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.
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.
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?
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.
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 notâ€”lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
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!
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