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Percy Shelley uses defamiliarization in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” as a tool to dismantle religious belief systems. Defamiliarization is a literary technique used to make that which is known and familiar appear different and new. Viktor Shklovsky argues that one’s perceptions became habitual, and it is this habitualization that prevents one from sensing the object. Rather, people go on unconsciously interacting with life without ever actually engaging in it or interacting with it. Jean Cocteau argues that one’s interactions with the objects prohibit the image, and one no longer sees it anymore. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley strips the Spirit of Beauty of the associations people assign to it so that one is able to see it purely for what it is. He denounces the use of religious terms to describe the Spirit, making the Spirit unfamiliar as most people would engage with it in religious terms. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is an ironic twist on the traditional hymn, and instead of praising religion and God, it removes the mask of habit that religion places on the Spirit of Beauty.
Defamiliarization is a literary technique that reveals the hidden beauty of things by making them unfamiliar. The technique accomplishes this by presenting the thing and making it appear strange so that one’s perception of it changes. The term was coined by Viktor Shklovsky, who believed that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known” (Shklovsky). The literary devices used by artists are different from everyday language, which expose the objects and present them in a new light. In this new light, one’s perception of the object shifts, and its sensation is recovered. Shklovsky argues that “the general laws of perception [indicate that] perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…[and] ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten.” Defamiliarization restores this essence and “takes off the veil,” revealing “the amazing things which surround us and which our senses usually register mechanically” (Cocteau). Perception becomes automatic when one engages with the object habitually, as Jean Cocteau explains:
“Suddenly, as if in a flash, we see the dog, the coach, the house for the first time. Shortly afterwards habit erases again this potent image. We pet the dog, we call the coach, we live in a house; we do not see them anymore.”
Cocteau argues that when one engages with the objects and associates habit with them, one ceases to see the essence of the object. Shklovsky states: “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it.” Once the object is automatized, it loses its beauty and newness, and just becomes another thing in one’s everyday life. The perception and sensation of the object is lost.
In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” the speaker suggests that in a way, religion habitualizes the perception of the Spirit of Beauty. Religion is a way of engaging with and rationalizing the unknown and sublime parts of life. In “Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni,” Coleridge attributes the sublime beauty of Mont Blanc to God and heaven, as “the dilating Soul, enrapt, transfused,/Into the mighty vision passing—there/As in her natural form, swelled vast to Heaven! (Coleridge 21-23). The speaker in this poem makes sense of the sublime mountains of Mont Blanc by crediting them to God, the ultimate creator capable of creating such beauty. The speaker asks for all to “join [the] Hymn,” and to praise God and the heavens for the beauty of the natural world (28). This rationalization of beauty can be compared to the habituation and automatization of objects in familiarization. The speaker in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” suggests that labelling this sublime interaction with the nonmaterial Intellectual beauty with “the name of God and ghosts and Heaven/Remain the records of their [sage and poet] vain endeavour” (Shelley 27-28). The speaker suggests that trying to name the Spirit of Beauty is futile because it does not capture the essence of the Spirit. The Spirit cannot be familiarized, because it cannot be named. The speaker constantly calls this “shadow of some unseen Power” (1) by different names, such as “Beauty” (13), “Loveliness” (71), and “Spirit” (83). This invisible power cannot have one name because even that would begin the process of habitualizing it. This power is in and of itself “beauty,” because its very essence is the act of defamiliarizing and unveiling objects that are fatigued by perception of habit. The poem defamiliarizes the feeling of powerful ecstasy one feels at a nonmaterial beauty that is too often familiarized with God and heaven. It reveals the beauty of this “unseen Power” and removes the mask of religion as a way of making sense of something and normalizing it. This Spirit is not meant to be normalized or incorporated into habit — at its core the very fact that it is not habit, “visiting/This various world with as inconstant wing/As summer winds that creep from flower to flower” is what makes it so tremendously sublime (3-4). To familiarize it with religion is to taint and even strip this transcendence of its fundamental quality.
The irony that “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” criticizes the function of religion in explaining the speaker’s feeling of ecstasy is that it is called a “Hymn.” Hymns are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a song of praise to God,” and so it appears that Shelley also defamiliarizes the Hymn genre, changing the perception by using it in a new way. In doing so, the poem suggests that one re-evaluate if the feeling of ecstasy is owed to any higher being, or if it is just to be appreciated and embraced as its own independent being. The poem calls itself a Hymn as an ironic example of praising this intangible beauty instead of praising God. The Hymn defamiliarizes the Spirit by stripping it of its religious associations of habit. It unveils the essence of the Spirit as something that if it was habituated, would no longer be the Spirit.
Cocteau, Jean. Le rappel ? l’ordre. Stock, 1926.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni.” www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43988. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.
“hymn, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 23 March 2017.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, edited by Donald H Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Second ed., W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York, NY, 2002, pp. 92–96.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as technique.” Literary theory: An anthology (1917): 15-21.
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