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Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Mont Blanc" (1817)

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Overview

450px-Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint crop

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, into a Sussex family of conservative aristocracy. In his youth he encountered the works of philosopher William Godwin, and passionately supported the principles of liberty and equality advocated during the French Revolution. While an undergraduate at Oxford, Shelley was expelled for his collaboration in writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism— since atheism was seen as an outrageous notion in religiously fundamentalist nineteenth-century England.

Not long after, he made the personal acquaintance of William Godwin in London, and eventually married his daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. In 1816, they eloped to Switzerland to meet Lord Byron where they formed a group of English expatriates in Geneva. During this time Shelley wrote much of his finest lyric poetry, including Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc.   

In Mont Blanc’s five stanzas, a first-person poetic persona addresses the mountain in its awesome majesty. In the very first line, he considers “the everlasting universe of things” that he senses from observing nature. Focusing on the mountain itself, with its crags, trees, and ice that together create something huge and sublime, Shelley finally concludes that the spirit of nature is in the mountain, which fills his mind with a welcome, silent solitude.

Major Themes of the Work

The Poet as Medium Between Man and Nature

It is important to understand that Shelley saw poets as a source of authority in the intellectual world. The character of the poet, and to a degree, Shelley’s perception of himself, was not merely one of a gifted artisan or even a discerning philosopher; grander than those, he was a tragic, prophetic hero. A poet was supposed to possess a profound, even spiritual, appreciation for nature, and this relationship with the natural world gave him access to weighty universal truths. He had the power—and the duty—to translate these truths through the use of his imagination into poetry that the public could understand. Thus, Shelley viewed his poetry as a sort of prophetic message to the world, believing that through his words, a he had the ability to change the world for the better and to bring about political, social, and spiritual change.

In Mont Blanc we are given the feeling that Shelley’s speaker is worthy to relate his knowledge to the reader because he alone has the ability to recognize the reality found in nature, and is then able to use this truth to guide humanity's understanding. The poet interprets the mountain's "voice" and relays nature's truth through his poetry. Nature's role does not matter as much as the poet's mediation between nature and man, since, only a select few can truly understand the secrets of the universe. (Reider) The speaker then, in putting faith in the truth that he has received, has earned a place among nature and been given the right to speak on this truth.

Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal

Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood

By all, but which the wise, and great, and good

Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (III: 32-35)

Power in Relation to Intellectualism

Mont Blanc delves into an exploration of the human mind and its ability to comprehend the sublime. This theme examines the connection Shelley believes lies between the human conscious and the universe, and discusses the effect of observation on thought, or how the world can become a reflection of the workings of the mind.  

I seem as in a trance sublime and strange

To muse on my own separate fantasy,

My own, my human mind, which passively

Now renders and receives fast influencings,

Holding an unremitting interchange

With the clear universe of things around; (II: 25-30)

The physical Mont Blanc is a personification of the secret strength of the human mind, which gives the mountain its sublimity. Our perception gives it this power. Even though nature has creative power over Shelley because it provides inspiration, he feels that his imagination has creative power over it. It is the imagination - or our ability to form sensory perceptions - that allows us to describe nature in different, original ways, which help to shape how nature appears and, therefore, how it exists.

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Thus, the power of the human mind becomes equal to the power of nature, and the experience of beauty in the natural world becomes a kind of collaboration between the perceiver and the perceived. Additionally, because Shelley cannot be sure that the sublime powers he senses in nature are only the result of his gifted imagination, he finds it difficult to attribute nature’s power to God: the human role in shaping nature damages Shelley’s ability to believe that nature’s beauty comes solely from a divine source. The speaker finally asks, however, what nature could be without the human mind to perceive it, even if only to stand in muted awe of its greatness. Mont Blanc thus compares the majestic power of wild nature with the miniature size of man.

Picture Shelley standing on a bridge, gazing up at this giant peak. Like Ode to the West Wind, Mont Blanc considers both the immediate object of nature observed by the poet and the superior power of nature, turning to the subject of how our minds can come to terms with anything having such vast, silent power. 

The Severe Power of Nature 

Shelley’s feeling that he mentally cannot master the natural world continues, and as he works to take it all in, the serene mountain waits, unmoved. To show the natural world's significance independent from man, he addresses his poem directly to Mont Blanc and focuses in long passages on nature alone, apart from humanity. In the beginning of the second stanza, the speaker tells of the river’s path as it travels from its throne high in the mountain to the “dizzying” ravine.

Thus thou, Ravine of Arve — dark, deep Ravine —

Thou many — coulored, many voiced vale,

Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail

Fast cloud shadows and sunbeams: awful scene. (ll:12-15)

Shelley brings forth the central problem about comprehending the power of the “everlasting universe of things” by making the river his metaphor to explain that nature will do as it pleases. By the fourth stanza, the speaker describes the intricate creation and bonds between all forms of nature, the “fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,” of which man is only a mortal part.

The works and ways of man, their death and birth,

And that of him and all that his may be;

All things that move and breathe with toil and sound

Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.  (IV: 9-12)

As the river flows down the mountain from its peak, it has the strength to erode and carry away all in its path, and it has the power to destroy man and all he has built—suddenly and without mercy. The last stanza is praise for the power of the mountain; like nature in general, the mountain is so large and sublime that it cannot be comprehended all at once. It is a mystery, an enigma in which lies nature’s dominion over man. Taking an opposing stance to Wordsworth, who wrote of nature as being in a pure communion with childhood, Shelley recognized that there is a darker side of nature that is an inherent part of a cyclical process of the universe. When the narrator of the poem looks upon Mont Blanc, he is unable to agree with Wordsworth that nature is benevolent and gentle. (Bloom) Rather, the speaker asserts that nature is a violent force to be revered and respected.

Relevance to Romanticism and Nature

The Romantic poets of the younger generation came to be known for their sensuous aestheticism, their studies of extreme passions, their political radicalism, and their tragically short lives. Therefore to an extent, the intensity of feeling emphasized by Romanticism meant that the movement was always associated with youth, and because Byron, Keats, and Shelley died young (and never had the opportunity to decline into fundamentalism and complacency) they attained iconic status as the representatives of tragic Romantic artists.

Even so, Mont Blanc resembles works of the earlier Romantics, particularly Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Both Wordsworth and Shelley wrote in an age that felt a new appreciation for the sublime in the natural world. (Warren) People had become fascinated by nature's power and wonder. While both poems explore the significance of the effect that nature has on the human mind, the natural world portrayed in Mont Blanc is primordial and vastly wilder than in Wordsworth’s piece, characterized by a “green pastoral landscape,” (I: 158) and the sentimental claim that “Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her.” (II: 122-123) Rather, it seems to serve as Shelley's rebuke of the gentle, pleasant atmosphere and fond recollections portrayed in Tintern Abbey.

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Furthermore, in his early poetry Shelley shares the popular romantic interest in pantheism—the belief that God, or a divine, unifying spirit, courses through everything in the existence. He refers to this unifying natural force in many poems, describing it as the “spirit of beauty” in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (II: 1) and identifying it with Mont Blanc itself and its treacherous slopes and ravines in Mont Blanc.

—Is this the scene

Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young

Ruin? Were these their toys? Or did a sea

Of fire envelop once this silent snow?

None can reply—all seems eternal now. (III: 23-27)

That none can answer the speaker’s questions recalls a traditional qualification of the sublime in regards to Romanticism as being unknowable, mysterious, and physically or mentally impenetrable. Shelley’s speaker cannot know whether Mont Blanc was born from a Pagan goddess of destruction as his imagination leads him to ponder. It simply exists, denying the speaker means of determining its origin, but the speaker’s exercise of his fancy is not meant to suggest that Shelley gives credit to the existence of natural religion. To be more precise, any cosmic power alluded to in the poem originates from Mont Blanc itself rather than any celestial deity, but for that power to have any meaning, beholders must view it with a creative and discerning eye.

The secret strength of things

Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome

Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,

If to the human mind's imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy? (V: 13-18)

Sources/Relevant Links

  • Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  • Reider, John. "Shelley's 'Mont Blanc': Landscape and the Ideology of the Sacred Text." ELH, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter, 1981) pp. 778–798
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 02:52, Apr 22, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/percy-bysshe-shelley-9481527.
  • Turner, J. M. W. Mere De Glace, in the Valley of Chamouni, Switzerland. 1803. Watercolor and Graphite. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA.
  • Warren, Amelia. Nature, Shelley, and WordsworthNature, Shelley, and Wordsworth. N.p., 1993. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/ww/nature2.html>.
  • Wordsworth, William. "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174796>.

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