On July 21, 1816, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his companion Mary Godwin (who would subsequently marry him), and her half sister Claire Claremont, first saw Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe. The sight impressed them mightily, so much so that Mary Shelley set the central scene of her novel Frankenstein (1818), in which the monster confronts Victor Frankenstein for the first time, on a glacier in the mountains, which she has Frankenstein describe at great length. Percy, too, was stunned by the landscape, and he wrote one the greatest poems of the romantic era (see Romanticism) in response to the experience.
The fiction by which Mont Blanc proceeds is that its speaker is addressing the mountain, responding spontaneously to the vision. This is not true, of course, but neither is it altogether false. Shelley’s immediate response to Mont Blanc (preserved in a letter to the novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock) was one of awe, not unlike that which he depicts in the poem, and we can see the few weeks that he took to complete it as an attempt to make the awe he felt as poetically palpable as he could.
The result is as sublime as the mountain it describes. Indeed, “Mont Blanc” may be the great English poem of the sublime, at once a literary or aesthetic experience and an experience of the natural world. Poems that aim at sublimity often do so through a description of landscape (the natural sublime) in language elevated enough to be adequate to the landscape described (the literary sublime). The match between the poem and the landscape it describes can seem obvious. But for Shelley, it is highly problematic, because his view of the sublime is so close to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s (whom he had read in Latin).
For Kant the sublime was an experience that arose in the mind overwhelmed by a natural landscape and then suddenly recovered a sense of its own power. In the experience of the sublime, said Kant, we feel empirically very small, but just that feeling makes us feel the grandeur of our own minds, able to take in and transcend the very external thing that makes us feel so small. The experience of the sublime is therefore double-sided: The grandeur of what we perceive first makes us feel very small, and then we rebound so that we feel in touch with what is absolutely great in our own souls.
It is this double experience that “Mont Blanc” explores. The poem is subtitled “Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni,” the valley from which Shelley’s party explored the mountain. And yet the poem begins not with a description of the mountain but with a philosophical claim about the relationship between the mind and the world. To understand the dramatic tension in the poem, it is important to see that the first stanza declares itself as not about the mountain at all, nor about the River Arve, whose source is Mont Blanc, but about the mind itself. But, of course, to say that the first stanza declares itself as not about the mountain means that in some sense it is, since denials are always about what is being denied.
At any rate, what the first stanza says is that the outside world, the world of things, is essentially inert until it is perceived by the mind. (This is an idea that William Wordsworth partially explores in “Tintern Abbey,” and “Mont Blanc” is in part an explicit response to that poem, especially at lines 37–39.) The universe is always the same, but the perceiving or adverting mind has the power to dissolve the things it perceives into the flow of thought. Thought is therefore a more basic, fluid medium than the physical objects it thinks about, and the flow of the universe through the mind is made possible by the mind’s own fluidity. And yet it may be, the poem almost immediately recognizes, that the mind is, in fact, simply the passive recipient of the universe’s grandeur. The key to the poem is to understand that the thinking mind is imaged in two ways in the opening stanza. It is both the region through which the perceptible universe flows, and it is a tributary stream to the riparian flow of the universe through the mind. If there are two ideas of the mind competing here, there are two versions of what is beyond human thought: the static external universe itself and the dynamic universe which has subjected almost the entire perceptual apparatus of the human mind to its own power, assimilating it to the external world and leaving only the weakest thought available to an independent human soul (“The source of human thought” [l. 5]).
The question, then, is which has priority, the universe or the mind? This question is almost immediately, and significantly, reframed as the question of which has priority—the mountain or the mind? For the universe may be taken to be a weak though grandly named mental abstraction. But the mountain is not abstract: It is concrete and overwhelming, “piercing the infinite sky” of abstraction itself (l. 60). That is to say, its magnitude is such that it is a finitude that overwhelms any abstract concept of the infinite that the human mind might oppose to it. The first reframing of the question suggests that it is the universe that has priority.
The second stanza begins the struggle proper, as we might call it, between mind and mountain. That struggle occurs as Shelley, champion of the mind, attempts to justify one reading of the first stanza, the reading whereby the mountain is a figure—a simile or metaphor—for the structure of the mind. For it is the mind that perceives similes and metaphors: Analogy is a mental operation, not a fact of the outside world. The word Thus that begins the second stanza of the poem is a word asserting the priority of the mind’s power of analogy to the world analogized; that is to say, Shelley attempts to make the mountain an image of the mind, which would thereby have priority.
But the simile takes over the thing it is supposed to clarify. The description of the mountain overwhelms the use to which it is supposed to be put. The mountain assumes priority over the mind that attempts to describe it; thus, an appositional phrase that works semantically to specify some aspect of the ravine takes over lines 12–19, and the rest of the stanza shows the mountain entirely governing what should have been an account of the human mind. The mind does put in an appearance, finally, at line 34, but it is now entirely overawed by the mountain. Shelley seems to see in the landscape an image of his own mind, but in that very image his mind is only a minute element in the landscape.
Description is the poem’s crucial activity. The mountain seems to compel description, but description is an activity of the mind, and accordingly, in the third stanza Shelley attempts, not to resist the magnetism of the mountain in order to concentrate on describing the mind instead, but to match the mountain through the sublimity of his own verbal description. In round three of their struggle for mastery, or what Shelley sees as their struggle for mastery, he gives himself over to a verbal description that will rival the thing it describes.
This tactic initially works—after all, it is Shelley, unexcelled in verbal sublimity, who is doing the describing. The mountain is enlisted at last to a kind of human project just through its grandeur, which overawes everything mean about the human spirit but ratifies everything morally good, everything on the side of moral freedom, repealing “large codes of fraud and woe” (l. 81). The mountain’s voice is not understood by all, but it is understood by those who feel and respond to its greatness, so that the power to describe that greatness—the poem’s power to do this—is what makes the mountain part of human significance. But just this sense of the meaning of the mountain’s grandeur misses its transcendent indifference to the living world, and in the fourth stanza, the fact that the mountain is indifferent to all the description of the third becomes manifest. It does not change, even as our interpretations of it might. The power it embodies “dwells apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible” (ll. 92–93), and scornful of human power (l. 103). And it appears that by the end of this most sublime of stanzas, the human attempt to match the mountain has failed.
Therefore, the last stanza seems to concede everything to the mountain, which “yet gleams on high” (l.127), engaged in its own eerily beautiful, indifferent play. It is in this stanza that the poem finally achieves the sudden reversal that Kant saw as the experience of the sublime. Everything about the mountain, everything the human mind concedes to the mountain in being unable either to avoid describing it or to produce an adequate description, is suddenly recognized as the power of the human imagination, but for which the inhuman and eerie silence and solitude of the mountain would be nothing at all, mere vacancy. The mountain’s sublimity belongs to the mind that perceives it, and the more overwhelming the mountain seems, the more overwhelming is the imagination that can project this overwhelming power onto it.
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