The Sublime in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”

“Mont Blanc” is an insightful poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley on his visit to the Alps when he was twenty-four years old.  On the surface the poem appears to be a description or ode, if you will, to nature the all powerful being of young Romantics.  However, it was not written for this purpose.  I think that Shelley wrote this poem in view of Edmund Burke’s descriptions of where the sublime evolved.

A little phrase in line 6 illustrates Shelley’s youthfulness and involvement in the Romantic era through the thinking of the human mind, “[…] a sound but half its own.”  It seems that Shelley was implying that humans do not think their own thoughts, half of them are from nature and sound like nature.  Since nature was a key theme of the Romantics, then it should be natural that a whole poem is fixated on a young man’s thoughts of nature which encompass his mind.  This encompassment is a step toward the sublime according to Edward Burke, “In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.” (“A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: Of the passion caused by the Sublime”)  This overpowering ideal pervades the speaker’s thoughts in such force that he begins to believe that even nature is not reality, “seeking among the shadows that pass by, ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee, some phantom, some faint image […]” (l. 45-47)  The speaker is in turmoil over his thought that nature is a vague shadow until he concludes that there is no problem, just Mont Blanc wanting to convey that it is the force behind all human thought, “The secret strength of things which governs thought, and to the infinite dome of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!” (l. 139-141)  In short, “Mont Blanc” serves as an expression of Shelley’s youthfulness through sublimity, the power of nature over human thought which was increasingly popular with the youth in the Romantic Era.

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2 thoughts on “The Sublime in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”

  1. NB: That’s *Percy* Bysshe Shelley. But let your use of a definition of the sublime (here touching on the experience of being overwhelmed or overcome — and using a quote from Burke to help!) be a lesson for everyone else.

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