In 1816, as he was surrounded by the beauty of Switzerland and the view of Mont Blanc, Percy Bysshe Shelley composed his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty which Kelly A. Weisman refers to as one of his “songs of struggle over the meditation between desire and its tropes” (42). Like most other works from the Romantic period, nature, individualism, and imagination are each a major part this poem. By reading the title one would think that the poem is about beauty of the mind however this is not the case. Shelley writes about a spirit that is supreme to us and describes it as a power that we can hold in our hearts; so rather than the intellectual mind itself, Shelley’s hymn refers to the intellectual idea of beauty and an abstract inspiration of the "Spirit of Beauty" (13). The poem explores the qualities of beauty through images of nature and the impact it has on human beings – “Love, Hope, and Self-esteem” (37). Shelley is able to convey his emotion through similes, metaphors, and repetition. As in most of his work, “he takes exceptional care with the pattern of end rhyming, a technique consistent throughout his career” (Morton 47). Each stanza has the same rhyme scheme (ABBAACCBDDEE) and the corresponding lines of each stanza follow the same pattern in iambic rhythm; lines one through four, along with the final twelfth line of each stanza are written in pentameter, the fifth line of each stanza is in hexameter, and the remaining of each stanza in tetrameter. The speaker of the poem has dealt with a childhood experience that changed him, and the poem that the adult is writing “enacts this change artistically by building up a trend of imagery” (Hall 37). Jean Hall suggests that the speaker presents his intuitions through the way he sees things and speaks about them; this means that the poem itself must be fiction (38). However Shelley reveals the fictions as “consciously constructed” ones and the “very strength of the ‘Hymn’ is a function of its obviously fictional character” (Weisman 48; Hall 39). Hall explains that to take Shelley’s poem literally is to “trivialize it to the point of worthlessness” (39). Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is an abstract poem, not showing a specific relationship between a man and a spirit, but rather representing one’s simple belief in the existence of some uplifting power. In the first stanza, Shelley introduces the concept of an “unseen power” (1), something that he is unaware of other than its shadow which floats around human beings and only occasionally visiting their hearts. He then moves on throughout the stanza with an “astonishing Shelleyan abundance of imagery” and a mass of similes in attempt to make this Power feel less abstract and more existent (Hall 33). We don’t know what it is, but he tells us it’s like “summer winds,” (4) “moonbeams,” (5) “hues and harmonies,” (8) “clouds” (9) and “memory” (10). His similes were thought through carefully, as they allow the reader to better understand the beauty and sensation that the Power possesses but also to give us the sense of something beyond our grasp. We can understand and acknowledge the feeling of “hues and harmonies” (8) but they are still intangible things. These kinds of similes are showing that the Power is at one with nature and give it a powerful image. To close the stanza it is said that the Power is cherished for its grace and even more for its mystery. It seems that with this statement – “Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery” (12) – the speaker is simply giving up the “struggle for definition” (Weisman 46). It is within the second stanza that we can begin to understand Shelley’s “unseen power” as his idea of intellectual beauty. The Power is questioned and addressed as “Spirit of BEAUTY” (13) as the speaker mourns the fact that it only makes its presence brief. It is asked why the Spirit comes and goes and why the world is so “desolate” (17) in its absence. Then through a set of rhetorical questions the scope of man’s mind and...
Cited: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Major Authors. Ed. M. H. Abrams, et al. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 1717-1718.
O’Neill, Michael. The Human Mind’s Imaginings: Conflict and Achievement in Shelley’s Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Hall, Jean. The Transforming Image: A Study of Shelley’s Major Poetry. Urbana, IL: Illinois UP, 1980.
Weisman, Karen A. Imageless Truths: Shelley’s Poetic Fictions. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania UP, 1994.
Watson, J. R. “Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and the Romantic Hymn.” Durham University Journal 85.54 (1993): 203-210.
Morton, Timothy. The Cambridge Companion to Shelley. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge UP, 2006.
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