Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Romanticism

Quick update: I am not done with The Overstory, and even though I’m now significantly further in, I have nothing new to say from last time. (It’s still just “BUT THE TREEEEEES” on repeat.)

So I want to take a break from that and talk about one of my favorite poems, which is “Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley isn’t my favorite Romantic poet (that’d be Keats), but I admire him—and I admire “Mont Blanc” most of all. This is probably pretentious of me, but I appreciate that it’s so inscrutable. I can really dig my teeth into it on a number of fronts, but there’s still a lot of things I find unclear about the poem, and I kind of enjoy that. It’s like there’s plenty more waiting for me upon further inspection, as I get older and see things in new lights.

The area of teeth-sinking for this post is going to be a pretty basic one, and you can probably find countless Sparknote-like analyses online about this connection, but whatever. I do what I want.

And today, I want to talk about the ways “Mont Blanc” is a classic example of the Romantic era of arts and letters.

First Off, Some Elements of Romantic Era Works

I had an excellent teacher for my 400-level English course, and he said just about everything about Romanticism could be summed up in “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, pictured here:

It’s a nature painting, sure. But it’s not a landscape. The focal point is man—a solo traveler made contemplative by the power he looks out upon.

Let’s not forget, though, that he’s on top of that mountain. Even as the Romantics respect, love, and are in awe of nature, they’re primarily in it for what it does to deepen their own experiences.

Romantics are anti-urban and anti-industrial. (You can primarily see this in Wordsworth’s works. He considered London to be a positive horror show.) They want to be in nature. But they’re not into descriptive pastoral pieces just for the sake of describing what they see. Everything is about the sublime: the power that comes from nature and its effect on the receptive spirit.

My aforementioned excellent literature teacher said we can blame the Romantics, primarily Wordsworth, for the trite “I went into my backyard, saw a tree, and had a thought” poetry that’s the hallmark of contemporary amateur poets everywhere. But the real Romantics, though at times a little self-absorbed, did it right. There’s a reason every aspiring poet unintentionally follows this formula. It really worked for the Romantics.

Oh, by the way—timewise, the Romantic era lasted most of the 1800s. The painting above was created in 1818. Shelley’s composed “Mont Blanc” in 1816.

What’s Mont Blanc?

It’s a nice pen to give your groomsmen! Just kidding. It’s the biggest mountain in the Alps—and in fact, the second biggest one in all of Europe. It’s on the border of Italy and France. While Shelley was writing this poem, he was on the French side, in the Arve Valley, looking up at the mountain.

Here it is, if it helps to picture it.

The Sublime in “Mont Blanc”

First off, for reference, you can find the poem in full here.

If you come to “Mont Blanc” expecting a beautiful description of an elegant landscape with a majestic mountain as its focal point, you’re going to be disappointed. “Mont Blanc,” frankly, is a terrifying poem.

But now that you know a bit about Romanticism, this makes sense. The sublime isn’t a nice scene that’s pleasing to the eye. It’s an awesome, overwhelming, chaotic, strike-the-fear-of-god-into-you experience caused by nature, which leaves you no choice but to think very large thoughts about your own existence and your place in this world that’s so much bigger than you.

As Shelley describes the ravines and rivers and mountain itself, you can see him showcasing the sublime in “Mont Blanc.” It’s not a serene place, but it’s somehow holy. It’s big and terrifying and will strike fear and awe into your heart. And in the end, it holds the secret to life and death. (Emphasis mine in quotes here.)

  • “a vast river
    Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.”
  • awful scene,
    Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
    From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
    Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
    Of lightning through the tempest;”
  • “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!”
  • “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;”
  • “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?”
  • “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.
    Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
  • “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”
  • “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.”

These are all instances of how Shelley is experiencing the sublime through his experience standing in the valley of Mont Blanc.

But Let’s Not Forget Shelley’s Presence…

Don’t forget that a key part of nature, for Romantics, is their place in it. They want to discuss what it makes them think and feel. We first see Shelley himself show up in the poem in stanza II:

  • “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,”

If you ask me, the transition to talking about himself seems a tad awkward—sort of a “but enough about you; let’s talk about me.” But without these deeper thoughts he begins to have about sleep and life and death…well, without them, we have “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (the painting I shared above) but with no focal point. It’s just a landscape.

Landscapes are nice. But what makes a Romantic poem is the thoughts the poet has because of what he (and let’s face it, Romantic poets are almost always “he”s) sees. The interpretation Romantics give to their poetry adds depth.

Here are more reactions and insights Shelley has as the result of what he sees:

  • “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!”

With this, you get the sense that Shelley is so overwhelmed by the vision before him, that it’s so powerful, that he must somehow be witnessing the connection between life and death in this place he’s found himself. He feels it’s so surreal he must be dreaming, but if he’s dreaming, could he possibly actually be dead?

Then we have this:

  • “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.”

Lol. On one hand, this is just Shelley saying, “not everyone can appreciate this the way some people, like me, can” But if we take what he’s saying at face value, he feels that because of his capacity and the capacity of likeminded people, there are great gifts here for those who would receive it. That certain people could take pilgrimages here and find the secret to “repealing fraud and woe.” That’s the effect of the sublime on the individual, to Shelley.

Finally, let’s take a look at how the poem ends.

“And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?”

This is so quintessential Romantic. He’s zoomed all the way out of his experience at Mont Blanc and generalized to this question:

“What good is nature if we don’t learn to observe it in silence and solitude and take in the lessons that we can from it?”

(And what a man-centric, classic Romantic way of looking at these things that feel so powerful and so much bigger than yourself—you’re no good if we can’t take value from you.)

I’d love to hear what Shelley would have to say about the personality types that can’t sit still and observe nature for long swaths of time.

Final Thoughts on “Mont Blanc”

I’ve picked on the poem a bit at the end here, but let me reiterate—I love this poem, and I love Shelley. This work is so dense and impossible to truly untangle. And I adore that about it. I still read all of stanza IV and think, “Wut 🤔.

However, even if you don’t really understand what’s going on, it’s a delicious poem to just take in. Crunch on those word choices. Let the descriptions wash over you. See what sinks into your subconscious. “Mont Blanc,” like it’s namesake, is waiting there, big and overpowering, for you to take away revelations and new experiences.

Next week, I expect to finish The Overstory and have some final thoughts, so look forward to that roast. (Just kidding. Maybe I won’t roast it. Maybe.)

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