The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is often read in conjunction with “Mont Blanc,” written at about the same time in summer 1816, when Percy Shelley was in Switzerland. The two poems have many things in common, but “The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is far less dramatic, making a very powerful philosophical point very beautifully rather than enacting or demonstrating it. It is also far more autobiographical, in the sense that in it, Shelley gives an account of the origin of his poetic vocation, and of its relationship to his political radicalism.
The “intellectual beauty” of the title is a platonic formulation. Intellectual beauty belongs to the transcendent realm of the forms, which we know or remember purely through the mind and not through earthly experience. Earthly experience, however, can prompt us to remember the beauty we have known— including the earthly experience of reading William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, which centers on the idea that in childhood we remember most fully the realm of ideas from which we descend at birth into the lower natural world around us. This poem is also strongly influenced by Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” especially in its evocation of a spirit inhabiting everywhere the world that it transcends. For Wordsworth, this comes to a kind of pantheism, with all that this also implies of a belief in “God who is our home” (Intimations Ode, l. 65). Shelley is resolutely an atheist, however, and he criticizes Wordsworth under a thin veil of generalization in the third stanza, where he says that “the name of God, and ghosts and heaven” (l. 27) is the record of the vain endeavor of sages (like Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and poets (like Wordsworth) to personalize the experience of poetic vocation that they feel.
We know that it is an experience of poetic vocation from Shelley’s own account of how he searched for ghosts as a boy. What he found instead was the intimation of intellectual beauty itself. It is this, the Greek philosopher Plato says in the Symposium, that attracts our love. Shelley—first translator into English of the Symposium (under the title The Banquet)—renders the Greek philosopher Socrates’ creed this way: “Love is that which thirsts for the beautiful, so that Love is of necessity a philosopher, philosophy being an intermediate state between ignorance and wisdom.”
It is, in fact, this intermediate state that Shelley prefers to the satisfaction of thirst for the beautiful. Intellectual beauty is “Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery” (l. 12). That is to say, it gives the human mind a sense of imminent power and greatness, but a sense also of moving toward that power, not reposing in it. It is for this reason that Shelley says, in the poem’s most beautiful simile, that it is nourishment to human thought “Like Darkness to a dying flame” (l. 45). The fact that the flame is dying causes (or at least contributes to) the darkness, and yet that darkness intensifies the beauty of the flame itself. Shelley uses a similar image in his A Defence of Poetry (1821): “. . . the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” The transitory nature of the brightness is part of its beauty, which is made more intense by its elusiveness.
It is not that beauty is itself elusive. Rather, it is that the human mind cannot sustain contact with it. It is important to see that this is not because intellectual beauty actually does exist in a platonic heaven that earthbound humans cannot quite attain to, even if we have intimations of it. To think this would be to repeat the mistake of sage and poet who imagine that beauty as being far beyond our human capacity to reach.
For Shelley, however, it is finally in the mind that poetic impulse toward beauty resides. But the impulse toward beauty is also the beauty it seeks. Like most of the other romantic and post-romantic poets—for example, Coleridge in “Kubla Khan” or Robert Browning in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”— Shelley is after the elusive principle of inspiration itself. Inspiration fills the mind with a sense of possible discovery, but what counts is the moment of inspiration and not the discovery it might lead to. Therefore, poetry at its most intense becomes an attempt to recapture inspiration, an attempt that is bound to experience itself as loss rather than achievement, as darkness rather than light. But the loss itself can be transformed into an achievement, if it is felt intensely enough. To be capable of feeling the decline of beauty is to be capable of a more intense apprehension than the beauty itself offered. This is how darkness nourishes a dying flame, an image Shelley probably alters from the progressive darkening in William Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 (“In me thou seest the glowing of such fire / As on the ashes of his youth doth lie”). The last stanza shows (like Shakespeare) the decline of day and of the year, but it is in that decline that harmony, solemnity, serenity, and luster become all the more beautiful.
These are all images and vectors that will recur in Shelley, again and again: The “deep autumnal tone, sweet though in sadness” of “Ode to the West Wind”; the residual intensities of such late lyrics as “Lines: Music When Soft Voices Die” and “Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici,” both of which pick up the idea of beauty fading “Like memory of music fled” (l. 10). Here, though, as in the philosophical analysis of the sublime given in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley may be said to still believe in the powers of the human mind to live within the intensity of its own loss, rather than to feel the loss as deeper than the gain it offers. Later, he will not think the exchange, inevitable though it is, worth the price it exacts. See also romanticism.
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———. Shelley’s Mythmaking. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.
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Duffy, Edward. Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
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Leighton, Angela. Shelley and the Sublime: An Interpretation of the Major Poems. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.