Expansive Poetics – (Shelley’s “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty”)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

AG: The other precursor, to get ahead in time to the 19th Century is (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, who, I guess, is more or less familiar to most of you. How many of you have read any Shelley? [Students give a show of hands] – Okay – And how many have read Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” here? [Students show of hands less than the first time]. So I thought there are (at least) three pieces by Shelley that will illustrate the phrase.. (or, rather)… illustrate the word – “inspired” – “Inspiration” (that was one of the phrases, one of the words, that I was using). “Expansive” (by “expansive”, I really mean “expansive breath”, lterally, a breath, that is [Allen exhales deeply] large, with the spine straight, that can only be produced when the spine is straight, (and) when the body is relaxed, when the body is a hollow reed, a hollow tube, and in that state of unobstructed inspiration, unobstructed breathing (inspiration means breathing, remember, and exhalation), a kind of cosmic afflatus is reached. It’s a literal state, a physiological state, as well as a mental state, as well as a poetic state. And it’s accomplished by a great many poets, who have left behind formulae to reach that state – and the formulae to reach that state is the text, (like “A Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”), which, if you pronounce it aloud, properly, following the(ir) punctuation to show you the(ir) breathing (where you stop and take another breath), using the(ir) punctuation as orators, hints for breathing, literally, taking it literally, not reading past a comma with the same breath, but, in other words, stopping at each comma and taking a new breath.. (assuming that you have a text which is from the hand of the poet himself, and not a text which has been stupidly corrected by a scholar to add more punctuation and commas, which might change the breathing.

If you will take some of the poems.. (particularly, what immediately comes to mind (is) Hart Crane’s “Atlantis” section from “The Bridge”, or, precursor nineteenth-century (1815 or (18)16), Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, you get that effect (which is, maybe, hyperventilation, actually). So I’ll read that [Allen proceeds to read Shelley’s “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty” in its entirety – all seven stanzas] – “The awful shadow of some unseen Power/ Floats through unseen among us..”..”..that thou wouldst free/ This world from its dark slavery,/That thou – O awful LOVELINESS”. Well, what you’ve got, at one point, as it builds up with the breathing, (is) a moment, two moments or so, where there’s one long, long, long, long sentence, and all in one breath, that brings it to a conclusion – Like a come – or orgasm – or breath-orgasm! – “..they have in visioned bowers/of studious zeal or love’s delight/Outwatched with me the envious night -/ They know that never joy illumined my brow/Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free/ This world from its dark slavery,/ That thou – O awful LOVELINESS” – So you get the funny.. you realize how he’s arranged the breathing. You have this long breath, and then another long breath, and then a short, exclamatory, breath, and then a punched-out “O awful LOVELINESS” –
“That thou” – dash – “O awful LOVELINESS” – And then, “Wouldst give what’er these words cannot express” – a medium-sized breath.

So, inspiration (and this is inspiration if anything is inspiration) in the traditional classical Western poetry – “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” – you can’t get more high-falutin’, you can’t get more platonically elevated, than that! – inspiration here is a physical matter, a physical fact. The poetry is physical in the sense that it is an arrangement of words and breaths (words and breaths), or it’s an arrangement of words on the breath, that might say something or not, might say something to the breath even, might even be self-referential to the unobstructed breath, in certain cases, but words which are the excuse for exhaling a long  breath and uttering vowels that have a powerful musical sound.

Student: Like a chant?

AG: Like a chant, yes. Similar to a chant…as the Australian aborigine (poetry) was chant also. This becomes chant, except, in certain respects, it’s some kind of ordinary speech too (I mean, the syntax is more or less regular, though long, and it could be read as somewhat ordinary (though nineteenth-century) speech. But it also can be projected as chant, projected on the breath as chant).

[Audio for the above may be heard here, beginning approximately thirty minutes in [the reading of “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty” starts at approximately thirty-three-and-a-quarter minutes in] and running to approximately forty-and-three-quarter minutes in – It may also be accessed via the Internet Archive here, and here via Open Culture]   

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