In seven stanzas, a first-person poetic persona turns inward to appreciate the power of knowledge and wonders how to recapture it. In the first stanza, he describes the spirit of natural beauty with awe; it is a power that can hardly be grasped. He addresses that spirit in the second stanza; it seems to be gone, leaving humans in gloom. People have tried to name it, but they have made it something supernatural, like a ghost; instead of superstition, people should focus on the graceful light of reality and truth. In the fourth stanza, knowledge appears to be more enduring than emotions such as love; it lights up the heart.
The persona then recalls his youth, when he used to seek passing or imaginary things like “ghosts” and love, but then the deep shadow of nature’s reality fell upon him, and he felt the ecstasy of the possibility of intellectual knowledge. He vowed to dedicate his powers to knowledge and study. He also has always hoped that knowledge “wouldst free / This world from its dark slavery” to superstition. In the final stanza, he adds that he has worshiped knowledge of nature, which provides calm love and conquers fear.
“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” makes much reference to a key poet among the first generation of Romantics, William Blake. The speaker begins by drawing attention to “the awful shadow of some unseen Power.” Here, “awful” means full of awe, like the modern term “awesome.” The “power” is the human intellect, something beyond access by the senses, which must be beautiful in a way different from the things that are beautiful directly to the eyes. This is a quite Blakeian way of viewing the human mind in relation to the natural world, while it also draws on a long Platonic tradition of seeing beauty in abstract concepts. The overarching theme of the poem, according to one critic, is to recognize the “awareness which lends splendor, grace, and truth both to the experience itself and to the natural world” (Abrams 1744) in which the experience takes place. In other words, Shelley argues that the real beauty of nature and experience lies in the human exploration of creativity and imagination, the ability to “perceive” beauty and truth in experience, going beyond the experience itself.
Stanza one begins with the speaker in a state of rapture, relating the invisible power to the pleasant things of nature: “summer winds,” “flowers,” “moonbeams,” “harmonies of evening,” and “starlight. Yet it is more than these things; these are mere similes (note the frequent use of “like”). As mysterious as its appearance, the invisible power too easily abandons him, and the speaker complains about its disappearance, especially in the first two stanzas. The once enchanted setting becomes, without intellectual virtue, “dim,” full of “tears,” “vacant,” and “desolate.”
Each stanza employs an iambic rhythm, suitable for song. Poetically, a hymn is “a song of praise, thanksgiving, or devotion” (Frye 232). Shelley thus gives high praise to the human intellect, since hymns are traditionally reserved for worship of God. For Shelley (being an atheist), in the absence of God the highest thing to praise is the human spirit, specifically the intellectual spirit, which the poet directly addresses as a real being. Stanzas five to seven illustrate this devotion to this mysterious “beauty,” especially when the poet rhetorically asks, “I vowed that I would dedicate my powers / To thee and thine—have I not kept thy vow?” In contrast, the poet does not put faith in religion, putting “Ghost” and “Heaven” in the same category, and suggesting that it is useless to try to pray to saints, the “departed dead.”
Yet, since intellectual beauty is so fleeting, the poet argues, many people have turned to religion to make sense of the difficulty of understanding the world. People are “vain” in this endeavor, and in the third stanza the speaker attacks what he sees as religious superstition. In contrast, the light of the intellect is what brings “grace and truth” to life. “Love, Hope, and Self-esteem” are not much better, for these emotions also pass back and forth like clouds. In contrast, man would be “immortal and omnipotent” if only he were able to “keep thy glorious train within his heart.”
The fifth stanza continues the atheist and philosophical critique. Shelley refers to his youthful experiences with religion, which now seem like useless prayers or even magic (denouncing the “poisonous names” of saints who ignored his prayers). The “listening chamber” of a church building is compared with Plato’s “cave” in the Republic, the place where people learn the names of things by identifying their shadows, without ever gazing on the real things themselves. In contrast, when the “shadow” of true knowledge starts to come across him, he realizes what he has been missing, and he “vows” to “dedicate his powers” to intellectual beauty. Whereas religious ways of knowing lead to “dark slavery,” the poet hopes that true understanding of the natural world will lift us out of darkness, even beyond what the poet can express in words.
The poem concludes with the speaker recognizing the “serenity” of the day after the “noon” has past and “autumn” approaches. This is a metaphor for the poet’s life; he thinks he is past the dawn of youthful misunderstanding and is even past the midpoint of realizing the difference between superstition and knowledge. He thus has entered a new age of understanding. Superstition works people up unnecessarily, while knowledge is “solemn” and calming. The final two lines define intellectual beauty for the reader as a “spirit” with spellbinding powers. Knowledge is awesome and fearsome, yet humans are by nature able to know, which makes each person lovable for his or her intellectual potential.
Images in the poem range from the dark and dreary moments when intellectual beauty is absent, to the joyous and rapture of the speaker in its presence. Shelley also incorporates numerous references to nature as well as gothic semi-realities and superstitions (“demon,” “ghost,” “poisonous,” “spells”). These references underscore the contrast between “reality” and the false images of the human imagination.
As stated earlier, a hymn is a song of praise, and here Shelley’s mood is one of joy and countenance for this “unseen power.” Shelley uses parallelism to substantiate his argument, recalling stories of his youth when religion failed him, pairing them with this moment of rapture when the “air spirit” of truth is by his side. Rather than being caught up with beauty as viewed in the natural world, however, Shelley chooses to focus on the aesthetic of knowledge of the natural world, a deeper kind of beauty. By loading metaphor and simile early on in the poem, the poet gives life beyond the senses to this “spirit of beauty.” It must be remembered that in addressing the intellectual spirit in this way, the poet is not making up yet another fake spirit; for him, this is the true intellectual spirit of the human mind.