Beyond the Lines: “Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley described a poem as “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” His sweeping poem “Mont Blanc” is perhaps one of the best examples of Shelley putting his poetic ideal into practice. Its sweeping, grandiose imagery captures the quintessence of the Romantic ideal of the sublime as beautiful, and renders the poem a perfect case study to observe clarity of expression even through a heavy surface layer of imagery.
The first stanza begins:
The everlasting universe of things Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark — now glittering — now reflecting gloom — Now lending splendour, . . .
Here Shelley brings the reader from the broadest possible topic, “the everlasting universe of things,” unconstrained by place or even time, and frames it as thought within the mind of the observer. It is the human mind alone that contains the universe entire. Then he introduces the first metaphor:
. . . where from secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters, — with a sound but half its own, Such as a feeble brook will oft assume 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.
The human mind, which contains the universe, is likened to a “feeble brook,” so frail amidst the titanic forces of mountains, waterfalls, and river rapids. Despite the intensity of the images, neither the metaphor nor the main idea is lost. Indeed, the imagery serves the metaphor, highlighting the brook’s feebleness among mightier forces of nature.
Having set the mountain scene for the brook that represents the human mind, Shelley spends the first twenty-two lines of the second stanza immersing the reader in vivid description of the “awful scene” of raw, untamed, overpowering natural forces in the Arve Valley beneath Mont Blanc: the “giant brood of pines;” the “chainless winds;” the “earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep / Of the aethereal waterfall whose veil / Robes some unsculptured image.” Then Shelley returns to the human mind – his own, this time – reflecting on the awesome sight he just described:
Seeking among the shadows that pass by Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee, Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
Here Shelley’s Platonism surfaces. He sees in the images before him mere “shadows” and seeks among them the “ghosts of all things that are,” not very subtly evoking Plato’s famous analogy of the shadows on the cave wall.
In the third stanza, Shelley explores the Platonic ideal further, pondering the existence of the ideal beyond “[t]he veil of life and death. Now halfway into the poem, Shelley introduces its main metaphor:
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 heaped around! rude, bare, and high, Ghastly, and scarred, and riven.
The imagery is awesome and frightening. The mountain, aloof above the clouds, serves as the metaphor for the Platonic ideals Shelley has just been pondering. At last Shelley addresses the mountain directly, calling on it (or, rather, the ideal it represents) to act upon the imperfections in the perceivable world:
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.
Again, even at the poetic climax, the most awe-inspiring images in a poem packed with awe-inspiring natural imagery, the poetic language serves only as a vehicle for expressing the metaphor of the mountain as representing the Platonic ideal.
The fourth stanza descends from the serene, unreachable mountaintop to the chaotic scene beneath. Throughout the imagery is powerful and frightening: “glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey;” the piled rocks resemble “A city of death . . . yet not a city, but a flood of ruin;” “Vast pines . . . branchless and shattered stand.” These images show the irresistible power of nature, amid which “The race / Of man flies far in dread, his work and dwelling / Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream . . . .” Thus, humanity is fleeting not only in comparison to the idealized, unreachable mountaintop, but also to the natural, if transient, forces of nature beneath.
The fifth and final stanza concludes, “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there.” It ponders how high on the isolated peak the winds rush and the lightning flashes silently. And yet:
. . . 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?
With that question, the immovable, eternal ideal represented by the mountaintop is framed within the mind of the creatures portrayed as miniscule and powerless only a few lines before. The power of the mountain rests only in the human mind’s ability to perceive it and grasp the ideal it represents in the poem.
“Mont Blanc” is a philosophical lesson vividly, breathtakingly described. Yet nowhere is any imagery gratuitous. It serves only to support the metaphor. Be it the frailty of human nature and the human mind, the raw, overpowering grandeur of untamed nature, or the unreachable Platonic ideal, all the vivid description serves the point being made. If Shelley was to propound philosophy, it would have ill served him to make his readers guess at his meaning.
Nowhere is the meaning vague or ambiguous. Shelley uses the poetic language not as a mask, but as a lens to reveal the underlying philosophic truth. The imagery makes the ideas they convey come alive, phrased in concrete terms to which any reader can immediately relate. Rather than forcing the reader to guess at his meaning, Shelley reveals it more clearly and more powerfully through imagery with power and detail enough to conjure the emotions.
***For a discussion on the differences between classical and modern forms, using Shelley's Mont Blanc and Hart Cranes Voyages, please see Mr. Sedia's complete essay, "Clarity vs. Obscurity: The Essences of Classicism and Modernism Compared."
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Indiana, where he practices as a civil and appellate litigation attorney. His poems have appeared in print and online publications, and he has published two volumes of poetry: The Spring's Autumn (2013) and Inquietude (2016). He also composes music, which may be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives with his wife, Ivana, and their son.