Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve gone among the rivers and streams with the poets, we’ve explored the forests and trees, and we’ve even taken to the seas with them. Now, it’s time to pick up your crampons and head to the mountains with these classic poems about hills and mountains from the Romantics to the present.
William Wordsworth, from The Prelude.
And now, as suited one who proudly row’d
With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
I dipp’d my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head …
Wordsworth’s magnum opus was, in many ways, his long autobiographical poem in blank verse, The Prelude, which makes good on Wordsworth’s claim elsewhere that ‘the Child is Father of the Man’, exploring his early years and how those formative experiences shaped the poet and man he became. In this excerpt from the first book of the poem, we find a young Wordsworth rowing a boat and having an encounter with a vast mountain which is both beautiful and terrific in its size – the very embodiment of what Edmund Burke called ‘the Sublime’.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni’. Before Percy Shelley’s famous poem about Mont Blanc (see below), there was Coleridge’s paean to the beautiful mountains of the Alps, with their vast valleys and imposing waterfalls:
Ye Ice-falls! ye that from the mountain’s brow
Adown enormous ravines slope amain –
Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,
And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’.
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them …
The Romantics were greatly interested in a quality that Edmund Burke called ‘the Sublime’: that peculiar mixture of awe and terror we feel when confronted with great forces of nature. Percy Shelley’s poem about Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, is a classic example of Romantic poetry about the Sublime – an ode to nature as a powerful and beautiful force. Shelley composed ‘Mont Blanc’ during the summer of 1816, and it was first published in Mary Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (1817), which – beating Frankenstein by a year – was actually Mary’s first book.
Emily Brontë, ‘Loud without the Wind was Roaring’.
Well – well; the sad minutes are moving,
Though loaded with trouble and pain;
And some time the loved and the loving
Shall meet on the mountains again.
So concludes this moving poem by the author of Wuthering Heights as well as numerous short lyric poems. In this poem, we get tragedy amidst the elements, as we might expect from Emily Brontë …
James Russell Lowell, ‘The Green Mountains’. Lowell (1819-91) was the first of three famous American poets named Lowell (the others being Amy and Robert); like Emily Brontë, Lowell is a belated Romantic, following Wordsworth and Coleridge in their laudatory descriptions of the mighty force of nature that is the mountain:
Ye mountains, that far off lift up your heads,
Seen dimly through their canopies of blue,
The shade of my unrestful spirit sheds
Distance-created beauty over you …
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Mountain sat upon the Plain’. Using the quatrain form which she made her own, Dickinson (1830-86) here paints a kingly picture of an imposing mountain, dominating the landscape like a powerful monarch in his throne, almost godlike in his omniscience:
The Mountain sat upon the Plain
In his tremendous Chair —
His observation omnifold,
His inquest, everywhere —
A. E. Housman, ‘Bredon Hill’.
In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.
Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky …
Bredon (pronounced ‘Breedon’) is actually in Worcestershire, rather than the neighbouring Shropshire; nevertheless, it is one of the most famous poems in Housman’s 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad. Housman’s ‘Lad’ meets his sweetheart on top of Bredon Hill every Sunday, skiving off going to church, lying atop the hill so they could ‘see the coloured counties, / And hear the larks so high / About us in the sky.’ But things then take a tragic turn, as so often in a Housman poem…
Edwin Arlington Robinson, ‘The House on the Hill’.
They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.
Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say …
One of the first great examples of the villanelle in English, this poem is a fine exercise in nostalgia, but also a wonderful example of how the villanelle’s built-in repetition can be put to effective use: ‘there is nothing more to say’, yet he will keep on saying it, that ‘they are all gone away’, because when we dwell on the past we are slaves to the same repeated statements and thoughts that the villanelle allows the poet to express.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Meeting among the Mountains’.
Against the hard and pale blue evening sky
The mountain’s new-dropped summer snow is clear
Glistening in steadfast stillness: like transcendent
Clean pain sending on us a chill down here …
Christian-inflected visions of the mountains dominate this strange but bewitching poem from the prolific novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).
Dylan Thomas, ‘Fern Hill’. In this, one of Thomas’s best-loved poems, he revisits his childhood, using his visits to his aunt’s farm as the subject-matter. It was written in 1945, just after the end of WWII. ‘Fern Hill’ contains some of the most arresting images in all of Thomas’s poetry (and he was a master of the arresting image!). Look at the ‘fire green as grass’, for instance.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.