An Atheist Writes a Poem to the Dark Ontological Mystery: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816)

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816), is an extraordinary instance of an atheist addressing—or speaking to—the shadowy side of the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) as if it possessed a human persona, or was even a god.

The poem has seven stanzas. Here’s the first one:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

      Floats though unseen among us,—visiting

      This various world with an 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.

Notice that, like a theist who might capitalize a reference to God, Shelley capitalizes his reference to the “unseen Power” that reveals itself “with an inconstant wing”—and yet unmistakably and directly—to each individual “As summer winds that creep from flower to flower”. A “Power” likened to a hovering cloud that “Floats”—or the flight of a bird or an unpredictable wind—oddly borrows Christian tropes for the Holy Spirit. This is curious poetic language for an atheist. It seems that Shelley, who professes to not believe in God, nevertheless, in this poem, finds himself addressing, as it were, an unknown god: the dark ontological mystery that is sometimes curiously present to the mind as a kind of unstable and elusive peak experience:

          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,—

Then Shelley, again curiously, speaks of this “music” as grace. Grace. Absorb that. Why is an atheist turning elusive beauty into telos  distributing grace?:

Like memory of music fled,—

          Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

This is very strange language. It makes me wonder. When Shelley calls himself an atheist, does he mean merely that the conventional religious language used for talking about the ontological mystery strikes him as false—as a reduction of something completely mysterious—but that he nevertheless feels to be present—and that is in some sort of curious didactic relationship with him? Stanza 2 of this poem is startling for its religious longing and perplexity concerning suffering. This is hardly the way that you would expect an atheist to talk, and yet Shelley here sounds like the psalmist David:

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?

These questions of ultimate meaning are necessarily met by the elusive “Spirit of Beauty” with silence, and so in the third stanza Shelley offers a theory for the debasement of the ontological mystery by religion:

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 endeavor,

Frail spells—whose uttered 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.

Notice that Shelley insists that conventionally superstitious and religious language—“Demon, Ghost, and Heaven”—function as “Frail spells” that do not really tame “Doubt”, nor answer the deep questions that we address to the ontological mystery concerning “chance, and mutability”. The ontological mystery does not tell us why we exist, experience beauty, suffer, and die: “No voice from some sublimer world hath ever / To sage or poet these responses given—“. Only by periodic and direct heightened experience with the “Spirit of Beauty” is a kind of answer hinted at “to life’s unquiet dream”:

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.

For Shelley, the apprehension of the “Spirit of Beauty” contains the kernel of an ontological secret. Like John Keats’s famous lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, in which Keats says that, in life, we should not “follow the money” but “follow the beauty” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), so Shelley gives beauty—albight intellectual beauty—first place in his soul’s quest. The apprehension of the “Spirit of Beauty” is the clue to the ontological mystery by which Shelley claims to navigate and investigate his existence. In stanza 5 he describes his dramatic youthful conversion to following this elusive mystery that he periodically perceives, this “shadow”:

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 called 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 shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!

Notice that Shelley, in a youthful prophet-like wilderness experience, seeking the voices of the gods of traditional religion, and musing on life, was taken unawares, on the cusp of spring, by the direct apprehension of a “shadow” that  “fell on me; / I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!” Here is Shelley describing a possession of his spirit that claims to have held him for life. And this from stanza 6:

I vowed that I would dedicate my powers

      To thee and thine—have I not kept the vow?

And at the end of stanza 6 Shelley sounds like a Christian convert expressing eschatological longings:

I call the phantoms of a thousand hours . . .

They know that never joy illumed my brow

          Unlinked 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.

Shelley, at least in this poem, seems not so much an atheist as one who has made the unseen mysterious power beneath things his “god.” And so Shelley ends his poem (stanza 7) with a kind of prayer that his youthful memories of the dark “Spirit of Beauty” will stay with him, and calmly sustain him in the future:

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.

Shelley was an atheist. But the scaffoldings of religious impulses—of the need for worship, and to speak to, and enter into communion with, the ontological mystery and “love all human kind”—were present in him. He thought that there was an invisible, maybe intelligent, “shadow” undergirding things and occasionally revealing itself to our trembling apprehensions (as individual flowers tremble in separate gusts of wind). He thought that this “shadow”—which I’m calling the ontological mystery and which he called the “Spirit of Beauty”—gives “grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.” Odd that an atheist would express himself in such curiously religious language. Would a contemporary atheist like Daniel Dennett approve?

Shelley’s poem also recalls for me these words, attributed to Jesus, in the Gospel of St. John (3:8 KJV):

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

I think that Jesus might have recognized Shelley as a compadre, as someone who was also born of the Spirit. Shelley, in a calm moment, might even have agreed.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to An Atheist Writes a Poem to the Dark Ontological Mystery: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816)

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