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Shadow, Wind, And Wordsworth In Shelley’s “Hym To Intellectual Beauty”

1763 words - 8 pages

In Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” we see throughout many hints as to the nature of his sublime, but we are never able to view it directly. This is in keeping with the body of Shelley’s work, wherein the sublime is often alluded to, but seldom shown. In addition, it is impossible to ignore his indebtedness to Wordsworth, and the traditions he created. The poem begins, “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” (1-4). There are many key words in this opening passage, which give us an indication as to what is on Shelley’s mind. ...view middle of the document...

He boils down his brush with the sublime to the most minute of moments. The indication of it is all around, literally “among us,” but it so transient as not to be easily grasped. Shelley’s use of “various” to describe the world this shadow visits is another key; while he may mean different or various, I believe that the particular meaning of the word he is using here is to indicate a sense of the separate. The sublime is just as real as the earthly realm, but it is separated from it and thus pushed further from ready availability. Shelley then transitions into a wonderful contrast, the ominous “awful shadow” being likened to “summer winds,” an image that is anything but awful. This is further enhanced by the fact that the winds are creeping “from flower to flower,” a scene of nature’s beauty. These are not, however, Wordsworth’s daffodils. There is no such easy sublime to be found for Shelley in the beauty of nature; his sublime is having an effect on nature, nothing more, and remains beyond his ability to take in hand. Wind, like shadow, is merely the effect of some greater causation, an insubstantial after-image of some greater thing. It too is here and then gone, which fact he alludes to by referring to the wind as travelling on an “inconstant wing.” Many of the individual words Shelley uses here, such as “awful,” “inconstant,” and “creep” emphasise the sense of frustration he is consumed with, because his sublime is not a convenient, Wordsworthian one.
The remainder of the first stanza compares the “unseen Power” to several other examples of nature, but Shelley finds himself inadequate to the task. The second stanza begins, “Spirit of BEAUTY… / …where art thou gone? / Why dost thou pass away and leave our state, / This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?” (13, 15-17). Now the “Power” has become the “Spirit of BEAUTY,” delineating more clearly what it is that Shelley is trying to grasp. Once again he uses capitalisation, though in this case every letter of the name; this particular emphasis indicates something more, something divine. He asks where it has gone, its transient nature having allowed him but a glimpse of its existence. Though he can see the evidence of it all about him, Shelley seeks the source itself; one gets the sense that the forms of earthly beauty are but empty shells to him. In the next line we see death making a visit, a common idea in much of Shelley’s work. The connotation of “pass away” is impossible to ignore. Superficially, he is referring to the wind-like substance of beauty, visiting upon the earth and flowing away, but what he is really asking is, “why have you died?” This passing leaves mankind empty, as we see that we are “vacant and desolate.” It is interesting to note here, once again, the contrast between Shelley and Wordsworth. For the elder poet, it was only through emptying his mind, making it...

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