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” 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” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In his poem “Mont Blanc”, Shelley is in awe of the nature surrounding him. He describes numerous aspects of nature, particularly Mont Blanc, as vast and imposing. According to Burke, the portrayal of nature as large, deep, or incomprehensible lends a sense of danger, and a major proponent of the sublime is that it should strike terror into the observer’s soul. The “broad vales” and “unfathomable deeps” (778) show just how small and insignificant human existence is in comparison to the rest of the natural world, and, for many people, coming face to face with the brevity and triviality of life is astonishing and terrifying. Similarly, the vastness and incomprehensibility of the “everlasting universe of things” (776) are illustrated to contrast the human mind, which is small and limited in the grand scheme of things. However, Shelley believes that humility before the sublimity of nature is beneficial to all parties involved; the “primaeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind”(778-79) and expand mankind’s understanding. On the other hand, although nature is much more powerful and lasting than mankind, nature still needs humans to observe its majesty, as evinced by the lines “And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind’s imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?” (780). If no one is able to admire the sublimity of nature, can it still even be considered sublime? Shelley’s emphasis on the overwhelming grandeur of nature proves that we are not the masters of the natural world–as many industrialists of the time would choose to believe–but by living with nature instead of subjugating it, we can still play an important role in making it divine.

Mont Blanc

In Percy Shelley’s poem, Mont Blanc,  the author’s youthful spirit is presented by his imagery and themes.  In the first line, he calls the universe “everlasting,” which displays Shelley’s thought of an infinite future, a younger way of thinking. Many older adults soon realize that their lives and the world are not going to last forever, while Shelley, at a young age, had a mindset that things like nature will will continue “ceaselessly.”

He also talks about nature in a way that is reverent, as people refer to gods or royals. Shelley says the “majestic River… breathes its swift vapours.” He personifies the river, as well as the “Mountain,” giving both a livelihood that should be revered. The Power that he gives credit to the mountain and nature is praised throughout the poem. Being part of the youth is often associated with embracing the outdoors and the wild, which is one of the themes that relates Shelley’s sublimity to youth perspectives.

Mont Blanc

In Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, Shelley allows himself to tap both his adolescence and his adulthood which is a clear representation of his youth, with youth being the time between adolescence and adulthood. Shelley’s sublime language used in the poem illustrates an elderly wisdom when describing the mountain and everything around it, language far above the intellect of an adolescent. The ideas conveyed by Shelley, however, are very adolescent in how they are very extreme and exaggerated. “Now dark-now glittering-now reflecting gloom-now lending splendour” is an example of the heightened language as well as the extremity that Shelley uses in the poem as he describes the human mind. Ultimately, Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” is a combination of sublime, elderly language and imagery with the combination of adolescent extremities and ideas mashing together to form an expression of youth.

Sublimity and Youth in Shelley’s Mont Blanc

In “Mont Blanc”, Shelley invokes some powerful images and uses incredible descriptions of the mountain he is looking at. Barely more than a youth himself, such incredible displays of nature are awe inspiring. A youth sees the world with wide eyes and a fresh imagination rather than the elder’s wisdom and experience. A youth sees the potential in such images whereas the elder would see the lesson to be taught from the sight.
In Shelley’s poem, you can see that youthful kind of awe and intimidation by nature. Shelley describes nature more as something insanely powerful and almost scary rather than harmonious or ethereal. A youth sees such powerful images for the possibility of danger or adventure first, and for the beauty second.