The Poem

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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 demonstration of the thought process described in the first. The Arve now is specifically described as Power, meaning not only the material power of matter in motion, but also the power of nature to influence the mind, even to the extent of creating poetry.

In the third stanza, the poet/narrator turns his attention from the ravine below him to the domineering mountain directly ahead and above him. Like everyone else, he is awestruck, almost hypnotized, as he contemplates its impersonal command of the entire scene. Dominating even the lesser mountains by which it is flanked, Mont Blanc appears to transcend all the limits of earthly existence, especially the shortlived mortality of mankind. Despite attempts by the intellectualizing poet to find some kind of beginning for the mountain (through earthquakes or volcanic eruptions), it seems virtually eternal.

Stanza 4 then pointedly contrasts the mortality of man and his works with the timelessness of the material world and its “primeval” (existing from the beginning) mountains. Most of the stanza is devoted to a vivid description of Mont Blanc’s glaciers, which are inexorably destructive of anything human placed in their paths to oppose them. The closing lines paradoxically affirm the hydrological cycle, in which snow, ice, glaciers, the Arve (a river derived from the glaciers but bringing fertility to man), the ocean, and the water evaporated from it are all seen to be one.

Finally, stanza 5 sums up Shelley’s profound meditation upon Mont Blanc, power, and human existence by first acknowledging the power of nature and then surprisingly but effectively disputing it by championing the primacy of the human mind over any manifestation of the material world.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 489 words.)

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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 landscape aesthetics already denominated in the eighteenth century as the sublime. Its complementary opposite is the picturesque, in which (like a modern tourist) one was invited to stand in precisely the right spot so as to see before one a natural scene resembling a landscape painting, with foreground, background, side curtains, and a center of interest all in order, as if arranged by a master artist. Such views commonly celebrated God’s creative talent, reaffirmed traditional religious belief, and consequently spared the observer any troublesome awareness that his outlook may have become obsolete. It was different with the sublime, which emphasized the amoral power of nature and its heedlessness of mankind. Far from reassuring and safeguarding the observer, the sublime tended instead to emphasize his helplessness, destabilizing him both physically and intellectually.

One sees the contrast between these two modes of landscape perception most obviously in stanza 3, lines 76 to 83. They too are puzzling, in part because of a major crux (textual difficulty) in line 79, where Shelley wrote “In such a faith” in one version and “But for such faith” in the later and generally accepted one. Do they mean the same thing, or did Shelley change his mind? The kind of faith involved is undoubtedly William Wordsworth’s rather than that of Christian orthodoxy; in any case, the stanza’s last lines refer to the Mountain’s “voice.” Shelley apparently wavered here between accepting a benign, Wordsworthian view of nature and the harsher, perhaps more realistic one that he then affirms so impressively in stanza 4.