Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (73-84)

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.

These are the beautiful closing lines from Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." It's a striking precursor to the famous line from Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning"--"Death is the mother of beauty." The central idea here is introduced with the afternoon and autumn images in the opening lines of the passage. Both are iconic images of decline, decline from the brilliant sunshine of mid-day or from the height of summer. The claim is that the sense of an impending end--that is, nightfall or winter--brings with it a depth of feeling and understanding that one cannot perceive while the day or year is in its ascendancy or at its height. There is something "solemn and serene," a "harmony" and a "lustre," that "is not heard or seen" during the full glare of noon/summer.

Much of the poem has been given to questions about Intellectual Beauty, Shelley's term for the ultimate but elusive source of this serene harmony. As the poem proceeds, Shelley identifies and describes Intellectual Beauty in a series of oblique similes, he wonders about and laments its fleeting nature, he describes a visionary moment in his youth when, however fleetingly, he felt its presence and power. But now there seems to be a recognition that fleetingness (or mortality) is the very condition that reveals, however temporarily, the presence of Intellectual Beauty. The poem then ends with a quiet prayer for the continuing "calm" supplied by this informing spirit: "Thus let thy power ... to my onward life supply / Its calm."

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