The Poem

Mont Blanc is a meditative and descriptive poem in five unequal stanzas of irregularly rhymed iambic pentameter. As with several of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems, scholars still dispute important details regarding its text. An early title specifies that the poem was conceived “at the extremity of the vale of Servoz”; a later subtitle has it “written in the vale of Chamouni,” which is a trough-like valley at the base of Mont Blanc. Mont Blanc itself is a stupendous sight as one comes upon it suddenly around a bend of the ravine through which the river Arve (originating in one of the glaciers of Mont Blanc) runs. Shelley probably stood on a bridge (the Pont de Pellisier) crossing the ravine to contemplate the scene. In his day, Mont Blanc was thought to be the highest mountain in Europe. From the bridge, it looms before the observer as one of the most dramatic views anywhere in the Alps; it is noted for its height, its formidably jagged rocks, its unforgettable glaciers, and the eerie whiteness from which it derives its name.

The first stanza of Mont Blanc reflects on the human mind itself, comparing it to the ravine of the Arve over which the poet is standing. The Arve flows through the ravine as influences from the material world flow through the mind, like a stream of consciousness. The river and the ravine have shaped each other, but the extent to which each has shaped the other is unclear. The second stanza is a more tangible...

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Forms and Devices

Mont Blanc is a difficult poem, in part because Shelley attempted to capture within it the very rapid workings of his own mind. At several points, the poem seems unfinished, abandoned rather than perfected. For this reason, one’s reading of it should probably depend more upon the major images it evokes than upon the precision of its sometimes uncertain language.

The poem abounds with symbolic landforms, some of which cannot be precisely identified or related altogether coherently with others. In stanza 1, for example, lines 6-11 constitute an elaborate simile based upon some landscape not immediately at hand (though perhaps a version of the same scenery that is developed later on). Both the “feeble brook” of line 7 and the “vast river” of line 10 are products of “secret springs” (line 4) and have something to do with human thought; none of this, however, is very clear. The most usual reading is that the “vast river” is the same as the “universe of things” flowing through the mind in lines 1 to 4. If so, then the human mind is dominated by passively received sense impressions (as in the philosophy of John Locke) rather than by its own autonomous creations. Throughout the poem, however, one sees the mind regularly allegorizing the world of nature and thereby giving it a significance that it would not otherwise possess.

In his gripping natural descriptions throughout the poem, Shelley utilizes a category of...

(The entire section is 489 words.)