Mont Blanc by Shelley

Mont Blanc by Percy Bysshe Shelley is talking about the beauty of the Alpes, specially Mont Blanc. When analyzing this poem, the term sublime excels, since the whole poem is about the interaction of nature with the human’s mind, “To hear, an old and solemn harmony” (24), representing how nature is taking the speaker into a new world with greater things and how nature and the mind is a whole; it is both inside and outside of every person.

“Mont Blanc yet gleams on high; – the power is there / The still and solemn power, of many sights / And many sounds, and much more than of life and death.” (127-129), this quote can represent how powerful nature can be, but is it that the mountains have a meaning or is it just the humans mind perception of greatness that is created by the power of imagination?

When comparing Tinter Abbey with Mont Blanc, I can appreciate how both of them rely on the beauty of landscape and nature, as well as expressing it in a romantic style. But I could notice that while in Tinter Abbey the speaker is concerned about nature through his childhood and maturity, in Mont Blanc it is more about of perceiving the abstract as a whole and as an art.

Burke’s Sublime Concept and Mont Blanc

Considering the fact that the assignment asks that we only use a single example of Burke’s concept of The Sublime, I shall resist the prominent urge to write an in-depth analysis of the poem, and shall indeed focus on a small passage of it in order to create focus and simplify what might otherwise be a grand saga of philosophical speculation, religious intrigue, and quibbling on definitions. What shall follow will thus potentially suffer in regard to quality, and for that I preemptively apologize.  Now, without further ado:

Edmund Burke’s philosophy regarding this particular issue is rather complex, as exemplified through the fact that numerous sections are distinguished for our sake in the excerpts that are provided. Nonetheless, I suppose that since I must simplify it to explain its relevance, I would suggest this: The core of his idea regarding the Sublime is that what is sublime holds within it some significant sort of essential power, related through its distinguishing features. One of the most potent among these traits is the lack of that which allows the mind to bring comprehension to it- this is to say, Obscurity. He describes the phenomenon with the words, “In nature, dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions, than those have which are more clear and determinate.” (39) In essence, he relates that because the mind cannot understand what lacks definition to it, it often ascribes great power and a higher, if unknowable, meaning to it simply because it seems right that there must be some sort of significance to that which we do not understand.

In the early verses of Mont Blanc, Percy Shelley uses that particular facet Burke ascribes to The Sublime in such a way that it not only weaves that categorical concept into the poem’s philosophical heart, but it begins the essential shift from contemplation of nature alone toward contemplation of the nature of reality which the work thrives upon for the rest of its length. Writing,

“Thus, thou, Ravine of Arve- dark, deep Ravine…
Where Power in the likeness of Arve comes down
From the ice gulphs that gird his secret throne…
Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep
Of the ethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptured image; the stranger sleep
Which, when the voices of the desart fail,
Wraps all in its own deep eternity… ”

Shelley sketches out a scene which it is impossible for the mind to fully form. (777)  From that which is hidden from comprehension because it is not brought to light (that which is kept secret) to that which is beyond the mind’s perception because its nature is that of another world (the ethereal), he crafts his words such that they bring a design into abstraction which stretches the bounds of what might be real. With the fantastical “secret throne”, he speaks of a physical thing- the root of the river, found in the melting ice. The rainbows and waterfall seem to describe something physically there, yet these quickly shift to reveal themselves as objects of wordplay, describing something beyond the corporeal realm. With the way that the topics lead into one another, it is very comfortable for the subject matter to bring up contemplation of the mental realms, and concepts higher than what can be literally seen.

It is in this way that The Sublime flourishes in Mont Blanc. Through its existence as something which transcends the normal emotional and mental heights of contemplation and experience, the shift to the metaphysical and philosophical became a subtle one, and the caliber of the opus that Percy Shelley produced as a result seems to have been raised by the synergy between the two subjects.

The Sublime in Mont Blanc

Percy Shelley’s writing reflects Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime in a few ways. A common theme of the poem is the infinite, eternal aspects of nature. In line 9, Shelley wrote, “Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, / Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river / Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.” He went on to write of winds that “come and ever came” in line 22. Edmund Burke does not provide much explanation other than saying that Infinity fills the mind “with a sort of delightful horror” which he also shares is the “truest test of the sublime.” Much of the writing in Mont Blanc reflects this infinite and vast idea of nature. “The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams, / Ocean, and all the living things that dwell (84).” Shelley’s writing exaggerates this notion that nature is eternal and infinite, but man is finite; man cannot comprehend infinity, but nature is and always will be infinity.

Mont Blanc.

Percy Bysshe Shelley speaks so romantically of the sublime in Mont Blanc. He speaks of things that are so powerful and strong and writes as though they are dancing.

“In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, where waterfalls around it leap for ever, where woods and winds contend, and a vast river over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves” (Shelley  776).

He paints a picture of such a grand scene as though each moving part is working together to demonstrate it’s power and beauty. Some of his description seems to me picturesque in nature, because he speaks so vividly of the color and sounds involved in this place such as the “solemn harmony” and the “earthly rainbows” (777).

When Shelley speaks of nature, he is speaking as I said in the previous paragraph of things that are by design powerful and potentially dangerous. This idea is paralleled with Burke’s idea of the sublime on page 37.

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain and danger… whatever is in any sort terrible… or operates in the manner of analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime… It is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” – Edmund Burke

To me it is the idea that he is at the mercy of all this that surrounds him and yet through this he can more vividly see its beauty. He talks about the “veil of life and death” when he realizes the “unknown omnipotence” of his surroundings (777). He speaks of mankind and about the “frost and the sun scorn of mortal power” (778). These things reaffirm the point Burke makes about the dangerous nature of the sublime.

“Mont Blanc” and Infinity

The great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley speaks to the romantic idea of the sublime in his piece Mont Blanc. Such a concept is defined by author Edmund Burke to be “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (37). He elaborates in his writings to depict the sublime as something obscure, powerful, infinite, and imperfect– following along with Romanticist concepts and style. Mont Blanc exemplifies many of these aforementioned factors– the “Power in likeness” (776) of the mountain or the “unknown omnipotence unfurled” (777) by the dark skies in the scene. Though, perhaps the most present facet of the sublime mentioned in Shelley’s piece is the vastness of nature and the emotions it provokes from those who gaze upon the display.

Burke writes, “greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime” which works hand-in-hand with infinity and its “tendency to fill the mind with…delightful horror” (41). Audiences note how Shelley plays with these ideas in his piece in order to evoke strong fears and fascinations from those who dissect his work. His opening line immediately throws readers into an “everlasting universe of things” (776). The poet writes of the mountain as if it is a “remoter world”, emphasizing concepts of “eternity” and “inaccessibility” (777-778). In stressing the vastness of his view with such fervor, Shelley is imploring audiences to regard nature as an impregnable, powerful body. The incorporation of Burke’s ideas of the sublime create a formidable force of the mountains, and a tone of astonishment.

“Mont Blanc” by Percy Shelley

     Edmund Burke defines the sublime as something that is provoked by a feeling of great astonishment, which is linked, in a way, to horror : “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, […] is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful). In his poem, entitled “Mont Blanc”, Percey Shelley puts this definition into practise. Indeed, the narrator of the poem is facing the natural element that is the Mont Blanc, that is to say the highest mountain in Europe. This simple contemplation turns itself into a huge flow of emotions and reflexion. Shelley defines his contemplation as a “trance sublime and strange” (L35). He uses here the word “sublime” itself, and associates it to the word “strange”. The latter is related, in a way, to fear, because it is unexplainable and unknown. Yet, it appears that, according to Burke, fear is one of the feelings that one needs to feel in order to reach the sublime. We can thus affirm that the poet is having the experience of the sublime.

     In this way, the one way in which Shelley’s poem exemplifies Burke’s ideas on the sublime that stroke me the most is the one of infinity. Indeed, Burke writes that infinity “has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delighful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime”. In this poem, infinity is indeed omnipresent: infinity of space and of time. We can read from the first line : “The everlasting universe of things”. Firstly, the word “universe” itself connotes the idea of infinity, both infinity of time and space. Secondly, the adjective “everlasting” insists on the idea of infinity of time. Moreover, this theme of infinity comes again and again all along the poem : “for ever” (L9); “eternity” (L29); “unremifting interchange” (L39); “the infinite sky” (L60); “perpetual stream” (L109) …  So, when the poet faces the Mont Blanc and the ravine of Arve (which is the spokesperson of the poem’s narrator), he becomes aware of the infinity of nature, and then experiences the sublime, as it is defined by Edmund Burke. And this engenders terror in the poet’s mind – as it is supposed to be, according to Burke’s theory. We can indeed read line 15 that the landscape is characterized as an “awful scene”. Plus, this terror is linled to a kind of malevolant spirit (an entity related to infinity, as immortal) who came to spread it on earth. So we can say that here, sublime is characterized by the paradoxal feelings engendered by the infinity of nature : at the same time marvel and terror.

      Other elements of the sublime as defined by Burke can be found in this extract. Some of them are directly related to the idea of infinity, such as power – a word we can find written with a capital letter line 16, as if it was a deity, which insists on his strength. We can also find the theme of vastness, thanks to the Mont Blanc; or even the theme of obscurity. So as a conclusion, I will say that Shelley’s poem is a good example of Burke’s ideas of sublime, because it uses many of his definitions and allows the reader himself to reach the sublime.



Mont Blanc

I found many of the characteristics of the sublime expressed by Burke related to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc. One that especially stuck out to me was obscurity. Burke states that “to make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.” He goes on to justify this claim by explaining how our apprehension is increased when we are uncertain or confused about something. It is more terrible when an object or person’s power “make[s] some sort of approach towards infinity” than when we know the exact extent of its power.

This idea was exemplified to me throughout Mont Blanc, because Shelley uses several words and phrases which instill uncertainty in the reader. Shelley describes a waterfall “whose veil robes some unsculptured image.” The idea of a veil adds a mysterious and obscure dimension to the scenery described. I began to view the waterfall and the rest of the scene as a sort of entity which I did not understand because it had secrets. Shelley also describes “unfathomable deeps” and a “perpetual stream”, both of which add to the feeling that the reader is not capable of understanding the power and depth of this location. The use of words like ‘unfathomable’ and ‘perpetual’ make it seem as though the power of this land is infinite, tying into Burke’s explanation of obscurity.