Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mont Blanc

"Who would be, or could be an atheist in this valley of wonders?" (...) wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge upon his writing of Charmouny: the Hour Before Sunrise (1802). It would appear from Shelley's Mont Blanc (1816) that he has set out to write a poem from exactly this point of view; by being "an atheist in this valley of wonders." Shelley is anxious to find meaning and purpose in the wonder of Mont Blanc, but a meaning that does not derive directly from god. Rather he suggests it is a "secret strength" (...), and this is a notion that he explores throughout the poem.

In the opening lines of the poem, the reader is confronted by a baffling, "awful scene" (15) and a seemingly infinite landscape that the poet himself is struggling to define and articulate. This is demonstrated by the notion of a transient subject that is evoked by the repetition of "now":

Now dark, now glittering, now reflecting gloom, now lending splendour... (3-4)

The images presented here also convey to the reader a sense of opposition and contradiction; of a place that appears to be both light and dark, both terrifying and enlightening.

The vague notion of a "secret strength" (...) is one that Shelley attempts to articulate throughout the poem, and progress towards this goal is arguably made even in this short section. In line 27 the poet can only offer the reader an "unscultptured image" (27), whereas by line 39 Shelley is able to profess "a clear universe of things around" (39). It would thus seem that it is only through the use of a poetic imagination that Shelley is able to process and make sense of the spectacle that is Mont Blanc.

Shelley concedes in the opening line of the poem that "the everlasting universe of things flows through the mind" (1-2). The use of the unequivocally transient and impermanent verb "flow" is one that contributes to the notion that the human mind is in fact a kind of receptacle through which an image of the natural world passes and is then processed and unified by the imagination. Edmund Burke believed that elements of nature are too sublime, or too beautiful, even to contemplate (...). It can be inferred from this that Shelley's attempt at finding significance and meaning in Mont Blanc which stretches, as he describes later in the poem, "far, far above, piercing the infinite sky" (60), as decidedly ambitious and that he is in fact attempting something that some of the greatest thinkers of the time believed to be impossible. Mont Blanc itself had only been climbed physically three times by 1816, and it would appear that Coleridge and Shelley were the only two prominent poets who had attempted to scale it in a poetic manner by this time, and thus they are arguably treading on distinctly unchartered territory "where from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings" (4-5).

It is interesting to note that negative adjectives can be seen as being significant part of the diction employed by Shelley in his construction of Mont Blanc. For example he uses phrases such as "unsculptured image" (27), "unresting sound" (33) and "unremitting interchange" (39). Angela Leighton argues that "such negatives by themselves might indicate the defeat of language, but Shelley bolsters descriptions with a carefully qualified aesthetic organisation." (37) The repeated use of these negative adjectives undoubtedly conveys a sense of a landscape that is untamed and wild.

In relation to this notion of an "unsculptured image" (27), the reader is not presented with a recurring image or motif. Instead they are bombarded with multiple contradictory images. For example, in the second section of the poem alone the reader is exposed to images of a "dark, deep ravine", a "many-voic├ęd vale", a "giant brood of pines" and "earthly rainbows" in the space of approximately 10 lines. However, by the end of this second section the poem becomes more reasoned and structured, and Shelley is able to describe the "clear universe" that he perceives in line 39. Thus, the reader's experience of the poem is arguably very similar to that of the poet's insofar as they are both initially presented with an awe-inspiring yet terrifying landscape which neither can articulate or understand, only to reach some kind of permanence and stability through Shelley's use of the poetic imagination.

With regard to the form and structure of this lines 1 to 40 of Mont Blanc, there are arguablt certain contradictions in Shelley's chosen poetic form and the actual content of the poem. The section focused on here, and indeed the rest of the poem, is written in the conventional metre of iambic pentameter. This traditional metre can be seen as working in opposition to the unstructured and vast landscape that Shelley perceives. However it is equally possible to argue that the metre of the poem imposes some restrictions and sense of order on the poem, which in turn allows Shelley to employ the contradictory diction that he chooses. Arguably, without the sense of order that is evoked through the metre, the poem would almost become too vast and far reaching, thus making it inaccessible to the reader.

The lack of a consistent rhyme scheme can be seen to reflect Shelley's focus on the ruggedness of nature and the meditative tone of his poem, and this works in contrast to the religious overtones of Coleridge's Charmouny: The Hour Before Sunrise. Furthermore, the lack of rhyme can also be argued to reflect the ruggedness of the landscape and the fact that nothing surrounding Mont Blanc, and indeed the mountain itself, is rigidly formal. In fact, it is "many-coloured ... many voiced" (13) and has a "ceaseless motion" (32) and "unresting sound" (33).

The opening lines of the poem become extremely interesting when the metrical feet employed by Shelley are considered. It has already been said that the poem is written in iambic pentameter, but it would appear that in lines 3 and 4 the pace of the poem is altered. The use of the trisyllabic amphibrach "reflecting" and assonance that is used in the following line to emphasise the long vowel sounds in the phrase "lending splendour" can be seen as slowing the pace of the poem. This reduction in pace is arguably appropriate here since it occurs directly after the reader has been presented with four contradictory images, thus giving them the opportunity to consider the spectacle they are being presented with.

The use of consonance between lines 8 and 10 arguably provides the reader with a sense of the unity of Mont Blanc that they have not yet experienced. Shelley talks of the "wild woods... / where waterfalls around it leap forever, / where woods and winds contend." However, this sense of unity is arguably only fleeting, since it only occurs at the end of the first section and thus just before the reader is presented with further, seemingly arbitrary, images of "pines, and crags, and caverns ... fast-cloud shadows and sunbeams."

In lines 31-3 Shelley employs three linguistic and rhetorical techniques to create tension and to increase the pace of the poem, before causing it to halt, or at least pause, momentarily with the exclamation, "Dizzy ravine!" (34):

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! ... (31-4)

The combined use of repetition, anaphora and caesura contribute to the creation of a fragile and eerie atmosphere that culminates in a temporary interruption in the blank verse of the poem. This point can almost be seen as a kind of volta, since it is after this that Shelley invokes the first use of the possessive pronoun:

I seem as in a trance ...
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind... (35-7)

The repetition of the possessive pronoun can be argued to contribute to the notion that this section of the poem is one of the most reassuring and comforting, since the reader may take Shelley's use of the subjective "I" figure to signify that he is finally beginning to gain some control over the notion of the sublime that is conveyed through these few lines.

The elements of the sublime that are conveyed in the later stages of this section through Shelley's choice of diction, such as the "dizzy ravine" (34) and the "ethereal waterfall" (26), and also his use of rhetorical devices and form, "allow both a degree of control and a locus for individual desire in the scene" (Michasiw, 86). It is clear that Shelley wishes to gain an understanding of the significance of Mont Blanc and the "secret springs" (4) of the imagination, and thus he must gain at least some control over the object he is describing, and this is achieved through the restrictions he places on Mont Blanc's features through his use of structure and poetic form.

It is important to note, however, that the control he gains is not absolute, but it is in keeping with what is arguably Shelley's desire in Mont Blanc: to "impress upon your mind the images which fill mine now" (496).


Primary Source:

  • Wu, Duncan (editor). Romanticism: an Anthology (3rd edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

Secondary Sources:

  • Colbert, Benjamin. Shelley's Eye: Travel Writing and Aestheic Vision. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005.
  • Michasiw, Kim Ian. Nine Revisionist Theories on the Picturesque: Representations. Spring 1992 (these were the only details provided in the bibliography of the Colbert's text).
  • Shelley, Mary (editor). Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments: 2 volumes. London: Edward Moxon, 1839.

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