Themes and Meanings

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Shelley’s Mont Blanc is one of the most philosophical of all landscape poems; it is also among the greatest. It is partly a reply to William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), in which both the type of landscape described and the implications suggested by it are much cozier. Both poems deal with the human mind, but Shelley (unlike Wordsworth) is not concerned with its development through childhood to maturity. Instead, he takes for granted a richly endowed adult mind that simultaneously perceives and abstracts. Unlike Wordsworth, he is not fundamentally concerned with memory. Thus, one not only sees the poet’s mind at work, creating the very poem one is reading, but one also sees his mind analyzing itself. It is clear that the mind in question is both rational and creative.

Besides analyzing itself, the poet’s mind also analyzes nature, particularly in its relations to humankind. That nature strongly influences human thought is both implied and assumed; for one thing, nature is often beautiful and therefore attracts one’s attention. Shelley records no evidence to suggest that natural beauty is in any way purposeful, however; for him, no divine being deliberately created an aesthetically pleasing world for the enjoyment of its human inhabitants. Nor is nature a moral teacher (as Wordsworth held), except in ways that typical nature-lovers had never recognized.

The world of Mont Blanc—which, for Shelley, encompasses the entire earth—is fundamentally indifferent to either the survival or the happiness of humankind. Any benefits it bestows upon humans are therefore not divine favors but mere accidents. The outstanding difference between nature and man, for Shelley, is that nature endures throughout time whereas man does not. This is the real lesson to be learned from nature (lines 92-100).

Yet Shelley does not ultimately concede. In the final stanza, he confronts Mont Blanc straightforwardly, both as a fact and as a symbol. He sees the height, the power, the coldness, and the isolation of Mont Blanc and celebrates them (in lines 139-141). The material universe, already seen to be eternal, is infinite as well (lines 60, 140). Yet in a strikingly abrupt conclusion—three lines that ultimately outweigh all the rest of the poem—a shocking reversal takes place, as Shelley taunts the gigantic mountain by pointing out that its only significance (indeed, nature’s only significance) is that given to it by the human mind. In this sense, then, the eternal universe in which humans live is constantly being re-created according to human dictates.

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