Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley conceived and composed the poem, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ during a sailing trip around Lake Geneva with Lord Byron in the summer of 1816. “Intellectual Beauty”, though Platonic in concept, is an expression not used by Plato but widely current in contemporary writing, especially that of Radical intellectuals associated with Godwin, where it meant non-sensuous beauty, “the beauty of the mind and its creations”. Shelley’s title seems closer in meaning to the “universal beauty” which he intended by the phrase two years later when translating a passage of Plato’s Symposium. Shelley’s Intellectual Beauty in his “Hymn” (Song) is not exclusively mental; it is contained or reflected in forms as well as in thoughts.

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty By Percy Bysshe Shelley


Hymn to Intellectual Beauty Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Opening his poem, Shelley describes Intellectual Beauty as the lovely shadow (awful shadow in the other text) of some fearful Power (unseen Power). This shadow of lovely (awful) Power walks without being seen among us (people). While visiting this world populated by innumerable people she flies sometimes slow and sometimes fast just in summer months, the winds blow slowly and gently from one flower to flower. Shelley imagines intellectual beauty in the summer winds which are felt blowing unseen from one beautiful form to another. Then the poet imagines intellectual beauty in the moon beans which fall upon a grove of trees in the mountain. It casts a shifting glance and appears temporarily in human hearts and on their faces. Intellectual beauty is a divine spirit of mysterious power that lends a sacred character to human beings. It is present everywhere, like clouds spread in starlit sky, like memory of music which is heard no more and like any  other thing which is full of grace and so is dear, still it is all the more dear and likeable for its mysterious nature.


Stanza Two

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?

This stanza of ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, the poet says that the essential thought is that the universe is penetrated, vitalized, made real by a spirit, which he sometimes called the spirit of Nature, but which is always conceived as more than Life, as that which gives its actuality to Life, and lastly as Love and Beauty. To adore this spirit to clasp it with affection and to bend with it, is, he thought, the true object of man.

In the present lines, the poet says that it is Spirit of Beauty which gives a sacred touch with its shining colours all thoughts or things or objects in this life of the universe, has gone to. The poet feels greatly pessimistic about the evaporation of the Spirit of Beauty, making life basically a dark valley of tears, unmeaning and lonely. He wants to know why is it that a thing of beauty like the lovely rainbow appearing as a heavenly bridge over a mountain river is seen very rarely and not for all times. Why a thing shines for a short while and then fades away for all times.

In Shelley’s view, these are the evils of human life that make for imperfection in man. They will all be a thing of the past when Love and Beauty will reign supreme on earth. Thus, Shelley here gives expression to his conception of Beauty which is but the reflex of some unseen Power that permeates and vitalizes Nature and Man. It is fitful like the summer wind blowing over flowers, in its visits to the world of Nature and Man. The mind of man is touched only intermittently. It is difficult for a man to realize it and yet to cling to this Spirit (of Beauty) seems to be man’s highest objective.


Stanza Three

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.

In this stanza of ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, Shelley proceeds to assert that no voice from the greater and graceful world has ever given such answers to questions asked by the poets as supplied by Intellectual Beauty. Even the Trinity of God, and Ghost and Heaven remain records of the useless attempts to explain things and not succeeding. Their responses, which are recorded in the Bible, whose magic remains weak, the power of which does not succeed in separating what is felt and what is seen.

There remain doubts, chance of suspicion and changeability. We cannot escape suspicion, chance, and changeability. Everything written is subject to change. Only intellectual beauty and grace and security to our disturbed and cynical existence remain on earth. Before Intellectual Beauty’s shadow doubts are driven like mists over mountains, or music is dispersed by the night wind, or as moonlight is taken ahead by a flowing forest stream. The shadow of intellectual beauty can only provide relief from obstacles and doubts.


Stanza Four

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.

In this fourth stanza of the poem, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, the poet argues about reasons of uncertainty and instability of the Intellectual Beauty. He says that it visits human beings only fitfully. According to the poet, the feelings of love, hope, and self-respect come to human beings and then go away, like the clouds which assemble in the sky and then disperse. The poet finds intellectual beauty to be unfamiliar, unknown, and fearsome which is felt by human beings for only some uncertain moment as if it is something given on loan and taken back. If Intellectual beauty were to live within the human heart in a solid, state, that is, forever, men would have become immortal and all-powerful. The poet calls it messenger of sympathies which melt and become less in the eyes of lovers. Intellectual beauty is the food which provides nourishment to the poet’s thought, just as darkness is to an extinguishing flame of fire. He appeals to intellectual beauty not to depart, because the poet fears that its departure may convert grave into a living place and fear a dark reality.


Stanza Five

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!

This stanza of ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ has an autobiographical character. Here Shelley relates a youthful experience that we must accept as authentic. Having heard as a boy that it was possible to communicate with ghosts and the spirits of the dead, Shelley made every possible effort to verify this belief. He visited empty halls, caves, ruins, and forests in star-light in order to find ghosts and spirits, and to hold communication with them, but it was all in vain. He had been told that he would find ghosts in such places, and he visited these places with fear in his heart. He recited the incantations which were believed to have the power to summon ghosts. But no ghosts or spirits appeared before him.

Then comes a thrilling experience! In the course of his deep meditations on the nature of this life and on human destiny, he was startled by a visitation. It was the sweet time of spring when winds blow to wake up all sleeping things and when birds and blossoms make their appearance. Suddenly he became aware of the presence of Intellectual Beauty. He shrieked and clasped his hands in ecstasy. His perception of the Spirit of Beauty was an exquisite and rapturous experience.


Stanza Six

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.

This is also autobiographical. On becoming aware of the existence of Intellectual Beauty, Shelley pledged himself to its service. He vowed that he would dedicate himself and his faculties to the worship of Intellectual Beauty and all it stands for. And he has kept the vow. To support this claim, he can, with his heart beating fast and with tears flowing from his eyes, call to testimony the spirits of a thousand hours during which in the past he devoted himself to the service of Intellectual Beauty. He calls upon the spirits of those hours to emerge from their silent tombs and to appear as witnesses on his behalf.

Those hours will testify that, whether he was burning the midnight oil and poring upon books or he was enjoying the pleasures of love, he never became forgetful of the existence of Intellectual Beauty. Those hours would testify that, whenever he felt happy, it was because he felt the hope that Intellectual Beauty would liberate this world from the forces of superstition and tyranny. He always believed that the awful Spirit of Beauty would confer upon human beings benefits that cannot be described in words.


Stanza Seven

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.

When the hour of noon has passed, the day becomes more solemn and peaceful. With the coming of autumn, we become conscious of harmony and a luster which were not experienced during summer and which belong only to autumn. For the poet, too, the hour of his noon has passed, and the season of his summer is over. He would now like to experience the solemnity and serenity of the evening, and the harmony and the luster of autumn. These he can experience only with the help of Intellectual Beauty. Intellectual Beauty revealed itself to him when was still young and passive.

He would now like Intellectual Beauty to exert its power upon him and to make the coming years of his life peaceful. He is a worshiper of Intellectual Beauty and a worshiper of every shape in which Intellectual Beauty appears. The magic of Intellectual Beauty has a deep hold on him. It is because of the influence of this beautiful Spirit that he loves all mankind and that he is free from arrogance and self-conceit. (To fear himself – Shelley means that he does not put much faith in his own power when these are divorced from Intellectual Beauty. He feels uncertain of himself and he admits that it is possible for him to make mistakes).

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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