Mont Blanc has a voice full of power that Percy Shelley brings to light in one of his many poems about the egotistical sublime. Join me in analyzing what we gain by reading the poem, Mont Blanc by Percy Shelley.
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Like most writers of the romantic period Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc is all about himself. Inspired by writers of the same period and a societal rejection of the industrial age the entire poem comes across rather egotistical and uneventful. It is merely the admired account of the tallest mountain in the Swiss Alps. In fact the only purpose it serves is as an inspiration to Shelley. Yet he makes the argument through language and symbolism that this idolization of man in nature gives beauty a reason to exist. Without the advanced mind to comprehend, appreciate and be inspired by, what is the purpose of beauty in nature? Beauty, like art and writing, is meant to be admired and if not talked about then silently appreciated in the mind.
It is important to note first how Shelley achieves this sense of vast glory the mountain has through language. “From the ice gulphs that gird his [the river Arve’s] secret throne/bursting through these dark mountains like the flame/of lightning through the tempest” (Shelley 17-19). There is an overabundance of elemental stimulation here that leaves the reader and the narrator astounded, in awe of the mighty power this mountain has. Not only is ice engulfing a part of the river, there is a power, presumably glaciers, that are large enough to burst through the mountain sides. They are then compared to the “flame of lightning through the tempest”, which is a line that holds the most imagery for this quote, including a contradiction of not only flame against a rain storm but a flame which acts like a lightning bolt as well.
How often are so many elemental forces presented by one object of study? Mont Blanc, Shelley writes, is displaying its power and beauty by being akin to fire, lightning, water, wind and ice all at the same time. It is this overstimulation that inspires the narrator. Again in lines 85-90 does Shelley describe this whirlwind of elements. He uses the terms; “lightning”, “rain”, “earthquakes” and “fiery floods”. Again telling us how Shelley views the mountain. Mont Blanc is a force nature so powerful it commands control of the earth, the sky and the waters around it all at the same time. Shelley also personifies the mountain throughout the poem, “thou hast a voice, great mountain” (Shelley 80). Personifying such a powerful being gives not only Shelley but also the reader a sense of admired apprehension. Mont Blanc is not to be trifled with, it is to be admired and almost worshipped. This mountain is so awe inspiring Shelley is immediately influenced by it, thus we see the reason for the creation of this poem, Mont Blanc. In this way Shelley is giving the mountain a purpose beyond simply being there. He is pushing human comprehension unto it in the most proficient use of the mountain’s beauty.
To create a work of art that is published, admired, then talked about and makes money is arguably the best use for the poetic muse a poet like Percy Shelley gains from nature. In the poem he argues that without the human mind to contemplate nature’s artistry, it cannot exist. “And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea/if to the human mind’s imaginings/silence and solitude were vacancy” (Shelley 142-4). Shelley is speaking directly to the mountain here, asking what would you be if humans did not give nature’s silent beauty meaning through their imagination. There is no purpose to beauty without anyone to appreciate it. The very idea of an aesthetic is to be appealing to the eye. If humans, and in Shelley’s case poets, did not write poems, sonnets, or fictions inspired from great mountains such as Mont Blanc it would merely exist as another part of the earth. Its aesthetic value would be wasted and lost to eyes that can’t create meaning out of beauty.
To further emphasize the through provoking aspect of Mont Blanc, Shelley writes; “And this, the naked countenance of earth/on which I gaze, even these primeval mountains/teach the averting mind” (Shelley 98-100). Because Shelley can comprehend the grandeur of the mountain he can learn from it lessons of life and death. In which he takes a few lines to describe how everything in the world is connected to, is born and dies within the same earth the mountain sits on.
Shelley’s handling of the sublime in these poems, a writing technique used often in romantic period England where man is influenced heavily by nature, reflects more on the author’s personal views than on anything else. Shelley is a man of nature, he admires it and like many other writers during his time, wishes to talk more of nature than of the increasing industrial age that was taking over. Given the time period it is no wonder Shelley and other poets wrote so much about the sublime, egotistical of not. The industrial age was a time of change for England, many feared that by becoming more urbanized England would lose its sense of admiration for natural beauty, ergo the reason for the value of aesthetics in the romantic period.
Shelley takes the sublime a step further however, he makes himself the narrator as the entirety of the poem is told through his point of view. Shelley paints a vibrant picture of the value he sees in this mighty mountain. This technique is referred to as the egotistical sublime and used by many romantic period writers, many of whom were inspired by William Wordsworth. Looking at the footnotes in the Norton Anthology of English literature we can even see that Shelley may have been influenced by Wordsworth’s ideals when it comes to poetry. Not only is the use of egotistical sublime similar to Wordsworth but in the first footnote regarding Shelley’s poem we see part of a preface written by Shelley which states; “It [the poem] was composed…as an indisciplined overflowing of the soul” (Norton Anthology 770). This sounds
conveniently similar to Wordsworth’s claim in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that poetry should be a “spontaneous overflow of emotion” written when feelings are “recollected in tranquility”. Shelley would not be the first poet of this period to be inspired so by nature and by Wordsworth’s claims to how poetry should be written. Indeed Wordsworth represented, through his writing and essays on poets, an all encompassing ideal of the romantic poet in 18th century England.
Mont Blanc, revolving around egotistical sublime and the beauty of nature does the same, capturing easily the overall values that England held in the romantic period. It talks of everlasting beauty, nature as a force mightier than humankind and as something to be inspired by. Mont Blanc claims that beauty cannot exist without a human mind to comprehend it because if imagination does not give way to meaning there can be no purpose for vibrant trees and mighty mountains. Shelley, like most writers, is influenced by the intellectual works of those around him, namely William Wordsworth. Both of these writers at once teach readers through poetry how mother nature can inspire through grandeur displays of her beauty and power.
Shelley, Percy. “Mont Blanc”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.