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Understanding Beauty as Percy Bysshe Shelley does—as a principle, like Truth or Justice—should lie at the heart of any rigorously-developed classical curriculum that aims to inspire a new generation of poets, scientists, artists, and genuinely creative citizens.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”—perhaps one of his greatest works—is a wonderfully Platonic exploration of the “One and the Many” paradox. Rather than treating beauty as a thing in-and-of itself, or something that can be simply pinned down using a system of perfect categories, Shelley recognizes a “Spirit of Beauty.” This “Spirit” manifests itself in various ways and countless new forms throughout the material world. Shelley thus treats “the Many” as the endless variations and discrete expressions of “the One.”

Understanding Beauty in this way—as a principle, like Truth or Justice—should lie at the heart of any rigorously developed classical curriculum that aims to inspire a new generation of poets, scientists, artists, and genuinely creative citizens who are capable of reading between the lines, expressing complex and nuanced ideas, and investigating their own underlying axioms in a rigorous and self-conscious way. In this manner, citizens become capable of thinking in new non-linear ways, making new discoveries, and wrestling with the greater paradoxes of mind, natural law, and the universe at large.

Shelley begins his hymn by describing various glimpses of what he calls “the awful shadow of some unseen Power” moving throughout the world:

“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,”

Shelley offers various scenes and images, but states that they are all the unique expression of a single “Spirit of Beauty,” like themes and variations in a Bach fugue or Beethoven symphony. In this respect, it is no different than when Plato in his Timaeus dialogue speaks of a principle of matter, saying that we should not refer to fire as “this fire” but rather “thus fire”—fire being only one of the many possible expressions of a principle called matter. Today, we understand this principle of matter in its most modern form as the periodic table of elements—a system that continues to be expanded as we discover ever new forms of matter i.e. “isotopes” and new atomic configurations of what were once thought simple discrete particles.

Shelley takes the same universal Platonic approach with his hymn and applies it to what he calls the “Spirit of Beauty”:

Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate

With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon

Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?

As all great artists, philosophers and thinkers so often do, Shelley creates a contrast of opposites, emphasizing the nature and reality of Beauty by conjuring scenes in which we find it absent:

“Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,

This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?”

Shelley responds to his own paradox by speaking to the nature of the transient world:

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?

Unfortunately, going back to 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, a dichotomy was drawn between things of the material world, i.e., quantitatively measurable phenomenon, and the higher spiritual or transcendent reality which must necessarily account for the infinite change and variation that unfolds within the bounds of the discrete sense-perceptual world. Plato defined this higher reality as the domain of ideas—of Being—the realm which allows us to understand the causal principles generating the “shadows” on the cave walls of our unfolding reality—the Becoming.

By “Enlightenment” philosophy standards, reality was reduced to only those things which could be directly measured or perceived i.e. objects of sense. The consequence was the sundering of our understanding of the relationship between the material world and the necessary transcendent realm which makes the existence of sense-perceptual objects possible in the first place. Out of Enlightenment philosophy arose an attack on the concept of ideas as such (Plato’s “Forms”), relegating the question of all things beyond what we can directly touch, taste, hear, see or smell to the obscure department of “metaphysics.”

While this essay is about a poem whose subject is Beauty, the author believes that a proper reading of this poem requires a recognition of the deeper epistemological questions which Shelley consciously sought to address in his poem. For, Shelley was a poet of the highest order and very consciously wrote in the tradition of the classical Greeks that he admired. He did so with the intent of restoring our understanding of the relationship between the domain of ideas and the physical universe in which they unfold. Indeed, throughout his works we can see that Shelley lived within the domain of ideas and understood his experience of the physical world and immediate sensory experience of things as the necessary shadows cast by unchanging principles—eternal laws—which manifest themselves in various forms and shapes throughout our constantly changing and evolving universe.

Shelley’s hymn also serves as a means of announcing his desire to pursue and dedicate the rest of his life to this “Spirit of Beauty,” which he did until his dying breath.

Despite the “Doubt, chance, and mutability” wrought by the reality of human life, Shelley says:

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.

With the next stanzas, Shelley adds new degrees of meaning to his theme and elaborates on the relationship between the ever-changing world of things and the universal longing which lies at the heart of man’s desire for ever-lasting things:

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;

The many sentiments that “wax and wane in lover’s eyes” are counterpointed with the constantly renewing power of Beauty. It is a journey that continuously breathes new life into man’s efforts and lends its light to his intellectual vision, “Like darkness to a dying flame!”

Shelley then describes the exciting moment in which he came to discover and understand this higher principle of Beauty:

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!

What we are confronted with in the case of Shelley’s hymn is Truth, or Beauty, mirrored in the endless unfolding of the material world, such that:

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?

From a more mature stage in his life, Shelley reflects on the nature of this principle, which he specifically terms “Intellectual Beauty,” as opposed to the earlier forms that enticed him, “like the truth/ Of nature on my passive youth”:

The day becomes more solemn and serene

When noon is past; there is a harmony

In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,

Which through the summer is not heard or seen,

As if it could not be, as if it had not been!

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,

And every form containing thee,

Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind

To fear himself, and love all human kind.

Just as autumn reveals a beauty that seemed absent throughout the summer months, and only appeared under different circumstances like changing seasons, so Shelley declares his commitment to this “Spirit fair” in all its forms, “And every form containing thee.”

Despite his brief time on Earth, Shelley succeeded in grasping what too many fail to grasp in an entire lifetime. Fortunately for us, Shelley kept his vow. He dedicated his powers and talents to capturing these immutable principles and rendering them into new timeless forms whereby we might also find this “Spirit” awakened within us, and pursue it.

Appendix

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 not—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

Of studious zeal or love’s delight

Outwatch’d with me the envious night:

They know that never joy illum’d my brow

Unlink’d 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.

The day becomes more solemn and serene

When noon is past; there is a harmony

In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,

Which through the summer is not heard or seen,

As if it could not be, as if it had not been!

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,

And every form containing thee,

Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind

To fear himself, and love all human kind.

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The featured image is “Apparition in the Forest (from Sleeping Beauty)” (before 1858) by Moritz von Schwind. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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