Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ and lines 452-542 from Book Sixth of The Prelude by William Wordsworth (Romantic Writings: An Anthology, pp.329-32 and pp.133-5 respectively)
Both literary texts that we will be dealing with in this essay, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ and an extract from Book 6 of The Prelude by William Wordsworth belong temporally to the Romantic Period (1780-1830), with the former having been written in 1816, and the latter completed in 1805, although it was not published until 1926. Wordsworth belongs to the ‘first generation’ of Romantic writers, whose Romantic literature was wartime literature.
Thus he had lived through the Revolutionary period and had also witnessed the aftermath of it: the dissipation in a long war. Despite his initial sympathy towards the early ideas of the Revolution concerning man and human liberties, he came to abandon them, turning from a fervent progressist into a resigned conservatist. He began to argue against the received idea of poetic language as a refined mode of eloquence available only to those with an education in previous literary models, employing the ‘language of men’.
The ‘second generation’, however, in which Shelley is included, belong to the post-war period, and having lived neither through the Revolution itself nor the reaction, they saw this change of view as a betrayal. Shelley’s writing can be characterized as a continuous rebellion aiming at the establishment of the reign of love and freedom in human society. ‘Mont Blanc’ constitutes an impressive statement of his belief in a benevolent force in Nature and of moral activity in man. Likewise, Wordsworth’s Book 6 from The Prelude, entitled ‘Cambridge and the Alps’, aims at charting ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’, with particular emphasis on the importance of Nature, which is always a key notion in his philosophy and poetry.
Having given this background, we will start comparing and contrasting the way Nature is represented in the two writings with reference to their characteristics in terms of poetic form and language.
‘Mont Blanc’ is a 144-line ode composed during the writer’s journey to Chamounix Valley in South-East France and intended to reflect the scenery through which he travelled. It is divided into five stanzas, with diversity in the number of lines in each, and is written in irregular rhyme as well as rhythmic pattern. This abandonment of regularity of pentameter iambics expresses a sense of freedom which aims, in turn, at bringing about feelings of sublimity evoked by such a close contact with Nature. The point of view is of first-person, conveying, thus, immediacy.
The poem begins with the claim: ‘The everlasting universe of things/flows through the mind.’, with which Shelley states his response to Mont Blanc: to consider what the landscape before him can teach about the merging of Nature and the mind. In this first stanza, Shelley develops his understanding of the mind participating in Nature, comparing the human mind to a small stream surrounded by waterfalls and a river: ‘The source of human thought…such as a feeble brook…where waterfalls around it leap forever…’ (ll.5-9). Later in the poem as well, several ways in which the mind participates in the creative forces evident in the landscape are indicated, as in Lines 37-41, where his mind ‘now renders and receives fast influencing….One legion of wild thoughts…’.
He realises that knowledge is a combination of sensory perceptions and the ideas of the mind. The river can then serve as a symbol for the mind, a conscious power and a source for imaginative thought when he finishes the stanza with ‘thou art there!’. Also, at the end of the poem, addressing the mountain, he states that ‘the secret strength of things/which governs thought, and to the infinite dome/of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!’ (ll.139-141).
However, at certain parts, this response is implied as impossible; this world of thought is too great for a human to comprehend (‘for the very spirit fails/Driven like a homeless…among the viewless gales’, ll.57-59). By these means, the sublime of Nature is being foregrounded.
The starting lines of the second stanza talk of the scene before him, the Arve, which is represented as the Power: the universal realm of thought, which surprises us by ‘bursting’ into view like lightning (‘Thus thou; Ravine of Arve…Bursting through these dark mountains…’, ll.12-19). The syntax of these lines is unusual; ‘Thus’ probably confirms evidence for the previous claim, although it is not clear what is being demonstrated; then, we have sentence fragments, the use of dashes, even the word order of ‘dark deep’, that reverses typical locution. This disrupted, unusual syntax denotes the pressure of this overwhelming experience, causing Shelley’s senses to instantly break down.
Finally, we have an animating metaphor: the Ravine, which is addressed as if it were animate (‘Thus thou’), and the Arve, which descends as Power from ‘his secret throne’ (ll.16-17). This allows for the writer to later address direct questions to Mont Blanc, suggesting a presence in it that finds an answering response in us (‘Is this scene…once this silent snow?’, ll.71-74). In this third stanza, Mont Blanc is presented as ‘piercing the infinite sky’ (l.60), whose subject mountains have ‘unearthly forms’ (l.62) and the deeps are ‘unfathomable’ (l.64), introducing thus its connections to this higher power. The alliteration in Line 78 ‘so solemn, so serene’ foregrounds the perception that Nature can be both benevolent and malevolent, depending on the relationship one chooses to establish with it. In any case, even though the power is too great for mankind, it can indeed serve as a teacher who ‘teaches awful doubt’ (l.77), or a faith in human nature that will revolutionise the world.
This language encourages us to conceive the mountain as a consciousness something like-if not superior to-human thought, leading imagination to expand itself to the dimensions of it. In Lines 139-144 the power of the universe is symbolised by Mont Blanc, denying thus the existence of a natural religion, but for that power to have any meaning, one must exercise the imagination. The questions with which Shelley ends the poem grant the reader freedom to ponder the ultimate question of what is Nature if it doesn’t merge with human mind and imagination, reflecting perhaps the freedom that he has experienced.
The Prelude, Book 6
Let’s move to the extract from Book 6 of The Prelude now, which is structured as a narrative, telling a story which is complete in itself, as well as being part of The Prelude as a whole, and which forms part of Wordsworth’s autobiography. It is also lyrical in that in recounts his feelings and actions at a unique or typical moment: during his crossing of the Alps. It is written in blank verse, which perhaps helps avoid monotony, and the rhythm is iambic pentameter.
In Lines 453-456, Wordsworth expresses his disappointment in Mont Blanc: it is a ‘soulless image’, which ‘had unsurp’d upon a living thought/That never could be’. A ‘living thought’ is better than ‘a soulless image’: it is better to ‘think’ than merely ‘to see’. Here, political language is applied to nature and the working of mind (‘unsurp’d), which could imply his disappointment in the contemporary political events.
However, the sight of the Vale of Chamounix is quite compensatory: it is a ‘book’ from which the young and old learn (ll.473-7). He finds fascination in the landscape, which did ‘make rich amends’ and ‘reconciled us to realities’ (ll.460-1). The imagery of country life, such as small birds co-existing with eagles, a reaper at work in the fields, and the threat of Winter in the autumn sunshine, which is similed to ‘a tamed lion’ (ll.466), are all experienced as edifying.
The climax comes at Line 524, when it dawns on them that they have crossed the Alps without knowing. The element of surprise is prominent in this climax: ‘I was lost as in a cloud’ (l.525), which is perceived as the ‘Power’. The writer experiences a spiritual catharsis by being revealed of the power of the mind and the free-flowing spontaneity of the language conveys to us this uplifting rush of exaltation. Wordsworth celebrates the way ‘that power…came…athwart’ him’ (ll.527-9). So, impotence in the presence is followed by a future of infinite possibility, which is achieved through imagination and moves the poet from the disappointing place to time. The ‘living thought/that never more could be’ (ll.455-6) is succeeded by a reference to ‘something evenmore about to be’ (l.542). He is lost in the realm of time along with imagination, which transcends the human senses.
Nevertheless,’the light of sense/goes out in flashes that have shown to us/the invisible world’ (ll.534-6). This image conveys a denial that the normal faculties of consciousness are adequate to discover ‘our destiny, our nature, and our home’ (l.538). The repetition of ‘hope’ in Line 540 strongly foregrounds Wordsworth’s desire to reconstitute its grounds in a dark time of post-revolutionary reaction and despair.
On balance, these two literary works share an interesting similarity in their use of apocalyptic and millennial imagery to express the relationship of man to Nature and to higher powers; they are both successful in making their readers aware of the greater harmony of the universe, both within and outside the boundaries of time. However, where Wordsworth admitted his disappointment on the view of real Mont Blanc, Shelley’s reaction was the opposite. Furthermore, while Wordsworth places great emphasis on the interaction of the human mind with its environment, Shelley emphasises the passivity of the mind in the ‘unremitting interchange’ with ‘the clear universe of things around’ (ll.39-40); Nature is the messenger and the imagination acts upon it only after having received it.
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