanza doesn’t just refer to the time of year when Shelley wrote the poem, but also suggests being in the prime of adulthood), Shelley calls upon intellectual beauty to ‘supply’ an inner peace or ‘calm’ to his adult life.
‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ acknowledges the power of this spiritual, invisible beauty, but also its transience and inconstancy. ‘Beauty’, of course, is almost closer to love than to our usual understanding of the word (which tends to carry connotations of the visual and aesthetic: things we can apprehend with our eyes).
Like love, the kind of intellectual beauty Shelley addresses in this poem is, in the last analysis, something that touches our emotions and is more mysterious, but also more emotionally inspiring to us, than the superficial appreciation of traditionally ‘beautiful’ things.
But like love, at least as Shelley conceptualised it, it can be fickle: here one day and gone the next.