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.