Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
1The awful shadow of some unseen Power
2Floats though unseen among us; visiting
3This various world with as inconstant wing
4As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
5Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
6It visits with inconstant glance
7Each human heart and countenance;
8Like hues and harmonies of evening,
9Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
10Like memory of music fled,
11Like aught that for its grace may be
12Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

13Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
14With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
15Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
16Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
17This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
18Ask why the sunlight not for ever
19Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
20Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
21Why fear and dream and death and birth
22Cast on the daylight of this earth
23Such gloom, why man has such a scope
24For love and hate, despondency and hope?
25No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
26To sage or poet these responses given:
27Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
28Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
29Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
30From all we hear and all we see,
31Doubt, chance and mutability.

32Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
33Or music by the night-wind sent
34Through strings of some still instrument,
35Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
36Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.

37Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
38And come, for some uncertain moments lent.

39Man were immortal and omnipotent,
40Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
41Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.

42Thou messenger of sympathies,
43That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
44Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
45Like darkness to a dying flame!
46Depart not as thy shadow came,
47Depart not–lest the grave should be,
48Like life and fear, a dark reality.

49While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
50Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
51And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
52Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

53I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
54I was not heard; I saw them not;
55When musing deeply on the lot
56Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
57All vital things that wake to bring
58News of birds and blossoming,
59Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
60 I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
61I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
62To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
63With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
64I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
65Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
66Of studious zeal or love’s delight
67Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
68They know that never joy illum’d my brow
69Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
70This world from its dark slavery,
71That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
72Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.

73The day becomes more solemn and serene
74When noon is past; there is a harmony
75In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
76Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
77As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
78Thus let thy power, which like the truth
79Of nature on my passive youth
80Descended, to my onward life supply
81Its calm, to one who worships thee,
82And every form containing thee,
83Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
84To fear himself, and love all human kind.

The Spirit of Classical Hymn in Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
Style, Spring, 1999 by John Knapp
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Richard Cronin has observed that in Shelley’s poetry, as in his life and
thought, “there is an ever-present drive towards a rejection of
conventional controls” countered by the recognition that “controls,
systems, conventions, are humanly necessary” (35). These contrary pulls, as
Cronin calls them, make Shelley’s attitude toward literary genre
problematic and make further genre-linked critical approaches to his poetry
very challenging, so much so, in fact, that little genre criticism exists
in modern Shelley studies. Yet, as Jennifer Wallace points out, “Shelley
was an extraordinarily diverse writer, experimenting with genre far more
than either Keats or Byron” and maintaining an active dialogue throughout
his life with the forms offered by literary tradition (4). This is not to
say that Shelley’s generic experiments are poetic imitations. Genre for
Shelley is unfixed and mutable. Envisioning genre as a “process . . .
subject to the flux of history,” he judges poetic accomplishment by the
degree to which a writer expands or modulates generic conventions and
consequently alters them for the future (Cronin 33). “Every great poet,”
Shelley asserts in “A Defence of Poetry,” “must inevitably innovate upon
the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar
versification” (484). The contrary pulls that Cronin detects in Shelley’s
poetry, and which problematize the status of genre in the poems, are
sometimes activated or exacerbated by Shelley’s genre choices. They
indicate Shelley’s sophisticated understanding of the mutability of genre
while they figure that mutability in the poetry itself.

The “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” exemplifies how Shelley employs genre and
genre-linked features in innovative and figurative ways. The poem is in
dialogue with the classical hymn, a genre to which tradition grants unusual
structural flexibility and in which writers, including Shelley, find both a
positive support and a challenge to their innovative skill. The classical
hymn presupposes fundamental separation while aspiring to unity, and so
provides Shelley with inherent contrary pulls, or inherent dialectics,
congenial with his aim to contain an effusive, inspiring power in poetic
form. That “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” struggles between containment and
effusion is not disputed by critics today, but Shelley’s modern readers
recognize that dialectic as working primarily in language itself. Questions
of genre are frequently passed over, and, despite the generic claim of
Shelley’s title and the features of classical hymn that appear in the poem,
critics are reluctant to come to terms with hymn. In fact, critical
discussions of the generic resonances of the “Hymn” often rest on
misapprehensions about genres that Shelley himself did not share,
particularly that genres exist immutably and apply equally to all past and
present literary works. Adopting a vague exemplar of the Christian hymn,
for instance, recent readers of Shelley conclude that the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty” is an ironic hymn or simply an ode (Cronin 224; Curran
58; Fry 8; Hall 136). Observing the critical confusion surrounding its
genre, Stuart Curran writes that the poem “seems to present us with a
generic crux” (58). But largely overlooked by commentators, the tradition
of classical hymn can be brought to bear in ways that both supplement our
understanding of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and illustrate Shelley’s
shrewd employment of genre to oppose its potential to become fixed and

Modern critics of Shelley discern a dialectic of containment and effusion
in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Primarily, they understand that
dialectic as operating in language itself. For Tilottama Rajan, it is the
mechanism of a “Romantic deconstruction” that “unfixes,” “disseminates,”
“disarticulates,” and “disrupts” ostensible meaning and unity, so that the
poem “survives not as what it originally was but as a series of
indeterminate self-transformations” (292, 283, 296). Shelley’s language
“unravels the statement to be illustrated through it” and intimates his
profound uneasiness with the relationship of poetic conception and
representation (Rajan 281-82). According to Rajan, “illustration and
repetition make expression a differential process” in Shelley’s writing “by
creating crevices between the parts of any analogy or between the different
conceptual and figurative planes.” The resultant “Hymn” is a “fissured”
text that “cannot contain its meaning” and that “can become ‘poetry’ only
with the aid of a reader, who will save it from the disfigurations of
history or representation” by supplying “a unity not in the text” (280-81,
2). For Rajan, the dialectic of containment and effusion in the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty” is detectable in places of linguistic indeterminacy or
gaps in representation that call for additions by the reader beyond the
features of the original. She claims her approach “paradoxically renews the
originality of the text by liberating it from the tyranny of the original
intention behind it” (293).(1)
In his detailed analysis of Shelley’s perpetual transference from a state
of containment to a state of effusion, Jerrold E. Hogle, like Rajan,
conceives literary context in terms of linguistic indeterminacy. For Hogle,
transference “is a preconscious invasion of awareness” that prompts in
Shelley “a conscious will to write that can never recover the original
impulse exactly as it was” (24). Since it “impels Shelley’s peculiar
language,” he writes, “transference must finally be put in linguistic
terms” (12). Hogle’s “remarkably abstract” approach (Wallace 17)
nevertheless sheds light on an “inherently iconoclastic and revolutionary”
poetic impulse in Shelley that constantly criticizes “any limits that try
to confine it” and exploits the “tension between established and
experimental” methods of composition (Hogle 14). That mobile impulse can be
examined in relation to genre as well as language. Surely, as Hogle points
out, Shelley strives to modulate “canonical thinking about the ‘proper’
style and themes of poetry,” and he is drawn toward “a peculiar combination
of traditional and rebellious techniques of writing, toward modes of
characterizing, image shifts, genre choices, stanza arrangements, rhyme
schemes, and stances of address” (vii) that frequently “explode the most
established, conventional thought-relations into interconnections with
others that were rarely thought to be analogous before” (26-27). But
Shelley’s conception of genre is of secondary interest to Hogle, who
develops his theory of transference along different lines. Like Rajan,
Hogle considers linguistic indeterminacy “the basis of every stage of
Shelley’s thinking and writing” (18). Generic and stylistic consistencies
in Shelley’s poetry become antithetical foils in Hogle’s subsuming process
of transference. His reading of Shelley nevertheless leaves room for a
critical approach to Shelley’s writing that conceives the dialectic of
containment and effusion in generic terms and locates a work’s
individuality in relation to generic conventions.

The “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” has, of course, a linguistic order. But
as Alastair Fowler points out, “literary order need not inhere primarily in
words” (5). In the “Defence,” Shelley acknowledges a sublexical literary
order: “The language of poets has ever affected a certain uniform and
harmonious recurrence of sound, without which it were not poetry, and which
is scarcely less indispensable to the communication of its influence, than
the words themselves, without reference to their particular order” (484).

Critics who inventory the lexical and sublexical features of a literary
work – its repertoire – can recover patterns, structures, and meanings that
help to illustrate coherence and communicate meaning. Ascertaining a work’s
repertoire is also useful to critics who would relate that work to literary
tradition, for repertoires often are generically organized. As Fowler
explains, “superstructural” (57) features (rhyme, closure, topic, metrical
forms, stanzaic scheme) and common linguistic features (rhetoric, idiom,
presentational mode) have a “privileged status unqualified by subsequent
sound-changes, semantic changes, or changes in convention” (256). When
marked by a traditionally recognized “complex of substantive and formal
features” (74) that includes a distinctive linear sequence of parts
(whether organized typographically or by contents), a literary work can be
associated with at least one genre and, thus, will maintain the continuity
of generic descent (60).

Continued from page 1.

This is not to say that a single set of characteristics can define a genre,
that genre boundaries cannot change, or that a work can belong to one genre
only. Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” includes generic features
that suggest it is in dialogue with the classical hymn, but it is not a
Homeric hymn, despite family resemblances. “The character of genres is that
they change,” writes Fowler; “only variations or modifications of
convention have literary significance” (18). A genre, for Shelley, is not
crudely prescriptive. It is “a historical process, that is, a set of
conventions subject to the flux of history” (Cronin 33). In Shelley’s view,
genres are mobile and ever-changing; they are bound up in perpetual
transference. A poem has artistic significance for Shelley only if it
modulates or departs from its generic conventions and restyles them for the
future: “Every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of
his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification”
(“Defence” 484).

Shelley remains suspicious of the communicative efficacy of traditional
genres, however, and he adopts a particular form only after considerable
deliberation. As a number of critics have observed, Shelley’s assertion in
the “Defence of Poetry,” “when composition begins, inspiration is already
on the decline,” underscores his ambivalence about poetry as a medium of
transmission (504).(2) For Shelley, writing poetry necessarily involves the
degradation or distortion of inspiration; inspiration is inevitably
compromised when it takes material form. Indeed, Paul Cantor points out, he
regards “the collapse of imaginative vision into fixed form” as “the
fundamental fall” (92-93). Shelley’s view makes the status of genre in his
writing problematic, but he is far from regarding poetry, or indeed the
entire history of literature, as a mere record of failures. Nor does he
regard the examples of literary history as necessarily fixed. Composition
begins despite declining inspiration, and in a few remarkable cases the
result is enduring poetry.

Shelley explains in the “Defence” that, at least in part, efficient
communication relies on the appropriation of a suitable poetic structure.

Only “supreme poets” can subdue the “evanescent visitations” of divinity
under the “light yoke” of poetic form without complete devitalization (485,
505). Such writers are, in Shelley’s view, “spirits of the most refined
organization,” whose poetry “thus makes immortal all that is best and most
beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt
the interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form,
sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those
with whom their sisters abide” (505). Shelley’s objective as a poet is to
redeem from decay these “visitations of the divinity in man” and thereby to
join the ranks of foremost poets. Despite acknowledging the existence of
elite poets and enduring poetry, however, Shelley questions the
communicative efficacy of the established literary forms. Dante,
Shakespeare, Milton, and other “supreme poets” capable of “perceiving and
teaching the truth of things” have “employed traditional forms” in order to
communicate that truth (485). But how viable would traditional forms be in
Shelley’s own hands? In the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley wrestles
with a literary tradition for which he has great esteem, of which he
desires to be a part, and upon which he aims to innovate.

Appropriately, Shelley’s poem is in dialogue with classical hymn, one of
the oldest and most neglected genres in that tradition, which conveys the
singer’s reverence for his subject, desire to do it justice, and, often,
anxiety about his own compositional skill. Because Coleridge, Wordsworth,
Byron, and other contemporary poets had failed to revitalize the dormant
classical hymn, Shelley would test his resuscitative and innovative skills
unhindered by competition. Shelley’s knowledge of Greek literature “allowed
him to realize the heterogeneity” of ancient writers and to “reflect that
variation in his own writing” (Wallace 4). His familiarity with classical
hymn is confirmed by his translations of the Homeric Hymns, begun roughly a
year after the composition of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” And
Shelley is attracted to the genre for a number of reasons. Tradition grants
wide latitude to composers of classical hymns; as a result, the genre is
unusually flexible. Works in the genre “are not characterized by meter or
length” and are often mixed with other genres, including epic and elegy
(Cairns 92). All classical hymns address gods, but the composer or singer
is by no means bound to believe in them, nor is the writer precluded from
syncretizing them, obscuring them, or altering religious or philosophical
doctrine associated with them. Callimachus, who takes his gods seriously
only as literary figures, provides Shelley with a firm atheistic precedent.

Since classical hymn must reckon with fundamental separation (of singer and
deity, of human and divine, of temporal and eternal) while aspiring to
return and integration, the genre is congenial to the dialectic of
containment and effusion that Shelley develops in the “Hymn to Intellectual
Beauty.” Even in prose, Shelley describes the influx of inspiration in the
terms of hymn, as the union of divinity and humanity: “It is as it were the
interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own” (“Defence” 504).

Shelley’s gods exist and can be worshipped only in, or by means of, poetry.

In the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” he presents himself as a modern
classical hymnist who will expand the tradition by apostrophizing,
describing, and praying to a unique migratory divinity in an innovative
way. He also figures the brief visitations and departures of that divinity
(or activates the dialectic of containment and effusion) structurally and
stylistically by employing and by altering a number of the classical hymn’s
generic conventions.

The only classical hymns that survive before the year 400 BC are ascribed
to Homer; Shelley translated seven of these between 1817 and 1820. The
thirty-three extant Homeric Hymns are hexameter oral compositions that were
preserved later in writing. There is “little firm knowledge about the
circumstances surrounding their composition and performance,” but critics
generally agree that the hymns were presented at public feasts, festivals,
and religious occasions (Clay 6-7). Thucydides refers to the Homeric “Hymn
to Apollo” as a prelude, which would have been chanted by a rhapsode before
an epic recitation, and a number of the Homeric Hymns presumably served
such a function (Evelyn-White xxxiv). Although they range in length from a
handful of lines to several hundred, and address numerous divinities, the
Homeric Hymns share recognizable linguistic and superstructural features
that organize the works and establish a distinct generic repertoire.(3)
They are predominantly narrative pieces with subsidiary lyric sections.

They appear in a linear sequence of parts: exordium, exposition, and
peroration. A firm decorum of subject relates the hymns to the actions and
attributes of the Olympian gods. The hymns presuppose a special stylistic
attitude of inferior to superior, particularly of supplicant to deity. They
follow an interlaced or discontinuous pattern of action. Their epideictic,
elaborate, and elevated rhetorical style is fitting for the honoring of
gods. Most of these features “are not discrete aspects but function
together in the poetic context with other characteristics” (Rollinson 22).

Of course, there is nothing like exact equivalence from hymn to hymn. The
great disparity merely between the length of the Homeric hymns “To Zeus”
and “To Hermes” precludes any one-to-one correspondence. Nevertheless,
there is a kinship about the Homeric Hymns and a sequence of influence and
imitation that proceed from them to the hymns of Callimachus, Cleanthes,
and the Roman Emperor Julian, all the way to Shelley’s “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty.” This tradition connects the works generically while
allowing wide variation.

Philip Rollinson outlines the tripartite structure of exordium, exposition,
and peroration introduced in the Homeric Hymns and shows that it is among
the most pervasive and influential characteristics in subsequent classical
hymns (16). The Homeric Hymns generally begin with an exordium, which
includes an invocation and often an apostrophe to the god praised, proceed
to an exposition describing some of the deity’s basic attributes or acts,
and close with a perorational prayer or salutation to that deity. Even the
shorter Homeric Hymns tend to follow this pattern, as the hymn “To
Hephaestus” illustrates:
Continued from page 2.

Sing, clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaestus famed for inventions. With bright-
eyed Athene he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world, – men who
before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now
that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus the famed worker, easily
they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round.

Be gracious, Hephaestus, and grant me success and prosperity! (Hesiod 447)
The tripartite structure of the Homeric Hymns organizes and incorporates
other genre-linked features, including the singer’s reference to himself in
the first person, a catalog of epithets describing the god, and recurring
rhetorical formulae that introduce narrative sections and close the hymns.

Like the Homeric epic, familiar features in the Homeric Hymns make it
easier for listeners to pay attention while simultaneously educating and
instructing them. Further, consistent patterns in the individual Homeric
Hymns confirm the works as members of a particular genre, one that aims to
instruct listeners in the propriety of invoking and worshipping the
Olympian gods. Formal patterns and generic identification, therefore, bear
upon the meaning of the Homeric Hymns.

In his six “imitations and adaptations” of the longer Homeric Hymns, the
Alexandrian poet Callimachus modulates and varies the generic conventions
he inherited (Rollinson 22). The Callimachean hymns range in length from 95
(“To Zeus”) to 326 lines (“To Delos”) and follow the pattern of exordium,
exposition, and peroration. They include descriptive epithets for the gods,
first person references to the singer, and sections narrating rituals or
myths associated with the deity praised, and they instruct listeners in the
proper means of praise. But as Rollinson points out, Callimachus’s hymns
are “very skillfully constructed artifices” that reveal the composer’s
distinctly literary ambition (25). Their “structural details,”
“rhetorically ornamented formality,” and “emphasis on the display of
historical, geographical, and mythological erudition” sharply distinguish
them from their Homeric predecessors.

For instance, Callimachus abandons strict hexameter lines for elegiac
couplets in “On the Bath of Pallas” (Hymn 5). At one point he introduces
contemporary persons and events in “To Delos,” lavishing praise on his
patron, Ptolemy Philadelphus, “another god, the most highest lineage of the
Saviours” (Hymn 4, lines 165-66). In “To Apollo,” Callimachus gives a
genealogy of his native Cyrene, and lists the city among the most blessed
of Apollo (Hymn 2). The status of the Olympians becomes problematic in the
Callimachean hymns. Callimachus, Rollinson writes, “did not take his
Olympians seriously at all, except as literary tools” (32). He gives them a
“new relevance” that is not religious, but “purely literary” (26). The gods
are imaginative springboards for Callimachus. He exploits their rich
mythological associations in order to showcase his learning, to question
the veracity of previous accounts, and to ornament the formal patterning of
the hymns. Reflecting an Alexandrian literary appreciation of the gods and
achieving a “very high degree of structural organization and technical
finish” in his hymns, Callimachus consequently alters the conventions of
classical hymn for the future (22).

Cleanthes, a contemporary of Callimachus, also makes use of the genre-
linked features of the Homeric Hymns to break new ground. His only extant
work, the fifty-one-line “Hymn to Zeus,” adopts a tripartite pattern of
exordium, exposition, and peroration in the manner of the Homeric and
Callimachean hymns. It opens with an apostrophe and a list of epithets
addressed to Zeus: “God most glorious,” “Nature’s great King,” and
“Omnipotence” (lines 1-3). The singer then describes some of the god’s
primary attributes and acts, including, for example, how Zeus “didst
harmonize/Things evil with things good” (24-25). The hymn closes with a
prayer for enlightenment and protection, and with the singer’s pledge that
he will praise Zeus’s “works continually with songs” (47).

The Zeus of Cleanthes, however, takes on new proportions and represents
different values: he is neither the literal god of the Homeric Hymns nor
the literary god of Callimachus. Cleanthes fills Zeus with “genuine
philosophical implications” and identifies him with the whole of
“metaphysical reality” (Rollinson 26-27). For Cleanthes, Zeus is an
ethereal “vehicle of the universal Word, that flows/Through all,”
enlightening his devotees despite being shrouded in darkness (lines 16-17).

“Knowledge” of Cleanthes’ Zeus and of his “universal law” are derived from
human reason rather than religious tradition (44, 5 l). Only persons
properly attuned are able to detect the subtle omnipresence of the god,
“whose deathless might / Pulsates through all Nature” (14-15). “The rest,”
writes Cleanthes, “Yet seeing see not, neither hearing hear,” and “for an
idle name / Vainly they wrestle in the lists of fame” (33, 30, 34-35).

Cleanthes’ Zeus is an immanent world-force to whom human beings may still
“yield/Glad homage” if they are “By reason guided” (11-12, 32). Like
Callimachus, Cleanthes uses the resources of the hymn genre to modify the
values it has traditionally embodied and communicated. The “Hymn to Zeus”
retains most of the classical hymn’s generic repertoire (sequence of parts,
lyrical aspect, supplicatory attitude, decorum of subject, elaborate
rhetorical style) while reorienting its traditional values and enlarging
its scale to encompass both religion and Stoic philosophy.

The Roman Emperor Julian, surnamed by Christian writers “The Apostate,”
composed two Greek prose hymns in the fourth century AD, “To King Helios”
and “To the Mother of the Gods” (Orations 4 and 5). Structurally, these
hymns resemble the Homeric, Callimachean, and Cleanthean hymns. The
exordium of the hymn “To King Helios” contains invocations as well as
personal references of the singer to himself. In the extended exposition,
the singer describes the powers and actions of Helios. The hymn concludes
with a prayer for grace “in recompense for this my zeal” and for “more
perfect wisdom and inspired intelligence” (158C).(4) Julian makes use of
Homeric and Callimachean rhetorical formulae, including what Rollinson
terms the “what or how may I sing thee” formula (Rollinson 17), in which
the singer questions his own ability, as a composer, to communicate the
divine: “Now it is hard, as I well know, merely to comprehend how great is
the Invisible, if one judge by his visible self, and to tell it is perhaps
impossible, even though one should consent to fall short of what is his
due” (132A).

Like Cleanthes, Julian gives the time-worn Olympians new life by imbuing
them with philosophical significance. But Julian sets out to elucidate the
obscure philosophy of his model, Iamblichus, and as a result the hymns “To
King Helios” and “To the Mother of the Gods” are much more didactic than
the “Hymn to Zeus.” He writes in prose. He expands the narrative
expositions to include philosophical interpretations of traditional myths.

Further, Julian syncretizes Greek, Egyptian, and Persian myths so that
Helios (an amalgam of Zeus, the Egyptian god Serapis, and the Persian god
Mithras) and Attis (an amalgam of Mithras and Persephone) take on manifold
significance.(5) An Homeric audience would scarcely recognize their Zeus in
Julian’s Helios. As Wilmer Cave Wright explains, Helios is at once the
“supreme principle of the One,” the intermediate “intellectual god” who
bestows upon human beings “intelligence and creative forces,” and the
governor of the world of sense-perception (349). Julian’s syncretic hymns
problematize the status of the traditional Greek gods praised in the
Homeric Hymns and already transformed in the hymns of Callimachus and
Cleanthes. The genre challenges and provokes Julian to transcend the
limitations of these examples, and in the hymn “To King Helios,” he calls
attention to his skill as a literary innovator (147C). Julian’s hymns are
further examples of the way classical hymn has changed with time, “so that
its boundaries cannot be defined by any single set of characteristics”
(Fowler 38). Post-classical, Christian, and Renaissance writers alter the
boundaries of classical hymn to such a degree that by the nineteenth
century the genre is not easily distinguishable. Modern readers have a
difficult time tracking the generic development and compositional
innovation of classical hymn after Spenser and Marullo.(6) As a result, the
“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” has remained generically enigmatic despite
its title. Ignoring the genre of the “Hymn” altogether, some critics
inadvertently accept generic conventions prescribed by fashion. Others,
including Hogle and Stuart Curran, discuss the hymn genre and its assumed
conventional “verse-form” without specification or definition (Hogle 62;
Curran 63). Generally, modern readers conclude that the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty” is not a hymn at all, but an ode (Cronin 224; Curran
58; Fry 8; Hall 136). This conclusion typically rests on at least one of
the following critical misconceptions related to genre. First, that genres
are fixed forms with little variability, defined by a single set of
characteristics “such as would determine a class” (Fowler 38). Modern
critics tend to measure literary hymns by strict standards that are rarely
explained or clarified. Romantic odes, on the other hand, are an exception,
for modern critics tend to give odists unusually free compositional reign.

The second misconception is that the common meter Christian hymn,
exemplified by Watts and the Wesleys in the eighteenth century, is the
model of the English literary hymn. Although its form is somewhat variable,
this model would restrict composers to subjects prescribed by religious
doctrine. And last, many critics insist that Shelley’s atheism precludes
his composing anything but an ironic or “Satanic” hymn (Fry 9). The
argument for intended irony is undercut, however, by Shelley’s own claim
that “the poem was composed under the influence of feelings which agitated
me even to tears” (Letters 529-30). Readers of Shelley may avoid these
misconceptions and may reach a different conclusion regarding the genre and
perhaps the meaning of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” by recalling
Shelley’s distrust of fixed form, his familiarity with and translations of
Greek literature, and his earnest desire both to expand literary tradition
and to be counted among its “supreme poets” (“Defence” 485). In terms of
the tradition of classical hymn, these and further dimensions of genre and
meaning in Shelley’s “Hymn” become apparent.

To say that Shelley’s poem is in dialogue with the classical hymn does not
mean that the poem is an imitation of a specific locus classicus. Like many
literary innovators, Shelley is in part a mediator of literature of a much
earlier period. But his dialogue with the classical hymn takes on a life of
its own. To transcend the limitations of these examples, Shelley employs
genre-linked features of the Homeric, Callimachean, Cleanthean, and Julian
hymns. The eighty-four-line “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is a lyric piece
with a subsidiary narrative section. It follows the linear sequence of
exordium, exposition, and peroration. Shelley observes a decorum of subject
that relates the “Hymn” to the attributes and actions of the object of
praise. The poem reflects the stylistic attitude of singer to deity and
includes epithets describing that deity: “Messenger of sympathies,” “O
awful Loveliness,” “Spirit Fair” (lines 42, 71, 83). The singer’s rhetoric
is elaborate, elevated, and solemn, and he refers to himself in the first

In the exordium in stanzas 1-4, the singer invokes the Spirit of Beauty and
then apostrophizes the Spirit for thirty-five lines:
Shelley’s exordium illustrates the singer’s reverence for and devotion to
the divinity praised, in the manner of the Homeric Hymns and, subsequently,
of Callimachus, Cleanthes, and Julian. The exordium points up both the
fundamental separation between singer and deity (“where art thou gone?”)
and the singer’s desire for that deity’s continued presence (“Keep with thy
glorious train firm state”).

In the exposition in stanza 5, the singer recounts a story associated with
the Spirit of Beauty. Shelley modulates the Homeric exposition, which
describes an “epoch-making moment in the mythic chronology of Olympus” and
“inaugurates a new era in the divine and human cosmos,” by presenting it on
a much smaller scale (Clay 15). We are informed that the Spirit descended
on the singer himself while he was “yet a boy” (“Hymn” 49). The
introduction of contemporary persons and events into the classical hymn has
its precedent in the Callimachean hymns; the singer’s relation of a
personal encounter with the divinity praised has its precedent in Julian’s
hymn “To King Helios.” Like Shelley’s singer, Julian’s describes an
“extraordinary longing” for metaphysical knowledge that overcame him during
his “earliest years” (“To Helios” 130C). “I walked abroad in the night
season,” explains the singer, and “abandoned all else without exception and
gave myself up to the beauties of the heavens; nor did I understand what
anyone might say to me, nor heed what I was doing myself” (130D). At last a
“heavenly light shone all about me,” and “it roused and urged me on to its
contemplation,” Julian writes, so that now “I regard the god . . . as the
father of all mankind” (131B-C). Similarly, Shelley’s singer wanders
“through many a listening chamber, cave, and ruin, / And starlight wood,”
futilely pursuing metaphysical knowledge, until the Spirit of Beauty
descends suddenly and unexpectedly upon him (“Hymn” 50-51).

Following the narrative section, Shelley’s “Hymn” closes with an earnest
peroration in stanzas 6-7 that includes another apostrophe, a prayer for
future grace, and the singer’s pledge of continued devotion. The singer’s
reference to himself as “one who worships thee, / And every form containing
thee” maintains both the poem’s supplicatory style and the dialectic of
separation and integration that most classical hymns require (81-82).

Shelley uses genre-linked features to prevent genre from becoming fixed and
lifeless. He keeps the dialectic of containment and effusion alive by
suggesting that the Spirit of Beauty can be worshipped both within and
without “containing” forms.

The status of divinity is problematic in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
because of Shelley’s atheism. Critics have wondered at the
uncharacteristically supplicatory and solemn attitude Shelley adopts in the
poem, and frequently they conclude that he intends irony. But Shelley’s
poem is neither a hymn to Apollo nor a Christian hymn. For Shelley, the
divinities of these traditions represent vital poetic ideas that have
hardened into dogma. The singer of the “Hymn” rejects all such “poisonous
names with which our youth is fed” (53). Traditional divinities have
degenerated into mere names or “Frail spells” whose “uttered charms” are
powerless against immanent “Doubt, chance, and mutability” (29, 31).

Shelley would be hesitant to compose a solemn hymn to a traditional
divinity or to endorse a particular method of worship.

Continued from page 4.

In the manner of Julian and Cleanthes, Shelley, therefore, eschews
Christian and classical deities for a “classical semi-philosophical” object
of praise (Rollinson 134). Julian’s Helios, described by the epithet “the
Invisible,” is a world-force occupying at once and separately the three
“worlds” of pure reason, consciousness, and sense perception (“To Helios”
132A-B). He is an amalgam of Greek, Persian, and Egyptian religion and a
complex embodiment of Iamblichean philosophy accessible only to the
indoctrinated (158A). Cleanthes’ Zeus is an immanent world-force that
“Pulsates through all nature,” bringing “To birth, whate’er land or in the
sea/Is wrought” (Cleanthes 15, 20-21). For Cleanthes, only those “By reason
guided” (32) are capable of discerning the omnipresence, and deriving
knowledge, of Zeus; one who is unable to compute the subtle movements of
Zeus is “Self-prompted” to pursue a “fruitless” and “idle name” (34, 38).

Shelley’s Spirit, similar to the philosophical divinities of Cleanthes and
Julian, is an immanent world-force, an “awful shadow of some unseen Power”
that “Floats though unseen amongst us” (“Hymn” 1-2). But unlike Zeus and
Helios, the Spirit of Beauty makes itself known to the “musing” rather than
the reasoning devotee (Cleanthes 55). For Cleanthes, musing or
“unreasoning” persons are “for ever seeking good and finding ill” (39).

Shelley’s Spirit of Beauty cannot be apprehended rationally. Indeed, to
underscore divinity’s remoteness from reason Shelley emphasizes the
inconstancy of the Spirit’s visits, the futility of the singer’s determined
quest for the Spirit, and the surprise with which the Spirit finally
descends. While the Spirit of Beauty has philosophical implications,
Shelley is far from using it to elucidate philosophical doctrine as Julian
does. He innovates on the examples of his predecessors by praising an
“intellectual” deity whose presence is made known to human beings by
unanticipated influxes of inspiration, without recourse to reason,
doctrine, or tradition. The Spirit of Beauty chooses to reveal and conceal
itself as the god of the Bible does. But, like the gods of Callimachus,
Shelley’s god exists only in poetry.

Twentieth-century critics are often reluctant to acknowledge Shelley’s
“Hymn” as a hymn because they mistakenly measure it against a vague, and
yet unyielding, model of the Christian hymn. Louis Benson offers his
criteria for hymn in The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship:
“The Literary Hymn may be described as one in which heightened feeling
seeks to confine an impression of some reality of religion within the
limits of the hymn form . . . and in which the spirit of pure devotion,
apart from didactic and utilitarian ends, reveals the essential poetry of
our infinite relationships” (437). Benson recognizes that literary hymns
must reckon with the paradox of confining the infinite, but he suggests
that such “essential poetry” must always be revealed through a fixed form.

For Benson, the “hymn form” is largely restricted to the four-beat rhythms
of short, long, and common meter, exemplified by the eighteenth-century
Christian hymns of Watts and the Wesleys (207). An implicit reason for
Benson’s exclusion of Shelley’s “Hymn” from the genre, therefore, is that
the poem strays from common measure. But he also regards Shelley’s elevated
rhetoric, supplicatory attitude, and non-Christian object of praise as
irreverent and wholly inappropriate for a literary hymn: “If Shelley’s
unmoral attitude of artistic elevation had been the standpoint of the new
Romantic movement, it might doubtless have come and gone with no
perceptible influence on Hymnody” (435-36).

Recent critics who conclude, with Benson, that Shelley’s “Hymn” is an
ironic or anti-hymn, or an ode, and do not take account of the rich,
influential “pagan” examples of Homer, Callimachus, Cleanthes, Julian, or
even of Spenser and Marullo, often are judging by an ill-defined model of
Christian hymn. They contend that because Shelley’s atheism is antithetical
to the values of the genre he ostensibly embraces, his adoption of hymn
suggests a “Satanic” motivation (Fry 9). Paul Fry points to the
interiorization taking place between the singer’s reliance on the “grace”-
bestowing Spirit in the first two stanzas and his burgeoning “Self-esteem”
at the opening of stanza 4 as evidence of the “Satanic” overthrow of hymn
by the originary voice of the Romantic odist (“Hymn” 36-37; Fry 9). Fry
associates the shift from general to personal concerns almost exclusively
with the Romantic ode. The ode, he writes, “is never a hymn” (9). Rather,
the odist attempts to “recover and usurp the voice to which hymns defer”

In terms of the tradition of classical hymn, however, the internal
transition that Fry observes in stanzas 3 and 4 of the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty” parallels the poem’s structural transition from
exordium to exposition. “Grace” and “Self-esteem” are complementary and
interrelated, as are the “Word” of Zeus and the divine “knowledge” it
imparts in Cleanthes’ hymn (Cleanthes 16, 44). That is, they are bestowed
upon attuned human beings by the divinity praised and are compromised by
that divinity’s departure. In stanza 4 of Shelley’s poem, the singer
dutifully celebrates the migratory Spirit of Beauty in the same manner that
Julian celebrates his Helios, as a catalyst of the imagination (“To Helios”
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! (“Hymn” 39-45)
Rather than depicting a “Satanic” impulse, the poem’s central image
associates the “nourishment” provided to “human thought” with “darkness to
a dying flame”: visitations of the Spirit of Beauty intensify the human
imagination, making it appear to burn brighter. The singer has experienced
such a visitation, and he proceeds from exordium to exposition with the
hope for another.

Like Fry, Stuart Curran argues that “the major hymn of British Romanticism
is, in fact, an ode” (63). In Curran’s view, Shelley is following the same
pattern of defiance in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” that he institutes
in “Mont Blanc,” that is, Shelley is attempting to establish a prophetic
poetic voice from a myriad of dialectical pressures (62-63). The drive to
extend the capacity of discernment and to figure that extension in a
suitably unhindered poetic form characterizes the Romantic odist, Curran
suggests, whereas the Romantic hymnist aims for complete absorption in his
object of praise. The hymn “insists on the veritable existence of the being
it calls upon,” assumes that “the space between” singer and deity can
close, and consequently sets up expectations of tidy containment and
assured future grace, none of which, according to Curran, can be found in
the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (56-57). Curran does not conclude that
the hymn is a fixed form. But he resolves that Shelley’s poem is not a hymn
because of the stylistic variation within its uniform stanzas. Furthermore,
other dialectics in the “Hymn” collapse into union only briefly: singer and
Spirit, inspiration and representation, and the temporal and the eternal.

The reconciliation of these dialectics is deferred; only “unresolved
tensions” endure (78). For Curran, the deferral of union in the “Hymn”
figures Shelley’s realization that “to be absorbed by pure beauty is to
lose the capacity of discernment, to become one with the cause and
unconscious of its effect” (62). Pulling back from this identification,
Curran claims, Shelley takes up instead the “dialectical condition of
humanity” that is played out in the Romantic ode, and therefore is “purely
ironic in subverting the form he invokes” (63).

But if we see the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” as a dialogue with the
classical hymn genre, our response will not be the same as if we saw it as
a Christian hymn or an ode. The examples of Callimachus and Julian
demonstrate that, for the most part, literal belief in the praised object
passed with the Homeric Hymns. Moreover, the hymns of Callimachus,
Cleanthes, and Julian are aimed at expanding both the inherited generic
boundaries of hymn and the artistic and philosophical horizons of singer
and listener. To be sure, Shelley’s Spirit has aesthetic and philosophical
aspects. But these aspects are deliberately vague and require particularly
fine discernment on the part of both singer and reader, for unlike his
predecessors, Shelley offers no supporting or code-breaking dogma
Continued from page 5.

Like Shelley’s “Hymn,” classical hymns acknowledge fundamental separation
while aspiring to reunion. After invoking a god, or muse, and relating an
event to exemplify that god’s power, works in the genre often conclude with
a perorational prayer that is necessary precisely because a breach remains
between god and singer. Affirming the basic separation of singer and deity,
the rhetorician Menander prescribes the following topos in his treatise on
hymns: “It is also necessary that a prayer should be made to the god
asking him to come back and stay again” (qtd. in Cairns 160). The “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty” approaches its conclusion with such a prayer:
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 . . .” (78-81)
As many hymns do, Shelley’s “Hymn” takes up the “dialectical condition of
humanity,” a condition that Curran and others associate with ode, and the
poem is in partial dialogue with contemporary odes and their lyric
assumptions (Curran 63). Because generic mixture is to be expected in
Shelley’s poetry, it should be no mystery. It is inevitable that Shelley’s
distrust of fixed form and his view of genre as ever-changing should entail
generic combination and innovation. But while an old generic label like
“hymn” cannot be taken at face value in his poetry, it still can be brought
to bear in a way that enhances our understanding of the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty.”
Like many classical hymns, including the Homeric Hymns translated by
Shelley, the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” follows a linear sequence of
exordium-exposition-peroration, maintains a supplicatory stylistic
attitude, includes a prayer for future grace, and observes a decorum of
subject that connects the poem with the object of praise. The dialectics of
containment and effusion, of separation and union, and of singer and
Spirit, which suggest humanity’s general dialectical condition, are
additional features of classical hymns that Shelley develops in the poem.

Perhaps it is appropriate that, attempting to join tradition by subduing
the brief visitations of inspiration and harboring suspicions about the
transmissive efficacy of traditional poetic forms and genres, Shelley
should compose a poem in dialogue with a genre fraught with dialectics.

Shelley brings to the genre a nontraditional divinity that is accessible by
means of neither doctrine nor reason, but by poetry only. He does not
intend to teach or elucidate divinity’s principles, but to show that its
principles cannot be taught or elucidated. Because classical hymn grapples
fundamentally with the problem of containing and expressing the divine and
the ineffable, the genre proves to be a positive support and building-block
for Shelley.

Genre-linked features of classical hymn also reinforce Shelley’s stylistic
troping of containment and effusion, to which we now turn. Even before
reading it, readers are aware of the unique stanzaic form of the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty,” merely because of the way the poem appears on the
page. Shelley appropriates a homostanzaic (one recurrent stanza) pattern
with a rigid program of indentation instead of the irregular strophes and
verse paragraphing he uses in other poems of this period, including
“Alastor” and “Mont Blanc.” Shelley’s translations of the Homeric Hymns,
most of which are written in heroic couplets, suggest that he believes
classical hymn adhere to a systematic formal pattern. His original works
bearing the title of hymn or ode also demonstrate Shelley’s tendency toward
typographical regularity. Of Shelley’s eight multi-stanza hymns, five are
stanzaically uniform; of his five poems designated as odes, only the “Ode
to Naples” is stanzaically irregular (although it is composed in repeating
Pindaric triads of strophe, antistrophe, and epode). In the remaining odes
he employs a single, recurrent stanza. Since Shelley composes homostanzaic
hymns and odes with such frequency, it is difficult to ascertain the
structural distinction he draws between the two genres. Indeed, many
commentators assume that Shelley makes no distinction.(7)
The elaborate typography of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” suggests that
it is a contained whole, its continuity fully in Shelley’s control. He
never veers from the poem’s stanzaic uniformity. The twelve-line stanza of
the “Hymn,” which appears to be original with Shelley, employs three
different line lengths, a distinct pattern of indentation, and a strict
abbaaccbddee rhyme scheme.(8) For Shelley, it is a beneficial support. It
offers a “proportioned space” in which to write and by which to order his
experience by during composition (Fowler 31). The stanza also offers a
challenge by enticing Shelley to transcend its boundaries stylistically. As
stanza 6 illustrates, Shelley seems to show off the very form by which he
intends to contain the Spirit of Beauty:
I vowed 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 visioned bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatched with me the envious night –
They know that never joy illumed my brow
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou – O awful Loveliness,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express. (61-72)
Shelley uses a rigid pattern of indentation to exploit the contrary pulls
of formal continuity and discontinuity. The first five lines emphasize
regularity and containment. Indentation corresponds to rhyme. The first,
fourth, and fifth lines are left-justified and rhyme; the second and third
lines are indented identically and rhyme. Only the fifth line, a hexameter,
varies from the pentameter norm. As the stanza develops, the symmetry of
the initial lines is compromised by a sudden elasticity in line-length and
indentation. Indentation for the last seven lines corresponds to meter,
with tetrameter lines indented the farthest. The sixth, seventh, ninth, and
tenth lines are tetrameters and rhyme. The eighth line rhymes with the
second and third, and is likewise pentameter, but a string of intervening
rhyming couplets enfeebles that correspondence. Structural symmetry is
compromised as the stanza develops; in the lower half of each “Hymn”
stanza, Shelley’s lines expand and contract like a “beating heart” (63).

Looking at the mechanisms of prosody that operate within the “Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty,” one gains a broader view of how Shelley structures
the genre-linked dialectic of containment and effusion. Since the classical
hymn does not have a fixed form, Shelley need not adhere to a particular
meter, rhyme scheme, or stanzaic arrangement. Nevertheless, he composes the
poem in a demanding metrical and structural pattern. Shelley uses rhyme,
varying line-length, repetition, and assonance to emphasize the poem’s
structural boundaries and to suggest visual and aural integrity. These
devices help establish sublexical order in the poem, including a “uniform
and harmonious recurrence of sound,” which, for Shelley, is indispensable
to any poetry capable of “communicating its influence” (“Defence” 484). At
the same time, Shelley enfigures effusion by use of enjambments and
caesurae (which disrupt the poem’s syntax) and by use of what John
Hollander calls the “bridging, associating, linking function” of rhyme and
other prosodic devices (119). Linking words, lines, and stanzas, Shelley
establishes an expanding chain of figures and sounds that often seems to
extend and operate outside of poetic form. Shelley is thus able to
approximate the passing of the migratory Spirit of Beauty. As Harold Bloom
remarks, the “Hymn” communicates “a vision whose reality is, and can only
be, embodied in a chain of metaphors”; a “single metaphor could not fit the
evanescent nature of the phenomenon that is the poem’s theme” (37). Shelley
activates lexical and sublexical figures to produce this intricate chain.

Continued from page 6.

Numerous enjambments and caesurae in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
offset the primary typographical metaphor of containment and magnify the
impression of effusion, not through any linking function, but by jarring
the poem’s syntax and opening up alternative, short-lived syntactic
strains. In their very abruptness, the structural impositions of enjambment
and caesurae figure the sudden disappearance of the Spirit of Beauty from
the grasp of the singer. Over a third of the poem’s eighty-four lines are
enjambed, producing periodic disjunctions between syntax and line
boundaries. In nearly half of the “Hymn,” caesurae break the syntax within
line boundaries. An overview of this dispersion shows Shelley moving
further away from uninterrupted syntax as the “Hymn” proceeds. Whereas
stanza I contains only two caesurae within line boundaries, central stanza
4 and concluding stanza 7 contain nine syntactic interruptions apiece.

From the poem’s opening lines, the dialectic of containment and effusion in
the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is apparent, structurally and
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen amongst us, – visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that drift from flower to flower. (1-4)
This is a power that transcends the tangible landscape, making its very
materiality seem false (Watson 206). The power itself is thrice removed, an
invisible shadow further distanced through simile. In the above quatrain,
enjambment works to extend the separation between singer and Spirit to the
verge of imperceptibility. Shelley stresses the transitory by cutting off
his lines at “unseen Power” (1), “visiting” (2), and “inconstant wing” (3),
and then leaving these already transitory terms to dissolve quickly into
the empty space beyond each line. The linking function of rhyme here
destabilizes the quatrain. Although “Power” and “flower” rhyme, the
intervening and feebler “visiting” / “wing” rhyme, along with the
repetition of “flower” in line 4, weaken the resonance of the envelope

In the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley establishes a sense of
stability in the first stanza by means of repetition, but it is immediately
compromised because the repeated words, “unseen,” “inconstant,” and
“visit,” are not associated with stability (1-3, 6). He uses the word
“like” five times in the first stanza, and each time it introduces a
temporal simile. Summer winds, moonbeams, shades of evening, clouds, and
memories of music come and go, like the Spirit of Beauty, without regard
for human desire (5, 8-11). In this series of similies, as Bloom notes,
instead of creating an impression of containment, “all of the natural
citation is wavering” (37). In the stanza’s last line, the singer stresses
and repeats how “dear” the Spirit is to him, “Dear, and yet dearer for its
mystery” (“Hymn” 12). But his use of the comparative suggests that the
inscrutability of the Spirit is more precious than any of its temporary
avatars. In addition to suggesting the Spirit’s inscrutability, the final
word in stanza 1, “mystery,” leaves both reader and singer uncertain of
their ability to apprehend the Spirit within the poetic trappings of the
Containment and continuity are reasserted in the opening lines of stanza 2,
but these qualities fail and fade as quickly as they appear. It is as if
readers were expected to share the singer’s hopelessness upon each
disappearance of divinity:
Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought and form, – where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate? (13-17)
Shelley continues to enfigure containment and evanescence by employing
indentation, enjambment, caesurae, line length, and assonance. The first
quatrain again displays the symmetry produced by indentation. But its
initial line, split by a medial caesura into two segments syllabically
equal, undermines this symmetry. The Spirit of Beauty and its consecrating
power are separated: linear disruption compromises the Spirit’s integrity.

In lines 14-15, Shelley’s enjambment of “all thou dost shine upon / Of
human thought” creates at least two interpretive strains without disrupting
the stanza’s syntax. One might read line 14 as a description of the
Spirit’s infinity: it makes sacred every single thing it shines upon. But
the syntax spills rapidly into line 15, making it evident that the Spirit
of Beauty specifically illuminates human beings and their produced forms.

The Spirit consecrates “all . . . / . . . of human thought and form” on
which it shines: “all” is qualified by “human” in lines 14-15. Shelley’s
enjambment here suggests that the Spirit of Beauty is uncontainable at one
moment and confined to human minds and art forms at another. To make the
status of divinity even more problematic, Shelley allows neither of these
strains to prevail. Created and sustained by enjambment, the first
dissolves as the next line is read. The second strain is abruptly cut off
by a medial caesura in line 15. Just as the singer apprehends divinity, it
evaporates: “where art thou gone?”
Shelley employs the hexameter in stanza 2 with particular figurative
efficacy. Following the light pentameter of line 16, which approximates the
swift departure of the Spirit of Beauty, the hexameter’s heavily accented
monosyllables “dim vast vale of tears,” top-heavy disyllabic “vacant” and
trisyllabic “desolate,” /a/ assonance, and repeating phonemes /v/, /d/, and
/t/ underscore and prolong the singer’s hopelessness upon the Spirit’s
abrupt departure. The accumulation of syllables in the hexameter gives way,
just as abruptly, to the tetrameter of line 18 (“Ask why the sunlight not
forever”), calling attention again to the linear elasticity of the lower
half of the “Hymn” stanza and to the brevity of the Spirit’s visit.

The closing couplet of stanza 2 – “why man has such a scope / For love and
hate, despondency and hope?” (23-24) – offers another example of how
Shelley exploits the implications of line and stanza-ending to undermine
structural continuity. Shelley weakens the stanza’s and couplet’s effects
of closure by ending with a question. The question reverberates across the
stanzaic break before the singer informs us that it cannot be answered in
any poetry or by any metaphysical inquiry: “No voice from some sublimer
world hath ever / To sage or poet these responses given” (25-26). Shelley
has actually intimated the unanswerability of this question in the asking,
by playing off its “scope” (23). At the end of line 23, the question
appears to be an inquiry into the (presumably vast) extent of human
intellect and is left open by the enjambment after “scope.” But Shelley
abruptly restricts that “scope” to the non-rational qualities of “love and
hate, despondency and hope” in line 24. The seemingly unhindered range of
human beings is thus reduced to a view determined by irrational powers and
very limited in extent. Shelley implies that the possibilities for a return
to or union with the “sublimer world” are diminished by humanity’s
misreading of its own “scope” (25).

In the manner of Julian’s hymns, the singer narrates in stanza 5’s
exposition his personal experience of union with divinity. Shelley
reinforces the union by figuring it in meter and rhyme. The Spirit of
Beauty descends on the singer unexpectedly, in swift tetrameter, and
dissolves along with the singer’s “extacy” in the very next line (60).

Shelley places this brief rhapsodic union (the sheer sublimity of which
obliterates all of the “Frail spells” and “poisonous names” that can be
squeezed into a hexameter) within stanza 5’s closing couplet, that is,
within a mere two of the “Hymn'”s eighty-four lines: Sudden, thy shadow
fell on me;! I shrieked, and clasped my hands in extacy!” (29, 53, 59-60).

The associative chain produced by the provocative feminine off-rhymes,
“ruin” / “pursuing” / “wooing” / “blossoming,” parallels the growing
intensity of action in stanza 5 leading up to the climactic final couplet
(50, 51,56, 58). It also traces the developmental stages of the singer that
led to his encounter with the Spirit of Beauty.

Continued from page 7.

Just as the singer’s devotion to the Spirit reaches a new level following
the Spirit’s descent, the poem’s syntax takes on a new degree of
accommodation in the peroration in stanza 7. The Spirit of Beauty is
somewhat more subdued, for it now inspires “calm” instead of “extacy” (81,
60). The singer, too, seems more at ease. His focus is on his “onward life”
rather than the “dark reality” of the grave, and he recognizes a “serene”
“harmony” and “lustre” where he once saw a”dim vast vale of tears, vacant
and desolate” (80, 47-48, 73-75, 17). The “passive youth” who once wandered
the “starlight wood” now appreciates the “harmony” of an autumn afternoon
(79, 51,74-75). The final couplet in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,”
however, upsets this tranquillity:
Whom, Spirit fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind. (83-84)
This is a tightly-knit ending, predominantly iambic and reinforced by
rhyme. But the sense of formal containment is countered by a subtle sense
of disruption. Three caesurae interrupt the syntax of the couplet. The
break at line 83, like those at lines 14 and 23, establishes at least two
interpretive strains: the first associates human beings with metaphysical
power; the second revokes this power and circumscribes human beings within
very particular earthly limits. Shelley frees his syntax from a single
strain by paradoxically using “bind” at the point of enjambment. At the end
of line 83, the singer is bound to a boundless Spirit. In the next line,
however, we find that the singer is not bound to the Spirit of Beauty after
all. He is specifically bound “To fear himself, and love all human kind”
(84). This, it appears, is the obligation of singer, devotee, and reader;
one might be tempted to interpret this as atheistic doctrine. But as we
have seen, Shelley aims in the “Hymn” to avoid the didacticism of previous
classical hymns. He does not wish to add to the long line of “Frail spells”
and “uttered charms” that distort the vital poetic ideas inspiring them
(29). The final line of the poem, which may appear to be doctrinal, is
ambiguous. Shelley does not specify whether “fear” denotes mistrust,
respect, doubt, or reverence. As the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” ends,
the syntax again begins to open up. Yet Shelley’s “solemn and serene” and
congregational final image, of human unity in the service of an inspiring
Spirit and in the face of transience, is another reminder of the classical
hymn’s peroration and a sign that Shelley’s dialogue with that genre is
open until the end of the “Hymn” (73).

Shelley has managed both to mediate a number of opposing qualities in the
“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and to keep his “synthesizing consciousness”
intact (Curran 78). The poem is a precarious mediation of enclosure and
effusion, separateness and union, innovation and convention – one that
leaves many tensions unresolved. Appropriately, the “Hymn” is in dialogue
with the classical hymn, a genre linked by convention to such dialectics
and granted wide structural variability by literary tradition. Shelley does
not imitate a particular example of classical hymn, but employs a number of
its genre-linked features to transcend the limitations established by
previous works in the genre. In the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” just as
Callimachus, Cleanthes, and Julian restyle the Homeric Olympians and the
genre-linked features of the Homeric Hymns, Shelley also employs the
resources of hymn to restyle time-worn values associated with the genre.

Shelley introduces a personal, non-traditional deity that exists only in
poetry. Knowledge of this deity is derived neither by doctrine nor reason,
but only through patterns of internal consistencies and disruptions in the
poem itself. As the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” demonstrates, patterns
brought to light through the analysis of genre affect meaning in Shelley’s
poetry, and while genre criticism is not the whole of criticism, it makes
an invaluable contribution to Shelley studies because it helps to
illustrate the coherence of works that might otherwise appear enigmatic or

1 Rajan points to the association in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” of
“darkness to a dying flame” (45) as a paradigmatic instance of a Shelleyan
representational gap or place of indeterminacy. In this instance, she
writes, “An idea is embodied in a figure whose subtext generates a
different and autonomous idea” (Rajan 286). The figure of darkness “can
seem to continue the idea of beauty as fostering human development,” but
Rajan regards this reading as secondary to the one that suggests “darkness
smothers the dying flame” (286). The point is well-raised, but if Shelley’s
meaning is vacuous, as Rajan argues it is, attending to primary connotation
seems to compromise the aim to be free of “the tyranny of the original
intention” (293).

2 See esp. Cantor 92-93 and Wolfson 912.

3 For a discussion of the major Homeric Hymns (“To Apollo,” “To Hermes,”
“To Aphrodite,” and “To Demeter”) as a genre that bridges archaic Greek
theogonic and epic poetry, see Clay 3-16.

4 I cite Julian by manuscript section number as presented in the Loeb
Classical Library edition of his works.

5 For a helpful explanation of Julian’s syncretized and philosophical gods,
see Wilmer Cave Wright’s introductions to Julian’s hymns (348-51; 439-41).

Rollinson also provides useful information on Julian’s hymn innovations (28-

6 For an extensive survey of the classical hymn tradition during the
Renaissance, with particular emphasis on Spenser and Marullo, see Rollinson
(50-155). See also Schlueter (esp. 214-50), who claims that a “secondary
tradition” of classical hymn, with a particular “hymnic model,” was
introduced during the Renaissance by Sidney and Milton and continued by
Gray, Collins, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (244). Drawing on
the rhetorician Menander’s description of the hymnos kletikos, Schlueter
conceives this model as a tripartite structure similar to the one posited
by Rollinson and discussed here. Schlueter provides few examples, however,
to buttress his argument that Shelley’s “To Night” is in dialogue with, or
innovating upon, the primary tradition of classical hymn.

7 Shelley’s hymns include the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” the “Hymn of
Pan,” and “Hymn of Apollo,” and translations of seven Homeric hymns. His
odes include “Ode to Heaven,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “Ode to Spain,” “Ode
to Naples,” and “Ode to Liberty.” Shelley’s “Hymn to the Sun” consists of
two twelve-line stanzas in heroic couplets, and the “Hymn to Mercury” is
presented in ninety-seven stanzas of ottava rima. Of Shelley’s remaining
hymns, two are composed in irregular strophes (“To the Moon” and “To the
Earth, Mother of All”), two are a single stanza long (“To Castor and
Pollux” and “To Mercury”), and one is incomplete (“To Venus”).

8 Critical notice of the form of Shelley’s “Hymn,” particularly of its
twelve-line stanza, has been cursory. In their respective studies of the
poem, Harold Bloom, Stuart Curran, Paul Fry, and Susan Wolfson do not
investigate the unique “Hymn” stanza. Among the few references to this
stanza, Ernst Haublein observes merely that “stanzas of ten, eleven, or
twelve lines hardly occur in English poetry . . . Shelley has a twelve
line stanza in ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,'” (33). David Robertson, in
his comparison of Shelley’s hymn and Psalm 90, notes that Shelley “chooses
a very demanding stanzaic form (twelve iambic lines, the first four of
which are pentameter, the fifth hexameter, the next six tetrameter, and the
last pentameter, with rhyme scheme abbaaccbddee) and invariably adheres to
that form” (63). Shelley’s stanza is in fact pentameter at line eight; only
in the first stanza is line eight tetrameter. Curran suggests, as Bloom
does to a lesser degree, that Shelley’s “Hymn” “responds antithetically to
Coleridge’s ‘Hymn Before Sunrise,'” written in 1802 (Curran 58; Bloom 11;
35). Formally, the two works are quite different. Coleridge’s “Hymn” is
written in blank verse and appears in eight irregular strophes; Shelley’s
“Hymn” is homostanzaic and follows strict rhyme and indentation schemes.

Although the twelve-line stanza of Shelley’s “Hymn” is unique, similar
structures are used elsewhere by Coleridge, Thomas Gray and Sir William
Jones. Coleridge’s “Ode to the Departing Year” (1796) contains a twelve-
line strophe that appears twice and is very similar to Shelley’s “Hymn”
stanza. The single difference in rhyme scheme shows at line 5, where
Coleridge has a b rhyme, Shelley an a. Coleridge’s alexandrine is placed at
stanza’s end, while Shelley’s is placed at line 5. Only two tetrameter
lines (a couplet) appear in the Coleridge strophe, their indentation
matching the two previous rhyming couplets. To illustrate the similarity of
Shelley’s and Coleridge’s typography, here is the first strophe from “Ode
to the Departing Year”: