Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Movement in "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Movement in "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"

Article excerpt

In Shelley's evocation of the comings and goings of a "fleeting power" ("Hymn" 83), "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" offers evidence of the poet's career-long fascination with the relationship between movement and quest. Donald Reiman (Shelley's "The Triumph of Life": A Critical Study 88), Jerrold Hogle (Shelley's Process), William Keach (Shelley's Style 154-83), and Michael O'Neill (HMI 180) have considered Shelley as a poet of speed and process, and comparison between the two distinct versions of the "Hymn," the 1816 fair copy transcribed in the Scrope Davies Notebook and the 1817 version published in the Examiner, reveal Shelley's careful consideration of the role of movement in questnarrative. Both poems are structured around a deliberate interplay between journey and destination, or between the act of voyaging towards a specified target and a commitment to travelling as an end unto itself. Tensions between the transitive and the intransitive afford each version of the poem a characteristically Shelleyan blend of purpose and prccariousness, but the 1817 "Hymn" shows Shelley amending the terms of his 1816 engagement with motion, blending the experience of movement with questions of object, origin, and direction. The technique anticipates the concerns of the essay On Life, which asks "Whence do we come, and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being?" (Leader and O'Neill eds. 634). In the 1817 "Hymn," Shelley situates movement within a context of questing by foregrounding the importance of commencements and conclusions in giving shape to a process of pursuit. Alongside Shelley's July 22 1816 letter to Thomas Love Peacock, as well as the Scrope Davies Notebook sonnet "Upon the wandering winds," the two versions of the "Hymn" reveal 1816 to be a vital period in Shelley's development of a poetics of desire, demonstrating how the fixation on movement evident throughout Shelley's writing of 1816 develops, in the 1817 "Hymn," into an active engagement in quest.

In their insistent compounding of questions, the lines quoted from On Life stand as an example of Shelley's assertion, reported by Edward Trelawny, that "I always go on until I am stopped, and I never am stopped" (Records 75). The comment offers an insightful lens through which to view Shelley's poetry, bearing out Newman Ivey White's belief that Trelawny's remarks on Shelley "have in general the indefinable ring of truth" (Shelley, II: 624). However, though the remark recorded by Trelawny captures a characteristically Shelleyan impulse, one exemplified by the interrogative salvo of On Life, the essay and the comment exert subtle tensions upon one another. Implicit in On Life is a suspicion that such proliferated questioning might not bring the poet any closer to resolution. This self-awareness allows Shelley's prose to ride the waves of uncertainty, revelling in the way a state of not knowing becomes conducive to imaginative mobility. Yet if always going on until one is stopped represents a potential response to questions of "whence do we come, and whither do we go?" (Leader and O'Neill eds. 634), the questions posed in Shelley's essay also imply a desire to direct and orientate the potentially untargeted momentum implied by the declaration "I never am stopped" (Records 75). Capitalising on the tension between these two impulses, Shelley's poetry of 1816 exhibits a desire to reconcile such movement with an awareness of the "commencement[s]" and "conclusion [s]" (Leader and O'Neill eds. 634) that lend shape not just to quest-narrative, but to all human experience.

Shelley's letter to Peacock reveals the centrality of these concepts to the poet's imagination. The letter depicts a region where "every thing changes & is in motion" (Letters, I: 498), presenting a scene that owes its beauty to the landscape's constant flux:

The glaciers perpetually move onwards at the rate of a foot each day with a motion that commences at the spot where, on the boundaries of perpetual congelation they are produced by the freezing of the waters which arise from the partial melting of the eternal snows. …

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