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Analysis of Poem "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Updated on December 2, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty, written in the summer of 1816 and published in 1817, is Shelley's attempt to shape abstraction and define the Spirit of Beauty, the awful Loveliness, which to him was worthy of worship.

  • In this sense it is an exploration of the concept of a mysterious, divine energy at work in nature and human life, an awesome unseen force that also visits each human heart and countenance but is by necessity impossible to capture in words.

Natural phenomena such as clouds on a starry night, evening hues, summer winds, mists and moonlight in the mountains, birds and blossoming - all are touched by grace and truth which ultimately brings calm.

This spiritual energy cannot be seen in its pure state, nor its source known; it can only be felt by those who are moved by the spirit. This feeling has its roots in beauty. Shelley, from a young age, sought to dedicate his poetic powers to this SPIRIT fair, in the hope of transforming the world, and society, for the better.

Ever the romantic rebel, he wrote 'I am a lover of humanity, a democrat and an atheist' in a hotel visitor's book in Chamonix near Mont Blanc in 1816. Just for good measure he wrote it in Greek. And this at a time when it was positively dangerous to be a democrat and culturally controversial to be an atheist.

Restless, prolific and outspoken, it seems Shelley was destined to break with tradition in true freewheeling style, steering away from established doctrine to follow his spiritually fueled Muse and explore new emotional and intellectual lands.

His was a cutting edge, widely read character, digesting the latest novels, studying the ancient texts of Hinduism, in touch with political and societal affairs of many countries.

Shelley, in his short life, divided people. No doubt loved by a few of his fellow poets and close friends, married to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but disliked, it has to be said, by many back home in Great Britain, who saw in him an immature and immoral revolutionary.

Nevertheless, the majority of his work has passed the test of time, despite one writer's opinion on his style, calling it 'a confused embodying of vague abstractions.'

  • Hymn To Intellectual Beauty sets out Shelley's emotional framework in which beauty, spirit, truth and love co-exist as one in nature, worthy of reverance and even worship.

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty - Summary Stanza By Stanza

Stanza 1 - Introduction of the unseen, inconstant and mysterious Power.

Stanza 2,3,4 - Personification in form of Spirit of BEAUTY; questioning extremes of human emotion; call for the spirit to stay and lighten life.

Stanza 5,6 : Personal involvement in search for the spirit; dedication to expression of same through life and art, to free world from dark slavery.

Stanza 7 : Invocation of spirit's power for personal and universal need.

Analysis of Hymn To Intellectual Beauty

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty is Shelley's reminder to himself that mystery has to be at the heart of beauty, grace, truth and love, that the unseen Power can never be reduced to its constituent parts but only ever felt.

Inspired by sights of mountains and water, plants and sky, moon and stars, friends and loved ones, the poet sought to capture the fleeting spirit that, like occult, inconstant, breath, influences all life but only now and then. It is never constant, coming and going in random ways.

If only this Spirit of BEAUTY were here all the time, humans would be immortal and omnipotent, like gods. If only. The speaker knows that, through his own personal history, this spirit has been given various names and been subject to superstition but it isn't to be found there. It's home is in natural phenomena.

The speaker goes on to dedicate his life, his art, to this elusive spirit, the awful LOVELINESS, which keeps on giving.

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty - Christian Connection

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty seeks to create a new interpretation of religious spiritual energy, beyond the narrow doctrines of the established church. It explores the nature of beauty and human feeling but differs from Plato's metaphysical take on the ideal unseen world.

For Shelley there was no separation - the poem attempts to outline how his experiences, especially as a boy, brought him into contact with this inspiring 'shadow' when he was out in nature.

Strictly speaking a hymn is a song of praise addressed to a god or deity, symbol or personification. Shelley is carrying on the tradition initiated in many ancient cultures and religions, from the Egyptians with their hymns to the pharoahs to the Christian hymns Shelley would have been familiar with.

He was also interested in Hinduism and would have heard of the Vedic hymns. Some critics think that Shelley used the word hymn in ironic fashion, to undermine the conventional old testament Christian God. This is debateable.

What is clear is Shelley's use of Christian vocabulary in the poem: Hymn, grace, mystery, consecrate,vale of tears, God, Spirit, ghosts, heaven, responses, awful , ecstasy, dedicate, vows, worship, fear.

Shelley placed great emphasis on the inconstant wind and could possibly have been influenced by this passage from the gospel of John 3:8, where Christ says:

'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.'

Hymn To Intellectual Beauty - Syntax

The syntax - the way the words, sentences and clauses fit together - is challenging and not straightforward in places. Some critics have called it slipshod! Look out for stanza one, which is a long single sentence full of enjambment and flows on until it meets the dashes. Stanza 2 is full of questions. Stanza 3 needs care. And be aware of stanza four, no enjambment. All in all, it's a journey part through dense forest, part on a high ridge and part through calm and rapids.

More Analysis

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme throughout is : abbaaccbddee and most of the end rhymes are full.

Stanza 1: all rhymes full

Stanza 2 : all rhymes full except slant rhymes upon/gone/shown and forever/river.

Stanza 3 : all rhymes full except slant rhymes given/heaven.

Stanza 4 : all rhymes full except slant rhymes sympathies/eyes.

Stanza 5 : all rhymes full except slant rhymes ruin/pursuing/wooing.

Stanza 6 : all rhymes full.

Stanza 7 : all rhymes full except slant rhymes harmony/sky.

Rhythm

The dominant metre (meter in US English) is iambic pentameter for the longer lines and iambic tetrameter for the shorter lines. There are variations on this theme, some lines containing trochees and pyrrhics and anapaests.

  • Varying the rhythm in tandem with varying line length helps create the feeling of an unusual energy, stretched out, coming and going, sometimes strong, at times weak.

Let's take a detailed look at the first five lines of this major poem.

The aw / ful sha / dow of / some un / seen Power

Floats though / unseen / among / us - vis / iting

This var / ious world / with as / incon / stant wing

As sum / mer winds / that creep / from flower / to flower -

Like moon / beams that / behind / some pi / ny moun /tain shower,

The first line is iambic pentameter with a pyrrhic foot (no stresses... da-da) in the middle, which quietens the line down for the reader and the word Power is treated as single, stressed syllable.

The second line opens with an inverted iamb, a trochee, which slows the line down especially with the long vowels before proceeding with steady iambic rhythm, despite the brokwn syntax.

The third line is more complex, the second foot being anapaestic (no stress, no stress, stress... da-da-DUM) and the third foot a pyrrhic. All of this reflects the inconstant wing.

The fourth line is pure iambic pentameter, steady and familiar, with both flowers single stressed.

  • The fifth line is a bit different and has six feet, twelve syllables, making it an iambic hexameter. The same goes for the fifth line of each stanza, either 12 or 13 syllables, a hexameter.

This iambic template is more or less followed throughout the poem.

  • For lines 6 - 12 note that 6,7,9,10,11 are in tetrameter and that lines 8, 12 revert back to pentameter.

Further Analysis

Alliteration

There are examples of alliteration in every stanza. Alliteration brings texture and a musicality to the overall sound of a line:

Stanza 1 : human heart...hues and harmonies...memory of music.

Stanza 2 : vast vale/vacant...fail and fade....dream and death.

Stanza 3 : some sublimer...Remain the record...mist o'er mountains...strings of some still...moonlight on a midnight....Gives grace.

Stanza 4 : wax and wane...darkness to a dying.

Stanza 5 : Hopes of high...departed dead...with which...winds are wooing...birds and blossoming.

Stanza 6 : thee and thine...that thou...wouldst give whatever these words.

Stanza 7 : solemn and serene.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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