Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mont Blanc


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 Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Mont Blanc



The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark--now glittering-no", reflecting gloom
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings 5
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 forever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river 10
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.


Thus thou, Ravine of Arve-dark, deep Ravine-
Thou many-colored, many-voicéd vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene, 15
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; thou A lie,
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging, 20
Children of elder time, in whose devotion
The chainless winds still come and ever came
To drink their odors, and their mighty swinging
To hear-an old and solemn harmony;
Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep 25
Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptured image; the strange sleep
Which when the voices of the desert fail
Wraps all in its own deep eternity;
Thy caverns echoing to the Argues commotion, 30
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 35
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; 40
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 45
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!


Some say that glean-is of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber, 50
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep 55
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit falls,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, 60
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 65
And wind among the accumulated sleeps;
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 heaped around! rude, bare, and high, 70
Ghastly, and scarred, 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. 75
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 reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal 80
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.


The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell 85
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fierv 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 90
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. 95
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primaeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep 100
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 piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
A city of death, distinct with many a tower 105
And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
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 destined path, or in the mangled soil 110
Branchless and shattered stand; the rocks ' drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed. The dwelling place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil 115
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 120
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, forever
Rolls its loud waters to the ocean waves, 125
Breathes its swift vapors to the circling air.


Mont Blanc et gleams on high-the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
11, the calm darkness of the moonless nights, 130
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 135
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapor broods
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome 140
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?

July 23, 1816 (published 1817)




1. Shelley wrote of this poem: "It was composed under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe: and as an undisciplined Overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang." Shelley's comment points to two important attributes of Mont Blanc. First, he attempts as in other poems (supremely in Ode to the West Wind), to make the poem iconic, or directly imitative in the over-all impetus, but interpolated ritardandi, of its blank verse, syntax, and imagery-of the alternating "wildness" 11 and "solemnity" of the scene and the consonant thought and feelings It evokes. Second, this work belongs to the genre of the "local" poem, a descriptive-meditative presentation of a pre- identified landscape. In this respect resembles Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, the major influence on Mont Blanc. Shelley's Poem like Wordsworth's, emphasizes the interchange between mind and nature in perception and goes on to pose the question of the significance of nature to man; it proposes, however, a very different answer to that question. The poem raises the central problem about the nature and human significance of "Power," the ultimate principle behind all natural and mental process. The symbol of this Power is the river Arve (lines 16-17), which has its "secret throne" at the summit of Mont Blanc the highest peak in Europe, and beyond human access. The process of the Arve begins with the ceaseless but unseen fall of snow and the unheard play of winds at the far height of the mountain, becomes the Mer de Glace glacier, moves inexorably down the mountain, and melts into the river, which runs through its ravine into the valley of Chamonix in southeastern France. Shelley's answers to all questions about this Power are austerely skeptical. He postulates, only that "the power is there," at the inaccessible peak of Mont Blanc (lines 127 ff.), but it is "remote. serene, and inaccessible" (lines 96-97). Shelley refuses to invest it with anthropomorphic intentions or values.
What we do know is that this Power, as in its embodiment as a glacier, it descends from its secret throne into the human Len, remorselessly destroys all things, animal and human (lines 100-20); yet in its simultaneous form as a river (lines 120-26), it with equal mo ral indifference is the "breath and blood of distant lands," and the source of life-giving rain. It is the enlightened human will alone which can convert this purposeless destroyer and preserver to moral purposefulness, by harnessing process as means to its own human ends even to the revolutionary end of total reform by the repeal of "Large codes of fraud and Woe" (lines 8-83). The poem ends like Ode to the West Wind, with a rhetorical question, of which the implication is that phenomenal nature is in itself but a universal blank, except as by the imagination of observing man Shelley comes close here to the central theme of the modern American poet, Wallace Stevens, for whom the human imagination confronts an alien and neutral nature and creates the order and meaning it does not find. (Back)
2. This passages is remarkably parallel to a Passage in Wordsworth's Prelude which (since the poem was not published until 1850) Shelley could not have read. See above, in The Prelude, XIV, 63 ff., where in the landscape viewed from Mount Snowdon, Wordsworth discovers the "type" or "emblem" of the human mind. (Back)
3. Invisible. (Back)
4. An allusion to theories current in Shelly's day that the earth was originally a smooth globe, and that mountains were formed by catastrophic earthquakes, by floods, or by a bursting forth of fire from the earth's interior.(Back)
5. "Simply by holding such a faith"-such as Wordsworth's "cheerful faith"(lines 133-34) in Tintern Abbey "that all which we behold / Is full of blessing." In Shelley's balance of possibilities, the landscape is equally capable of teaching this faith and "awful doubt." (Back)
6. Intricately formed: derived from Daedalus, builder of the labyrinth in Crete. (Back)
7. Like lines 9-11, an echo of Coleridge's description of the chasm and the sacred river in Kubla Khan, lines 11-24. In writing Mont Blanc Shelley probably remembered also Coleridge's Hymn before Sun_rise, in the Vale of Chamouni. (Back)
8. Mont Blanc (Back)