Hymn to Intellectual Beauty: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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      The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty was composed probably during Shelley's visit to Switzerland in the summer of 1816. Mrs. Shelley states that it "was conceived during his voyage round the lake (of Geneva) with Lord Byron." This is the first of Shelley's great Odes. It embodies for the first time, with some clearness, the ideal which was to inspire all his greatest works and which had been only vaguely shadowed in Alastor. Shelley looks upon this ideal, which he calls Intellectual Beauty, as a perfection like Plato's Idea of the Good, and as a substitute for God. In the average man's life this Spirit is felt only in the rare moments when self-interest is forgotten and all the faculties co-operate to let him perform some altruistic act beyond his normal powers. The idea of intellectual beauty arises from looking at the world through Platonic spectacles. Though Shelley's version of Intellectual Beauty is of his own making, he may have taken his cue from the conversation of Socrates and Diotima in the Symposium.


      Shelley speaks of the fleeting nature of an unseen Power which pervades this universe. The mysterious influence, of this invisible power lies hidden from us, and it manifests itself in various objects of nature with a suddenness and uncertainty like the summer wind blowing from flower to flower. Like the quiet and beautiful shower of moonbeams on a pine covered mountain, it suddenly transforms the human mind and look. It has the magic of tender and mellow colors and sounds of the evening. It has the beauty of the clouds on a starlit night. It is as delicate and lovely as the aural impressions of music in the memory after the music itself has ceased. It is like anything that is sweet because it is beautiful, but has an even more tender appeal on account of its mysterious and indefinable character. (Stanza 1)

      The Spirit of Beauty transforms all objects, both of Nature and the human mind, when it visits them. The poet asks where the Spirit of Beauty has gone and why it vanishes so quickly leaving the world in suffering and desolation. Its absence makes this world a dim vast vale of tears. The poet questions: why does not the sunlight transform the sky with rainbows over the distant mountains all along; why should the lovely things of the world that we have once seen perish; why should our life be made unhappy by the endless chain of birth and death, fear and hope; why do such contradictory things like love and hate, hope and despair exist together? Once the Spiritual Beauty passes over, it leaves us even more desolate and empty than before. Hence the poet asks why everything is cast away in the state of sorrow and decay. (Stanza 2)

      No explanations of these questions of life have ever been given to a sage or a poet by any illumination from the spiritual world. So, in their fruitless attempt to know these things they have invented the names of Demon, Ghosts and God. But these are vain charms, for the fruitless repetition of these does not help us to escape chance, change or doubt. Only the Spirit of Intellectual Beauty, like the fog driven over the mountains or like the night-wind blowing against some still instrument which vibrates with music in the silence of night, or like the moonbeam of the midnight, lends some charm and glimpses of truth to our dreary and uncertain existence. The fragility, the serenity and the loveliness of the spirit of Intellectual Beauty are conveyed through these images. (Stanza 3)

      Love, Hope and Self-esteem are uncertain and short-lived like the flitting clouds. If the invisible and mysterious Spirit of Beauty constantly influences the human heart then man would become immortal and omnipotent. The Spirit of Beauty brings to man the mystic message of mutual sympathy that glows and fades away in the lovers' eyes and also nourishes the intellectual life of man as darkness makes the dying flame aglow. The poet appeals to the spirit not to fade away as soon as he feels its influence, for if it leaves, death would become as fearful as life is. The poet feels that it is not Intellectual Beauty itself that visits human beings, but its "shadow" as well. (Stanza 4)

      This Stanza gives Shelley's personal experiences. During his school-days, Shelley was fascinated with tales of horror with phantasies and ghosts and he searched for supernatural beings. He moved through rooms, caves, ruins of buildings and starlit forests with fear in his heart in the hope of seeing the dead and to talk on great subjects with them. But all his efforts proved futile. He did not receive any response. Then while thinking deeply on his fate in the springtime when the winds blew and all things were full of life and warmth, all of a sudden he felt the presence of the Intellectual Beauty. He was so excited that he shrieked and clasped his hands in ecstasy. (Stanza 5)

      Then he promised that he would devote all his strength to Beauty and all beautiful things and he kept his promise. With throbbing heart and tear-filled eyes he calls upon the phantom-like shapes of Beauty from where they have vanished to witness the truth of his statement. He calls upon all those hours to witness that never has joy lightened his brow without the hope that the awful loveliness of Intellectual Beauty would free the world from its slavery and give it what he cannot express in words. (Stanza 6)

      The day becomes more solemn and serene when the noon is past. There is a music in the Autumn and a mellow beauty in the autumnal sky which are never heard or seen in Summer, which is even impossible to imagine then. He wishes the Intellectual Beauty, which transformed his passive youth, to give the autumnal calm to his maturer years for the influence of the Spirit has made him love all mankind and be free of arrogance. Shelley feels uncertain of himself, admits he is capable of making mistakes. Only with the help of Intellectual Beauty, he can hope for a better world. (Stanza 7)


      Concept of Beauty: Hymn to Intellectual Beauty enunciates the basic philosophy lying at the root of all Shelley's poetry. Beauty to Shelley is the archetypal beauty, something like the antecedent idea or conception of beauty in the mind of the Creator prior to its manifestation in any individual object. It is an independent, ideal entity informing and over-arching all actual specimens to be found in nature and life. He is acutely sensitive to its fitful inconstancy, its sudden, surprising ebb and flow. It was, for him, no inherent endowment of any earthly object but a gift offered and canceled at the sweet will of a changeful goddess. Shelley has the most complex and interesting attitude towards Beauty. His vision includes the whole of human history, aeons of civilization, the high peaks of man's efforts over which this eagle of Intellectual Beauty alights for a moment in the light of its golden wings, instead of being confined to separate objects which don and take off their transient raiment of beauty at fixed intervals. This beauty is 'intellectual' because it can only be apprehended by an intuition that is mainly philosophical in character.

      Sense of Beauty Leading to Moral Truth: In this Hymn, Shelley expresses for the first time his conviction that mankind can be brought into contact with moral truth through a sense of the beautiful, perceived by the mind as well as the body so that Keats's "Beauty is Truth; Truth Beauty" becomes a living and inspiring ideal of life for Shelley. He addresses the awful shadow of some unseen power, which visits with inconstant wing" the world of Nature and each human heart and countenance which 'consecrates every thought or form on which it shines' 'but anon hides itself and leaves this dim vast, vale of tears vacant and desolate.' The expression Shelley gives to his conception of Beauty is but the reflex of some unseen Power of Beauty which penetrates 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. It touches the mind of man intermittently and is subject to an ebb and flow, with spells of self-withdrawal and re-emergence that plays perpetual hide-and-seek with the earthly recipients of its casual and capricious bounty. Though man is ignorant of its presence, yet to cling to the Spirit seems to be man's highest target. Like the poet in Alastor, Shelley has pursued this mirage of Ideal Beauty in all tilings but failed to realize it through sense-experience. He comes to the realization that Ideal Beauty is not to be found in a world which is but a vale of tears. With the passing away of Beauty, evils such as hate and despondency rule our lives and victimize us. However, Shelley is not sure of what he advocates. He has a constant dread that somehow this glorious train of Beauty—Hope, Love, and Self-esteem will not take its firm state in the heart of man. If his fears come true, Death and Life will indeed be a reality, and Eternity only a myth.

      Platonic Philosophy: The poem is based on an ideal borrowed from Plato's philosophy. The Theory of Ideals in Platonic philosophy upholds the principle that everything in this world is an imperfect shadow of a perfect Idea. Shelley borrows this idea and then goes on to lend it a new shape. Shelley believes in the existence of the Intellectual Beauty and regards it as an "unseen Power" which visits the "various world" with an "inconstant wing". When it goes away after the short-live visits, the world is left a "dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate". In case this power were to reside in human heart permanently man could become immortal and all-power fill:

Man were immortal, and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art'
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.

      The concept of Intellectual Beauty, as Shelley narrates it, makes it clear that the poet is trying to define a private theology, with the Spirit of this Beauty as a substitute for God. All religions, Shelley feels, are nothing but "frail spells", unable to rid us of doubt, chance, and mutability. It is only Intellectual Beauty that can provide "grace and truth to life's unquiet dream".

      Personal Element: The last three Stanza of the poem carry a deeply personal note. They also encourage, in this respect, a comparison between Shelley and Wordsworth. Wordsworth had moments of mystic illumination when he revisited the River Wye. Shelley in this poem describes a similar experience. When he was a boy, he "sought for ghosts" and as such "sped through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin, / And starlight wood" with "Hopes of high talk with the departed dead," but could not find them. Then one day while he was "musing deeply on the lot / Of life" he became suddenly aware of the "shadow" of this Intellectual Beauty and was filled with an overwhelming ecstasy. During those moments of illumination Shelley took a vow to dedicate all his power to the service of Intellectual Beauty, and has kept it. This Spirit, as Shelley has discovered, is associated with hope and joy. Whenever the poet has been happy, he has been so with the hope that the Spirit would free this world from all kinds of slavery. The vision of Intellectual Beauty impels the poet to love all humankind. This is a queer kind of Platonism. Instead of rising from the lower scale to the love of Supreme Beauty, Shelley seems to return from the love of Supreme beauty to the lower order of the love of ordinary human beings.

      Faults: In this poem, Shelley seems to be groping for the right way of treating a theme which is new to him. He has, indeed, tried hard, and there is much to admire in this poem, despite its flaws. Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, in spite of Shelley's genius, has turned into a frigid and formal ode in the eighteenth-century vein. The thought is by no means so coherent or well-ordered as in his later Odes, and the poem compares badly in this respect to such a poem as the Ode to the West Wind. The poem sadly lacks the great qualities of Shelley's most other Italian poems—the supple verse-forms and words which seem to shuffle themselves spontaneously into suitable patterns. If we consider as an example the first Stanza of the poem, we find how the useless repetition of unseen and inconstant, the ambiguous shower, and the set of vague presences—awful shadow, unseen Power, various world and inconstant glance—all are suggesting that Shelley is composing painfully, as if strangled at the outset by the intricacies of the rhyming, and weighed down by the gravity of his subject. The entire poem seems to be the result of a laborious effort. The over-dramatic aspect of the poet's taking an instant vow to "dedicate his powers" to the Spirit's service, and the blunt and indecent boast that he has kept his vow, are certainly offensive to the modern taste. Moreover, it may be noticed that there are over sixty abstract nouns in the eighty-four lines of the poem. When a poet carries abstraction so far he is quite likely to lose credibility in the eyes of the readers. The poem is, however, vigorous enough to survive such criticism, and despite its unfashionable tone, still finds favor with anthologists.

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