Hymn to Intellectual Beauty: Analysis & Overview

Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

This lesson covers the poem 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' by Percy Bysshe Shelley. We'll discuss Shelley's inspiration for the poem, learn to identify some of the key themes and features of Romantic poetry, and finish with a quick quiz.

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty: Overview

'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' is a poem by English writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1816 and published in 1817. Shelley wrote the poem during the summer of 1816 when he and his wife Mary Shelley were visiting their friend and fellow writer, Lord Byron, at Lake Geneva. The poem contains seven stanzas in which Shelley praises the mysterious force that touches the world and human thought, the power that makes all things beautiful: 'Spirit of beauty that dust consecrate with thine own use all thou dust shine upon' (ll. 13-14).

Shelley devotes stanzas one through four to describing this mysterious power that comes and goes like the changing seasons, impossible to capture and fully understand. Stanzas five through seven describe Shelley's boyhood and his first sense of this beautiful force in nature. Shelley credits this 'intellectual beauty' as the source of his poetic inspiration, but he laments its coming and going, feeling that his connection to this power was stronger as a child. In this poem he recalls dedicating his life to the spirit of beauty and calls upon it to return to him, because it is this power that has shown him to love nature and his fellow man.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Analysis

The poem's title, 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,' reveals Shelley's spiritual connection to beauty through nature. A hymn generally carries a religious or spiritual connotation, and Shelly's poem reads like a prayer to the 'spirit of beauty,' whom Shelley calls upon as a deity:

'Thy light alone like mist o'er mountains driven, or music by the night-wind sent, or moonlight on a midnight stream, gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream' (ll. 32-35).

Shelley speaks of seeking a connection with the spiritual realm as a child, but receiving no answer:

'While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped…I call'd on poisonous names on which our youth is fed; I was not heard' (ll. 49 and 53-54).

For Shelley, an open atheist, such silence is traditionally interpreted as silence from the Christian god.

Ultimately, he concludes that the spirit or deity he wishes to worship is more abstract than a god or gods. Rather, it's the power of the human imagination, his own and those of others. Having reflected and pleaded with the spirit, Shelley reaches this moment of realization in the final lines of the poem:

'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' (ll. 78-84).

Here Shelley realizes that connecting with intellectual beauty through his imagination comes in moments of calm and openness. This recalls his first encounter with the so-called spirit in his 'passive youth,' or the open-mindedness of the child. He concludes that to 'worship' beauty, as he puts it, is to revel in the freedom of the imagination.

Major Themes

The Romantic Era (from the mid-eighteenth century to around 1831), the period in which Shelley wrote, was a literary period characterized by a reaction to the scientific and rational thought of the Enlightenment. Like many Romantic poets, Shelley's work explores themes like the love of the simplicity of nature, the freedom represented in the wild, the power of the imagination, and emotion versus rational or scientific thought, relishing in, rather than seeking answers, to the unknown.

Shelley wrote 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' after sailing with Lord Byron at Lake Geneva; never having seen the Swiss Alps before, Shelley was inspired by their majesty and great beauty. The calm and peace he found in nature is believed to have influenced his ideas about intellectual beauty. Descriptions of nature, a common characteristic of Romantic Literature, appear frequently throughout Shelley's poem:

'Ask why the sunlight not for ever weaves rainbows o'er yon mountain-river' (ll. 18-19).

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