By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Mont Blanc’ is one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poems. ‘Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni’, to give the poem its full title, is an ode to the mountain, the highest mountain in the Alps, and compares the mountain’s mightiness with the power of the human imagination. This makes it a classic example of a Romantic poem.
Shelley wrote ‘Mont Blanc’ in July-August 1816 while he was travelling to the Chamonix Valley. The poem was published the following year in a book Shelley co-authored with his wife, Mary Shelley, titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (this, not Frankenstein, was actually Mary’s first published book; she was barely twenty years old when the History came out).
Perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of ‘Mont Blanc’ is to go through the poem, section by section, and summarise its content. We’ll pick up on any notable aspects of the poem’s language and imagery as we go.
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
Immediately in the first two lines of ‘Mont Blanc’, Shelley foregrounds the key thrust of the poem: the relationship between the natural world and the human imagination. The ‘everlasting universe of things’, which recalls Wordsworth’s talk of the ‘immortality’ of the earth in his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ (which we’ve analysed here); Shelley notes that this ‘universe of things’ flows through the (mortal) mind. These external influences are variously light and dark, vivid and obscure.
Shelley likens nature to powerful ‘waterfalls’ whose water ‘bursts and raves’ over the rocks below: nature here is a force to be reckoned with, rather than a placid or gentle presence (as Wordsworth had argued in his ‘Tintern Abbey’). Nature has ‘a sound but half its own’: the human mind creates the meaning of the landscape, and you need both the human imagination to identify and register nature’s power.
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—
Thou many-colour’d, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
The Ravine of Arve (in France, just a few miles from the border with Switzerland) is an ‘awful scene’: awful in the sense of awe-inspiring or awesome, rather than terrible. However, it’s worth remembering that ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’ – both used now as synonyms for something bad – originally meant ‘inspiring awe’ and ‘inspiring terror’ respectively.
And here we have the first intimations of what is known as the Sublime: the idea that nature is both beautiful and terror-inducing, that it can be so vast and powerful that it inspires not just admiration but fear within us. Mountains, waterfalls, vast canyons, violent storms: these are nature at its biggest and most powerful.
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest;—thou dost lie,
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,
Children of elder time, in whose devotion
The chainless winds still come and ever came
To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging
To hear—an old and solemn harmony;
Thine earthly rainbows stretch’d across the sweep
Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptur’d image; the strange sleep
Which when the voices of the desert fail
Wraps all in its own deep eternity;
The waters burst through the mountains (themselves dark and mysterious) like lightning in a violent storm. Nature here is violent and unpredictable. The pine trees around the mountain are like children from the deep past.
Thy caverns echoing to the Arve’s commotion,
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
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;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
The noise and commotion of the waterfall near the mountain are received by Shelley’s mind, which is passive in the face of such powerful activity. Yet this is a two-way ‘interchange’: Shelley receives the sights and sounds of the landscape, and in doing so, his mind helps to fashion the meaning of this mighty scene.
Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Shelley believes that Mont Blanc might almost represent the gulf between the living world and the afterlife: recall the talk of ghostly visions in the previous section. Either that, or the threshold between waking and sleeping has been disturbed, and rather than being awake, Shelley has slipped into a dream. His ‘spirit fails’ as he gazes upon such a mighty thing as Mont Blanc and becomes as insubstantial and light as a cloud.
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven.—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.
Shelley starts to speculate upon how such an unusual feature as Mont Blanc, which stands tall among the smaller mountains (which are like the subjects attending on a mighty monarch), came to be. Did it take an earthquake or great fires (volcanic eruptions?) to create these mountains? It all happened such a long time ago that nobody knows now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil’d;
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.
This wild landscape can teach us something: to doubt our own dominion over nature. We can almost become reconciled with Nature (as Wordsworth believed); but there is a gulf between the ‘great Mountain’ and the tiny, relatively insignificant poet.
Mont Blanc has the power to ‘repeal’ or undo the ‘codes of fraud and woe’ (organised religion, perhaps?) which man tends to live by: codes (religious teachings) which are ‘not understood’ by everyone, but which ‘the wise, and great, and good’ interpret for them.
This sounds a lot like Christianity, and Shelley’s dislike of the way it is designed to keep people in check and control them. By contrast, anyone can look at this great mountain and comprehend its meaning.
The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower; the bound
With which from that detested trance they leap;
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.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice
Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
Have pil’d: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
A city of death, distinct with many a tower
And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
(Note: ‘daedal’ means ‘skilful’; it’s derived from Daedalus, the father of Icarus in Greek mythology, who created the wings which enabled his son to fly.) Everything in nature dies, but this mountain with its power ‘dwells apart’, quiet and serene and inaccessible. Gazing at the mountain, Shelley feels as though he is looking at the face or ‘countenance’ of the Earth.
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destin’d path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shatter’d stand; the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaim’d. The dwelling-place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream,
And their place is not known. Below, vast caves
Shine in the rushing torrents’ restless gleam,
Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling
Meet in the vale, and one majestic River,
The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever
Rolls its loud waters to the ocean-waves,
Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air.
Unlike the many cities found the world over, human beings have left no mark on the rocky Alpine landscape of Mont Blanc. Man has flown ‘far in dread’. Nature is truly undisturbed here.
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. Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. 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?
As Mont Blanc continues to stand impressively among this landscape, snow falling upon it both night and day, nobody is there to witness it. There is a silence and stillness to the mountain. Even the winds move silently, and the lightning is ‘voiceless’. Although Shelley does not believe in a higher power such as God, standing there among the Alps he is filled with a belief in the ‘secret Strength of things’ which ‘governs thought’: it’s as if some external power drives the human mind. Great spectacles like Mont Blanc inspire and fire the imagination.
But this goes two ways: just as the mountain inspires the poet’s mind, so the poet’s ‘imaginings’ lend the mountain its significance.
In the final three lines of ‘Mont Blanc’, Shelley effectively asks the mountain: what would you, and your surrounding landscape, amount to without people like me to stand around admiring you? Your silence and solitude are given meaning by the human mind; otherwise, they would just equate to emptiness. This philosophical point is akin to the difference between silence as mere absence of sound and a deeper quiet and calm which the human mind gives meaning to.
Or, to borrow and adapt a well-known philosophical question, if a mountain stands in the silent Alps and there’s nobody to appreciate it, does its lack of sound have any meaning?
‘Mont Blanc’ is written in iambic pentameter and has a variable rhyme scheme. This lends the poem an unpredictability which mirrors the vastness of nature, and its awe-inspiring abilities, which Shelley is seeking to capture.
As is well-known, Shelley was an atheist (he was actually thrown out of the University of Oxford for co-authoring a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism), and had a sceptical, questioning mind. So, as Angela Leighton has brilliantly observed in her study Shelley and the Sublime: An Interpretation of the Major Poems, what we get in ‘Mont Blanc’ is not mere awe at the quasi-mystical power of the mountain, but rather a more questioning analysis of the very meaning and nature of Mont Blanc as an object.
As Leighton puts it, the poem is not an affirmative address or prayer to the hidden Deity, but a testing inquiry into ‘the workings of the imagination as it confronts a landscape that is desolating in its emptiness.’ Leighton offers a comparative analysis between ‘Mont Blanc’ and another Shelley poem, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, which we’ve analysed here.
The propositional meaning of this poem is:
“Look at these natural wonders, and how they can teach receptive minds some grim truths about life. (And what point would there be in such wonders were we not there to see them?)”
What a way of saying it, though!
Is it ‘the afterlife’? Or a Platonic model/ideal do you think? He was, I think, rather taken up Platonic philosophy as a replacement for Christian beliefs.
He always ambiguous about metaphysics. He, quite sensibly, kept that option open, it allowed elbow-room and space for thought and speculation.
Unlike current writers, who seem to think they can cure by cutting out metaphysics. How old an idea is that!
One of my favorites! 👍🏻