“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.




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