Percy Blysse Shelley and Intellectual Beauty
In many aspects, Percy Blysse Shelley and his poetry both stand as accurate representatives of the Romanticism movement. Shelley’s poetry aligns with the movement in the ways in which it rejects conventional religion in exchange for something else in its place. However, in contrast with some of his contemporaries, Wordsworth included, Shelley places a higher value on intellect, rather than claiming that nature should only be experienced and not thoroughly understood through means of dissection and destruction. Shelley compares the presence of “intellectual beauty” to the belief in God, moving toward the understanding that the Truth, lies within this presence and not within a formalized religion.
In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley claims to have a stark rejection against conventional religion while suggesting that there exists a different force that surpasses all other deities and mythologies that have plagued humanity since our existence. In the fifth stanza of this poem, Shelley equates the innocence of boyhood, “[w]hile yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped through many a listening chamber.” (Shelley 50) Here, Shelley recounts memories of his childhood, seeking for what he had been told existed through the teachings of organized religion.
The speaker becomes enlightened by the knowledge and the presence of “Intellectual Beauty” and therefore leaves all of his childish beliefs behind. By doing this, Shelley equates conventional religion with the thoughts and minds of boyhood, relying on blind faith to fuel that quest. This works to strip away from the credibility that organized religion was so heavily endowed at the time.
In place of a god or deity, Shelley insists that there exists an entity that is the palpable presence of “Intellectual Beauty.” It is important to notice however, that even though Shelley is renaming and recreating an omnipresent force and, by doing so, is rejecting traditional Christianity, Shelley purposefully uses the style of a hymn as the poetic form in which to express his thoughts. Many scholars have made notice of Shelley’s use of different types of genre and have pointed to the opinion that “‘Shelley was an extraordinarily diverse writer, experimenting with genre far more than either Keats or Byron’ and maintaining an active dialogue throughout his life with the forms offered by literary tradition” (Knapp). In his essay, The Spirit of Classical Hymn in Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” John Knapp goes on to further say that
genre for Shelley is unfixed and mutable […] envisioning genre as a ‘process […] subject to the flux of history,’ he judges poetic accomplishment by the degree to which a writer expands or modulates generic conventions and consequently alters them for the future. (Knapp)
By writing this poem in the style of a hymn, Shelley challenges the poetic conventions of his predecessors. He is also blurring the line between what may be considered organized religion and the alternative that he is proposing. The force that Shelley insists is present in the world, may equate to a presence that connects all things to each other. A force such as this may have been understood to be God, but according to Shelley, it is something else. Yet, forming the poem within the genre of a hymn places this force on the same level as other respected deities.
This concept, which is present in most of Shelley’s works, is especially true in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Hymns are traditionally meant to praise a deity and are used in places of worship as songs to be sung. But aside from its place in the liturgical realm, the literary genre of the hymn “frequently has an Aristotelian coherence—a beginning, a middle, and end” (Greene 646). As The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics continues to define the genre of the literary hymn,
[t]ypically, it begins with an invocation and apostrophe. The main body will narrate an important story or describe some moral, philosophical, or scientific attribute. A prayer and farewell provide the conclusion. The history of literary hymns is marked by great stylistic variation and rhetorical elaboration, depending on the writer’s object of praise and his conception of the relation of style to content. (Greene 646)
Examining Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” under the scope of this definition brings a particular amount of insight to the understanding of this poem. Not only is Shelley comparing his concept of connectedness with the gods of organized religion, he is praising it as one would likely extend worship upon a deity.
Interestingly however, Shelley’s apostrophe does not begin until the second stanza of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Instead, the first stanza is dedicated to explaining “the awful shadow of some unseen Power” (Shelley 1). This stylistic choice allows Shelley the space to introduce his somewhat unconventional ideas about the governance of the earth by this mysterious power. Beginning in the second stanza, the apostrophe addresses the absent “Spirit of BEAUTY,” and along with language of praise, the speaker wonders at where and why the spirit has gone. In accordance with prevalent themes within the Romantic era as a whole, one possible understanding of the spirit’s absence may allude to the fleeting absence of childhood and the innocence that often accompanies it. While reading this poem, it feels as if Shelley is aware of a secret that he is not willing to completely expose to the rest of humanity. This tone may also reflect the confines of Shelley’s society.
In keeping with the traditional form of the hymn, the body stanzas of this poem allude to the history of humanity and their efforts to define life’s mysteries through organized religion and deities. This portion of the poem quantifies the narration of the story, revealing what Shelley argues is the true divine entity. The fifth stanza however, is the first personal narrative, present in the poem, told from the speaker’s perspective about the revelation he had as a boy. This revelation of whatever this “intellectual beauty” is, was happily welcomed by the speaker after his boyhood in which he “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” (Shelley 5). This comparison sheds light on Shelley’s childhood, as a believer in what he had been told through organized religion. Equating the time before the speaker’s revelation as his boyhood shows how Shelley wants to portray the conventional religions and ideologies that he is combating in this poem. Through this imagery, Shelley is suggesting that conventional religion is nothing more than a childhood fantasy and that the real divinity lies within “intellectual beauty.”
There also may be an element of reverie in this poem, especially during the stanza when the speaker reflects on his childhood. According to Noel Dorman Mawer,
Reverie, as Shelley describes it in On Life, is the child’s perception of the oneness of all things, and, in particular, of the oneness of thought, his own thought, with things:
Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and ourselves! . . . We less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt, from ourselves. They seemed, as it were, to constitute one mass. There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which precede, or accompany, or follow an unusually intense and vivid apprehension of life. (Mawer 174)
Through the lens of the reverie, the poem has the ability to take on a different, more complex meaning. Because the speaker is reflecting on his boyhood, this section can be read as a time when the speaker indulged in the blissfulness of youth and in that state, felt closer to nature. However, this reading would suggest that the speaker was closer to knowing the entity of “intellectual beauty” while in his state of innocence. But this in fact, does not seem to be what Shelley is trying to say because the speaker has the revelation at the end of the stanza, presumably at the end of his childhood. Therefore, the text would suggest that the breeching of understanding of “intellectual beauty” was the result of leaving childish thoughts and beliefs behind in order to achieve this higher understanding.
The poem breaks the tradition of the hymn however, in that the conclusion is not constructed as a prayer towards the allusive force. In fact, apart from its inherent structure, this poem lacks a sense of worship altogether which makes the understanding of this poem all the more challenging. The poem suggests that there is something beyond “mother nature” that the speaker has become aware of.
Shelley also unconventionally chooses to use the imagery surrounding darkness to reflect the entity of “intellectual beauty.” Such images as, “like darkness to a dying flame,” are beautiful in that they play with the expectation of light representing what is good in the world and dark representing what is bad. In this image, the darkness is only a backdrop that allows for the flame to appear brighter. This would suggest that the darkness alone possesses no real power, just the ability to serve as a contrast to the light. Another example of this paradox is the mention of the dark clouds in the first stanza, giving way to the light of the stars. According to Mawer, “the process, for clouds at least, is to change but not to die—or, more precisely, to die in order to be reborn.” This quotation is an interesting insight into a deeper dimension within the poem because it further suggests that the circle of life possibly exists in all things within nature. Mawer continues further to describe how
All of nature participates in this cycle, and the artifice that captures it is the word that unites, the metaphor that makes us see unity as we once did, as children: “Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep/ Of the aethereal waterfall . .” (“Mont Blanc,” 11. 25-26). Subject and object come together in the act that transmutes water into rainbow and to water again. They are united for us in the words that make waterfall of the air and rainbow of the earth[…]The Spirit is like the Cloud: she comes and she goes. Is there any assurance that, once gone, she will always come again? The “Hymn” is none too sure. (Mawer 30)
This quotation serves as an explanation that somewhat redeems this allusive poem. If Mawer is correct, then the poem is more of a commentary on the inconsistencies and the changes of life than it is a prescription for a new theology. It is a cry of hope and of wanting for the innocence of childhood to remain present regardless of time and maturity.
The allusiveness of this poem makes it difficult to understand in regards to the meaning of what “intellectual beauty” is and why the speaker in the poem has lost touch with it. With the help of other scholars however, the poem’s appreciation for the natural ebb and flow and the continuation of life allows a space for the poem to shine through as an innovative way of praising nature. The very essence of the poem is embedded in the mystery of what Shelley is describing and crediting as the source of life. This ideology, expressed in this poem, is a direct contrast to the societies that had come before him that based their values solely on the lessons taught through organized religion.
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Mawer, Noel Dorman. “Reverie, Process, and the Spirit of Beauty: Shelly’s “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty.” Essays in Literature, vol. 15, no. 1, Spring88, pp. 27-34. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.sophia.agnesscott.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=24389345&site=eds-live.
Rosenthal, Adam R. “The Gift of the Name in Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’.” Studies
in Romanticism, no. 1, 2016, p. 29. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.sophia.agnesscott.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.454362018&site=eds-live.
Whickman, Paul. “The Poet as Sage, Sage as Poet in 1816: Aesthetics and Epistemology in
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Spangler, Sharon. “‘Demon, Ghost, and Heaven’: Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and the
Gospel of John.” Mount Olive Review, vol. 5, 1991, pp. 19-25. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.sophia.agnesscott.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1991070999&site=eds-live.
Buzzard, Laura, and Joseph Laurence Black. The Broadview anthology of Romantic poetry.
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2016. Print.