The snowy peak and riven Alpine landscape turn the Romantic poet to thoughts of meaning, perception and eternity
Shelley was just short of his 25th birthday when he began drafting "Mont Blanc" in July 1816. It was published the following year in the volume he and Mary Shelley jointly compiled, History of a Six Weeks' Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. While sometimes described as an ode, the poem is more intellectually rigorous than the title implies. A superb, sometimes personified portrait of the Alpine landscape, "Mont Blanc" also traces a journey through philosophical and scientific concepts that had yet to find a modern vocabulary. The mountains, falls and glaciers are not only geological entities as an explorer would see them or spiritual embodiments as they might be for Wordsworth: they inspire radical questions about meaning and perception.
"The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves/ Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom/ Now lending splendour, where from secret springs/ The source of human thought its tribute brings/ Of waters …" So Shelley begins the short, almost introductory first stanza with a complex metaphor. The mind is carved out by perceptions as the earth is carved by watercourses that begin as "secret springs". Stanza 3, the extract I've chosen for this week's poem, takes the meditation to a deeper level.
The previous stanza has addressed the ravine: "Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down/ From the ice gulfs that gird his secret throne." Like the River Arve, the verse is sinewy and spacious. Thrilling description captures the movement and sounds as well as the shapes of the landscape. But it is the nature of this "power" that troubles Shelley. He has embarked on the poem almost as a test-drive, through dangerously sublime conditions, of his own atheism.
"Mont Blanc" is a direct response to an earlier poem by Coleridge, "Hymn Before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni". This is far more Ode-like in character. The tone is consistently elevated and the poet reiterates his belief that the "signs and wonders" of the natural world "utter forth God". Coleridge had begun the poem after climbing Scafell Pike during a solitary Lake District tour in 1802. He concealed the actual setting because, he said, the poem contained "ideas etc. disproportionate to our humble mountains". Less forgivably, he incorporated the text of a poem by the Swiss writer Frederika Brun, without acknowledgment (Coleridge, Selected Poems, edited by Richard Holmes, p.317). It's little wonder that the pious declarations sound so jarring and uncharacteristic.
While both Coleridge and Wordsworth are critiqued in "Mont Blanc", enquiry is more important than attack. Stanza 3 signals a meditative turn, as Shelley considers the possibility that the unconsciousness of sleep and death is visited by "gleams of a remoter world". Shelley is clearly not concerned with the afterlife in a Christian sense, but with a richer source of mental reality, possibly one that today would be equated with the subconscious mind. His rhetorical questions hang unanswered in the vast landscape, and "… the very spirit fails …" A similar vocabulary occurred in stanza 2, referring to "the strange sleep/ Which when the voices of the desert fail/ Wraps all in its own deep eternity …" The "desert" – not sand, of course, but the rocky Alpine wastes – seems ultimately mysterious because no human has left an imprint there. The hunter responsible for the "bone" carried off by the eagle is not human – it may well be the wolf of the following line. These images of rapacity no less than the shapes of the outcrops themselves seem to give rise to the exclamation: "How hideously …" Again, when Shelley personifies the formation of the mountains, he alludes to destruction rather than creation: "ruin" is all the "Earthquake-daemon" has taught her young. Shelley may not quite have stripped the landscape of deities, but he has stripped it very surely of sentimental charm, with those triple-adjective rockpiles reinforcing the lesson: "rude, bare and high", "ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven".
Nature's lessons depend on the learner. So the "mysterious tongue" of the wilderness can teach either "awful doubt or faith so mild/ So solemn, so serene, that man may be/ But for such faith with nature reconciled". Some critics take "but for such faith" to mean "by virtue of such faith". Bruce Woodcock, editor of the Wordsworth Poetry Library's The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley (2002), takes this view, noting that in the earlier draft Shelley had written "in such a faith". The reading of "but" as "except" in the later version would be possible, but it's more likely that Shelley intended faith to possess a certain healing power at this juncture of his thought.
Towards the end of the stanza, for the first time in the whole poem, Shelley apostrophises Mont Blanc itself. There's a hushed moment of near-religious awe. "Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal/ Large codes of fraud and woe …" But it's the political reformer in Shelley who projects on to the mountain a voice capable of abolishing systemic corruption. He can go no further with this idea of a near-divine voice: after that, it's to an ideal of privileged human understanding that he turns.
The concept of mind as a helpless natural force comparable to glaciers, rivers, winds, etc is a difficult one for an idealistic and reforming imagination such as Shelley's. While travelling, he would sign guesthouse registers as "Shelley – Democrat, Philanthropist and Atheist", and under "destination" write "L'Enfer" (Woodcock, p.viii). At the end of "Mont Blanc", framing that final rhetorical question about meaning, he evokes a chilling kind of hell. God's absence is no problem. But a "vacancy" that denied imaginative resonance to our perceptions would be the ultimate bleakness. It's almost as if the young poet had foreseen the hollow materialism of a secular age not unlike our own: "The secret Strength of things/ Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome/ Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!/ And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,/ If to the human mind's imaginings/ Silence and solitude were vacancy?"
III (from Mont Blanc)
Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl'd
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,
And the wolf tracks her there – how hideously
Its shapes are heap'd around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven. Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply – all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil'd;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.