Summary of Percy Shelley’s Hymn to Intellectual Beauty

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley.


Shelley speaks of the fleeting nature of an unseen Power that pervades this universe. The mysterious influence of this invisible power lies hidden from us, and it manifests itself in various objects of nature with suddenness and uncertainty like the summer wind blowing from flower to flower. Like the quiet and beautiful shower of moonbeams on a pine-covered mountain, it suddenly transforms the human mind and look. It has the magic of tender and mellow colours and sounds of the evening. It has the beauty of the clouds on a starlit night. It is as delicate and lovely as the aural impressions of music in the memory after the music itself has ceased. It is like anything that is sweet because it is beautiful but has an even more tender appeal on account of its mysterious and indefinable character.

The Spirit of Beauty transforms all objects, both of Nature and the human mind, when it visits them. The poet asks where the Spirit of Beauty has gone and why it vanishes so quickly leaving the world in suffering and desolation. Its absence makes this world a dim vast vale of tears. The poet questions: why does not the sunlight transform the sky with rainbows over the distant mountains all along; why should the lovely things of the world that we have once seen perish; why should our life be made unhappy by the endless chain of birth and death, fear and hope; why do such contradictory things like love and hate, hope and despair exist together? Once the Spiritual Beauty passes over, it leaves us even more desolate and empty than before. Hence the poet asks why everything is cast away in the state of sorrow and decay.

No explanations of these questions of life have ever been given to a sage or a poet by any illumination from the spiritual world. So, in their fruitless attempt to know these things they have invented the names of Demon, Ghosts and God. But these are vain charms, for the fruitless repetition of these does not help us to escape chance, change or doubt. Only the Spirit of Intellectual Beauty, like the fog driven over the mountains or like the night-wind blowing against some still instrument which vibrates with music in the silence of the night, or like the moonbeam of the midnight, lends some charm and glimpses of truth to our dreary and uncertain existence. The fragility, the serenity and the loveliness of the spirit of Intellectual Beauty are conveyed through these images.

Love, Hope and Self-esteem are uncertain and short-lived like the flitting clouds. If the invisible and mysterious Spirit of Beauty constantly influences the human heart then man would become immortal and omnipotent. The Spirit of Beauty brings to man the mystic message of mutual sympathy that glows and fades away in the lovers’ eyes and also nourishes the intellectual life of man as darkness makes the dying flame aglow. The poet appeals to the spirit not to fade away as soon as he feels its influence, for if it leaves, death would become as tearful as life is. The poet feels that it is not Intellectual Beauty itself that visits human beings, but its “shadow” as well.

During his school days, Shelley was fascinated with tales of horror with phantasies and ghosts and he searched for supernatural beings. He moved through rooms, caves, ruins of buildings and starlit forests with fear in his heart in the hope of seeing the dead and to talk on great subjects with them. But all his efforts proved futile. He did not receive any response. Then while thinking deeply on his fate in the springtime when the winds blew and all things were full of life and Warmth, all of a sudden he felt the presence of the Intellectual Beauty. He was so excited that he shrieked and clasped his hands in ecstasy.

Then he promised that he would devote all his strength to Beauty and all beautiful things and he kept his promise. With throbbing heart and tear-filled eyes, he calls upon the phantom-like shapes of Beauty from where they have vanished to witness the truth of his statement. He calls upon all those hours to witness that never has joy lightened his brow without the hope that the awful loveliness of Intellectual Beauty would free the world from its slavery and give it what he cannot express in words.

The day becomes more solemn and serene when the noon is past. There is music in the Autumn and a mellow beauty in the autumnal sky which are never heard or seen in Summer, which is even impossible to imagine then. He wishes the Intellectual Beauty, which transformed his passive youth, to give the autumnal calm to his maturer years for the influence of the Spirit has made him love all mankind and be free of arrogance. Shelley feels uncertain of himself, admits he is capable of making mistakes. Only with the help of Intellectual Beauty, he can hope for a better world.

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