Failure to Launch: Shelley and the Religious Imagination

It is not often that a person with such a small voice as I have is capable of offering anything more than dumfounded awe at the works of the romantic poets, but, having read with empathy, I find little value in the difference between the way Shelley and Wordsworth, two very different poets, see the world. My quarrel here is not in the difference I know lies between them, Shelley being a pretty vocal atheist and Wordsworth a functional pantheist, but in the romantic poets failure to contribute any image that might clarify for the reader the difference between their spiritualties. I would never openly commit the transgression often committed by those studying at an university affiliated with a religious institution, by assigning a kind of universalism that that is implicit in the imagery employed by a poet. So this is not an essay trying to ascribe to Shelley a spirituality he does not know he is adopting, rather, it is a comment on the failure of his imagination to envision anything beyond the typical perceptions that religion grants to certain motifs in literature. I wouldn’t recommend reading this, and I would not feel bad if you didn’t, unless you have some previous interest in either the romantic poets, Shelley’s soul filled atheism, or are at all curious about the kinds of rhetoric that continue to obstruct the human intellects further barrier breaking when it comes to our way of speaking about mystery. If you’ve made it this far, enjoy.

Failure to Launch: Shelley and the Religious Imagination

While it might seem that the project outlined by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their preface to Lyrical Ballads, opened up poetry to the sensed and felt experiences of common life, they have instead, as we shall soon discover, in some cases, kept poetry a secret, private endeavor, a personal experience that draws attention to the way the poet sees the world but does not clarify for the reader a way to see the world differently. If poetry is as Wordsworth claims, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Lyrical Ballads 265), then the interpretive question that arises to the reader is: what is the value of poetry for the person other than the poet? For Wordsworth and Coleridge, their hope in publishing Lyrical Ballads was that the work “might be of some use to ascertain, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and the quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a poet may rationally endeavor to impart” (263). Under this doctrine of poetic discipline, poetry is merely the affectation of a powerful experience contained within a rhythmic but common language meant to impart pleasure to its audience, a definition that falls short of the actual power that language, specifically poetry, possesses.

In a similar attempt to capture the purpose of poetry, Percy Shelley writes in his A Defence of Poetry that the poet, having an enlarged faculty to comprehend the beautiful, restrains and preserves in a poem “the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their minds,” and the poem succeeds when the poets pleasure “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community” (839). If a reader is persuaded that the value of poetry to the poet lies only in its capacity to translate passion into form for the sake of pleasure, then poetry itself is restricted from surprising the poet, and therefore the reader, with new meaning.

In a later section from A Defence of Poetry, Shelley attempts to impart poetry with another, more transcendent quality: “[Poetry] awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehend combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (844). If this is what the poetry of Shelley attempts to magnify, nowhere else in his oeuvre does his betrayal of this poetic endeavor show so clearly than in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, but perhaps with less despairing self-love, Shelley’s “Hymn” is concerned with the upsurge of powerful feelings that translate themselves into poetry.

Admittedly, it would be overstepping a critic’s boundary to argue that all the poetic works of Shelley have failed to capture what they have set out do; however, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” as much as it attempts to nuance, refine, and recapitulate the ideas expressed in “Intimations of Immortality,” and “Dejection: An Ode,” it ultimately rests upon and represents a misfire of the imagination, regurgitating images of childhood, rainbows, wind, harps, clouds, visitations, and the inconstancy of poetic energy for which Wordsworth gives thanks, Coleridge praises, and Shelley ultimately worships. Keeping in view the context that this more biographical introduction announces, we will turn to Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” and seek to discover whether or not the poem succeeds in the project it attempts to accomplish—to ask if the poem advances the frontier of writing, contributes something fresh and previously unimagined, if there is in this poetic endeavor anything new.

From the first word of the title, the reader is invited to inhabit sacred ground and adopt a posture of religious devotion. The form of a “Hymn” that this poem establishes at the outset is, however, an ironic one. Shelly himself is an intelligent atheist, and as we shall see even manages to denounce the name of God and religion as this poem unfolds. This irony is a positive contribution, using the full force of language to amend and add layers of new meaning to the texture of a single word. As the poem starts to take its first steps, the reader encounters “The awful shadow of some unseen Power” that “Floats unseen amongst us” (Hymn 1-2), but the unfelt presence that is latent in the nonmaterial in-between-places of the world also has the power to disclose itself: “It visits with inconstant glance / Each human heart and countenance” (Hymn 6-7). The inconstancy of such experiences is the triggering event that inspires Wordsworth’s “Intimations on Immortality,” but, to Shelley, it is a visitation that is made more powerful and worthy of praise precisely because of the contingency in its sudden emergence and even more rapid disappearance—it is “Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery” (Hymn 11-12). To Shelley’s credit, this fresh insight is certainly a powerful overturning and celebration of Wordsworth’s lament, but it is accomplished in an economy of language that uses anything but fresh images. The opening lines from the second section of “Intimations” employ images that all make their way into Shelley’s first section: “The Rainbow comes and goes / And lovely is the rose / the moon doth with delight” (10-12). In “Hymn” the “hues and harmonies of evening” (8) are as vibrant as the rainbow, the “moonbeams” (5) that fall like water on the mountains also entice us toward “delight” (Intimations 12), and the “clouds and starlight widely spread” (Hymn 9) are like Wordsworth’s heaven “bare” in which the held reflection in the “Waters on a starry night / Are beautiful and fair” (Intimations 13-15). The opening sections of both poems frame the goal of their poetic projects: Wordsworth laments the absence of all he once did see, while Shelley celebrates the visitation of the unseen.

The second section of “Hymn” reframes in the form of a question what is implicit in the opening sections of “Intimations.” Addressing the “Spirit of Beauty” (Hymn 13), the speaker asks “where art though gone?” (15). The orator of “Hymn” is aware of what “Intimations” proclaims, “That there hath past away some glory from the earth.” (Intimations 18). Placing the poems side by side should register for the reader one set of accomplishments and another different set of failures by Shelley’s poetic imagination. Interwoven throughout the lines of this section are the visionary gleams, a deepening of the sense of paradox in the heart of a human being, and the stale assumptions of the form of that visionary visitation. By employing the language of contraries, Shelley illuminates the complexity of human life, asking:

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? (21-24)

Articulated in these lines is the wild spectrum of human emotion, a curiosity and appreciation of the range of human expression. The “fear and dream and death and birth” seem to balance each other, contradict and also reaffirm; and, “the daylight of this earth” is crowded with “gloom”; while the tension between “love and hate, despondency and hope” permit for a bridge between reason and imagination the crossing over place that allows the “Spirit of Beauty” to emerge. But these visionary moments are also weighed down by their failure to launch beyond the privileged role that light and rainbows have as the event by which illumination and revelation become intertwined. The “Spirit of Beauty” declares as scared “with thine own hues” all that it “dost shine upon” (Hymn 14). Taking a step forward in adding to the complexity of human experience, Shelley simultaneously takes a step back, retreating toward the question: “Ask why the sunlight not forever / Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain river” (18-19). In fact, in the next section, Shelley is bold to declare as Wordsworth has, “Thy light alone” is what “Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream” (Hymn 32, 36).

As was the case in the last section, section three offers the reader that great leap toward the edge of some horizon where the new and still unimagined is waiting, but comes in tandem with the exhaustion of courage that paralyzes the limbs when the bottomless is glimpsed. With the candlelight of the enlightenment’s flame, Shelly investigates old dogmas, scrutinizes the accepted institutions, and asserts, “No voice from some sublimer world hath ever / To sage or poet these responses given” (25-26). To him, there has not been any adequate answer to the questions in section two, how the human can accommodate both love and hate, despair and hope; and the structures that claim to answer, “the name of God and ghosts and Heaven” (27), are nothing more than “frail spells” (28) incapable of conjuring the “Spirit of Beauty.” It is “Doubt, chance, and mutability” (31) that speak with the most clarity against the “uttered charm” (29) of religion and superstition. But this daring interrogation and accusation is not willing to risk breaking the covenant further, and looking as if it might transgress that pact, it then suddenly dissolves into romantic and religious language:

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. (32-26)

Here, the “celestial light” (4) of “Intimations” and its sunshine of “glorious birth” (16) brighten the darkening scene. The moonlight from “Intimations” returns and Shelley’s stream is another body of water “on a starry night” (Intimations 4). We are also introduced in these lines to three new images: wind, music, and instruments. It is sufficient to compare Shelley’s “Hymn” to section three of “Intimations,” a section filled with lambs bounding to the “tabor’s sound” (Intimations 20), cataracts that “blow their trumpets” (25), and a speaker who hears “the Echoes through the mountains throng, / The Winds come to [him] from the fields of sleep” (27-28), these examples showing the way in which Shelley’s language has found its footing on the previously harvested ground of the imagination by Wordsworth.

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is in many ways a poem that doesn’t acquire that escape velocity necessary for a rocket to transcend the last leg of earth’s atmosphere. Several times the poem has reached that upper ceiling, a task not easy to achieve by any means, but if Shelley has offered his reader any gift of rupture or escape, to unburden the yoke of our heavy world, it is in his engagement with the “awful LOVELINESS” (71) that discloses itself as the poem draws to a close, but has been with the reader from the outset, hidden in “awful shadow” (1), posing as a “phantom” (64), and “Outwatched with [him] the envious night” (67). In the end, Shelley does undress. He manages to take off the old garments of light, to shed the rainbow and the wind and nature’s music, but only to find himself more deeply rooted in the religious condition, converted to praise the wonder of youth, petitioning and bartering with the value of his vow, that this spirit might to his “onward life supply / Its calm” (80-81).

In the last sections, Shelley cannot help but fall into the Wordsworthian ideal of childhood. In section five he recounts an experience he had “While yet a boy [he] sought for ghosts” (Hymn 49). That curiousness to rediscover that which visited him in his youth, is synonymous with Wordsworth’s yearning for childlike wonder that drives the later sections of “Intimations.” For Shelley, this backsliding into the hope that accompanies the naivety of the child is his betrayal of the engaged and active imagination. Faithful to the imagery of Christ’s descent into this world is Shelley’s benediction that the “SPIRIT fair” (83) might descend and supply his life with the calm of consolation. But a further transgression is committed, as Shelley’s language in the final sections adopts a greater amount of religious language. Shelley, having gone through the vulnerable and difficult task of undressing the language of “God and ghosts and Heaven” does little to clarify and impregnate with new meaning his continual use of language typically associated with a priest or acolyte. The reader witnesses a kind of conversion of the speaker: “I vowed that I would dedicate my powers / To thee and thine” (60-61), the speaker says, recapitulating the vows of silence and celibacy of some Benedictine monk. Throughout the final sections the reader encounters “studious zeal” and “love’s delight” (66), “joy illumed” (68) and “hope that thou wouldst free / This world from its dark slavery” (69-70). This concentration on religious and redemptive language represent a failure of the poets imagination to escape the biblical language of the old testament. We might grant that Shelley meant something entirely different when he enslaved our world and at the same time primed it for liberation, but the trespass of the poet here lies in his inability to clarify and make distinct the difference between his enlightened understanding of the world and the uneducated and superstitious view of the human predicament.

Surprisingly, more sympathy is due to Wordsworth rather than Shelley. Whereas Wordsworth begins “Intimations” in a narcissistic fit of self-pity, the despair at least passes through the imagination and arrives in the end at a contentment with thankfulness: “Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears” (200-201). Shelley, however, begins his poem in celebration of the free-willed “Spirit of Beauty,” and instead of contentment or continual praise, ends with the prayer-like petition that this spirit would “to [his] onward life supply / Its calm” (80-81).

In considering the comparison between the failing and yet more successful poem of Wordsworth, and the far more expressive and thoughtful, but still unsuccessful in creating any fresh image of the force that visits the human spirit, we can conclude that Shelley, in all his atheism and education, ultimately ends up making a pact with some elusive deity that still has not made itself distinct from the God, joy, or childhood innocence of Wordsworth or Coleridge. It is a lamentable fact, but Shelley does not achieve the groundbreaking event of extending the human alphabet to contain and name that “Spirit of Beauty” to which he has pledged his allegiance. The final lines of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” represent this betrayal. Shelley, in section 3 of the poem, declared the “God and ghosts and Heaven” little more than “Frail Spells.” But in his final couplet, the resonating rhyme meant to inaugurate a new way of understanding the poetic imagination, relapses into that language of superstition and witchcraft: “Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind / to fear himself, and love all human kind” (83-84).

Works Cited
Shelley, Percy. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen
Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 838-850. Print.
Shelley, Percy. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed.
Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 766-768. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early
Childhood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New
York: Norton, 2006. 308-312. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 263-274. Print.

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