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Analysis of Poem 'Mont Blanc' by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and a Summary of 'Mont Blanc'

'Mont Blanc' is one of Shelley's best known philosophical poems. Using vivid imagery, metaphor and philosophical ideas, the poet explores the relationship between the human mind and the natural world.

Written from a first person perspective, 'Mont Blanc' also has long passages of remarkable description that carry the reader along a metaphorical journey into the heart of the mountainous terrain via the fluidic mind of the observer.

An unusual rhyme scheme adds uncertainty and tension—there is no set pattern as guide. Full rhymes far apart reflect echoes, those close to familiarity. Imperfect rhyme (or slant) brings dissonance. All this creates a rare unpredictability.

  • Essentially, this poem lays the foundations for Shelley to build on and face his own religious scepticism, his own ideas about perception, poetic imagination and the power of the natural world.
  • Our minds take in the perceptible, yet transcend the things perceived through feeling and language. We feel small, think great and beyond, acknowledging that we are capable of creating imaginative worlds—the paradox of being independent within and dependent without.
  • For him, Mont Blanc the mountain is not the creation of an omnipotent God but the product of the workings of his own mind. The mountain and environs unite with the poet's powerful imagination; the voices of both come together in a symbiotic relationship, at once vital yet mysterious.

From the outset Shelley suggests that the whole of creation flows through the mind, the Mind—everything internalised at it were, including human thought, so small (a feeble brook) against the mountain and river and the universe.

This idea comes from Shelley's earlier prose work, On Life, written somewhere between 1815 and 1819:

'Let it not be supposed that this doctrine conducts the monstrous presumption, that I, the person who now write and think, am that one mind. I am but a portion of it' (174).

Shelley, unlike William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, fellow romantics, was an atheist so could not approach Mont Blanc thinking that this was all God's work alone, as Coleridge did in his poem 'Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni.'

There is wonder, there is acceptance of a universal power, the secret Strength of things/ Which governs thought, but no mention of the omnipotent Christian god. Shelley's language skirts around any named deity, avoiding convention, content with things flowing.

Again from On Life:

'The relation of things remain unchanged by whatever system. By the word things is to be understood any object of thought, that is, any thought upon which any other thought is employed, with an apprehension of distinction. The relations of these remain unchanged; and such is the material of our knowledge.' (174)

Shelley's quest within the poem is to represent the relationship between mind and nature as a kind of interwoven consciousness; he has done away with God and has to substitute his own mystery of mind at one with the mountain's power. Perhaps there is no conclusion; there is only the process.

This philosophical approach suggests that Shelley knew of or was influenced by Immanuel Kant's book The Critique of Reason (1781/87), part of which explores the unity of consciousness and Kant's take on the understanding of the sublime.

When faced with raw, untameable nature on such a scale, Shelley's initial reaction is one of conscious awareness of being part of something universal; yet the perceptions, the detailed natural phenomena, come thick and fast, part of the same arguably unified consciousness.

Shelley's use of language in 'Mont Blanc' also introduces an element of uncertainty in the face of such an awesome spectacle. The mountain and the mind are one and part of the universal flow—Mont Blanc silent, serene and imposing; the mind actively searching for language that will bring meaning to experience.

The poem becomes an attempt to explore the origins of the unknown power inherent in Nature and human thought. Shelley's bold description of what a poem is featured in his The Defence of Poetry (1821):

'the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth...'

If Shelley touched on beauty when exploring the mystery of knowledge and experience in 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'; if he continues this search in 'Prometheus Unbound', where love becomes the focus, then in 'Mont Blanc' he questions the role of the imagination.

What does it mean for the poet's mind when faced with such awesome beauty, serenity and wild silence? What to make of the light, the woods, the water, the rock—the whole scene? It is within and beyond; the imagination can only stretch so far and that is why the rhyme scheme is as it is; that is why the poem is neither blank verse nor fully rhymed.

The mountain's secret Strength shares the same source as that which also governs thought—the poet attempts to resolve the issue of the mysterious unknown power inspiring the words that can never wholly satiate the human spirit.

As Shelley himself wrote in On Life:

'How vain is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being. Rightly used they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves, and this is much. For what are we?' (172).

'Mont Blanc' by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

I
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—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.

II
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—
Thou many-colour'd, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest;—thou dost lie,
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,
Children of elder time, in whose devotion
The chainless winds still come and ever came
To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging
To hear—an old and solemn harmony;
Thine earthly rainbows stretch'd across the sweep
Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptur'd image; the strange sleep
Which when the voices of the desert fail
Wraps all in its own deep eternity;
Thy caverns echoing to the Arve's commotion,
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
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!

III
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.

IV
The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower; the bound
With which from that detested trance they leap;
The works and ways of man, their death and birth,
And that of him and all that his may be;
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice
Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
Have pil'd: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
A city of death, distinct with many a tower
And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destin'd path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shatter'd stand; the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaim'd. The dwelling-place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream,
And their place is not known. Below, vast caves
Shine in the rushing torrents' restless gleam,
Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling
Meet in the vale, and one majestic River,
The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever
Rolls its loud waters to the ocean-waves,
Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air.

V
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. 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?

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Mont Blanc'

First Stanza (11 lines)

The opening philosophical lines lay the foundation for the theme of this poem—the human mind and its relationship with the natural world. This is a metaphorical quest to capture the essence of the interchange between thought and phenomenon.

Water is the medium, the language of this first stanza reflecting the idea of fluidity within and of the mind: flows, rolls, waves, springs, tribute (from tributary) brook, waterfalls, river, bursts and raves.

Shelley gives the reader his argument in these 11 lines, reducing the universal down into a feeble brook, a tiny part of the vast whole, which includes the mountains, woods, wind and river—the wild landscape set before the poet.

Nature and the mind exist as a river exists, not in parts but as a whole, a continuum; it's a mutually binding reality the speaker observes, one that has and will always be, described here in the present. Contrast everlasting, for ever and ceaselessly with the present now glittering, now reflecting, now lending.

Compare Wordsworth who set out similar sentiments in his earlier poem, 'Lines' (1798):

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

93 -102 'Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey' on revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour. July 13th, 1798.

Although both poets differed in their religious beliefs, both acknowledged an unseen energy at work in all things, including the human mind.

Shelley has from secret springs/The source, Wordsworth a sense sublime/of something—both romantics seeking the unknown power which gives life its meaning.

In this opening stanza Shelley chooses water as the element best suited metaphorically to represent consciousness.

Second Stanza (37 lines)

This stanza reflects the duality of the speaker's mind, able to perceive passively but actively also capable of thinking separate thoughts. And writing about them, giving the shadowy impressions a platonic feel.

The speaker focuses on the mountainous landscape and personifies the ravine—the deep gorge—Thus thou—which carries the River Arve. This stanza is full of wild imagery, the syntax reflecting the onward power of the water as it courses on through, as other elements join in.

There is no full stop, no definite break for the reader to pause. There are dashes, colons, semi-colons, commas and all, the clauses building up as if piled, the idea of tumult reinforced. This is the densely packed, extended metaphor of consciousness.

And, as the speaker perceives, the impressions build up and contrasting energies begin to appear. The speaker is in a trance, despite or because of, the awesome power of the mountainous landscape. There is a process taking place, involving a universal interchange and the dark magic that is poetic language.

Shelley's use of language here creates a special kind of psychological tension—the Power comes bursting down, the wind drinks from the pines, the rainbows of the waterfall create harmony, a strange deep eternal sleep inhabits the caverns.

For the reader perhaps a folkloric scene is outlined; certainly there is as yet no divinely inspired religious language, and no mention of God. There is the witch Poesy and plenty of ghosts and shadows (shades of platonic philosophy here) and the strong idea of a two-way relationship of mind and mountain.

Third Stanza (35 lines)

The exploration of this mysterious process—the mind's ability to work with the image of Mont Blanc and create poetry, produce something meaningful—continues. Humans can be reconciled with Nature because there is a mysterious truth therein.

Here is Shelley investigating reality by proposing that death, a kind of sleep, and sleep itself, according to some, share a common, remote world, populated by shapes. Is he a part of this world, dreaming, experiencing things only possible when the 'veil' is lifted by an all-knowing force?

The narrative is still based on the first person, the speaker still viewing that magnificent mountain and its surrounds: snow, ice, rock—it is wild and unearthly, frozen; only eagles and wolves can make it up there.

It's a landscape of myth where the Earthquake-daemon (a demi-god) used the ghastly shaped steeps as toys for a child. Either that or fire was the cause of the incredible landscape, leaving now only snow covered rock.

The speaker concludes by suggesting that the voice of the mountain has power to repeal (annul) fraud and woe—is this Shelley implying that Nature contains a unique and purging truth, that only a select few can feel and understand?

It could be that the poet is having a go at the religious establishment (typical Shelley) by giving the mountain a voice (it is no mouthpiece of God) which those sensitive enough can hear.

Fourth Stanza (43 lines)

The description of natural processes continues; there is plenty more detail, vivid imagery and again, wholistic phrases. All of life on the daedal (intricate/adorned with many things) earth, from plant to human, is subject to cycles of birth and death, joy and loss. Out of sleep and into life.

Humans and other creatures can be overwhelmed by elemental power. Note the language from time to time:

in scorn of mortal power...

have overthrown the limits of...

so much of life and joy is lost...

flies far in dread...

There is a sense of doom pervading as the stanza progresses, of ruin and waste, which contrasts strongly with the idea of refreshed energy that comes from that detested trance of the opening lines.

That phrase naked countenance anthropomorphises the earth, gives it a face to go with the voice, which is teaching the adverting mind, the mind that can write and speak.

And still the metaphorical river goes on—it is breath and blood—its power too much even for humans. The emphasis is definitely on the permanence of Nature, the vulnerability of humans.

Fifth Stanza (18 lines)

In this final stanza the speaker returns to a philosophical basis for all perception. The secret Strength resides in the mountain as well as human thought, each relying on the other for meaning. This is a mutually inclusive existence mysteriously brought about not through any God but through an unremitting interchange, mind communicating with the supernatural essence of the mountain.

And note the word Heaven in the same few lines. Not the biblical or religious Heaven but a metaphorical one, that place beyond all but still within the realms of law. Shelley's speaker here also highlights the silence necessary for the power to be transferred - the quiet a poet needs for inspiration, the deep serene silence of a mountainous landscape.

The end question seems to be appropriate in this respect, the speaker identifying the ideal mountain as a signifier of the imagination.

What Is the Rhyme Scheme of 'Mont Blanc'?

'Mont Blanc' has a curious rhyme scheme with no set consistent pattern throughout the 144 lines. Here and there are snatches of order but generally speaking the rhymes, though present, stretch the sounds to the limit and test the reader's sense of togetherness.

Shelley must surely have employed this device to reflect the tension and distance within his own mind as he tried to capture in words the sight of Mont Blanc towering before him.

The opening stanza of 11 lines for example has this rhyme scheme:

abcaadcdeeb

Note that the second line ends with waves (b) but isn't rhymed until the last, the eleventh line (b), raves.

And the final stanza of 18 lines has this:

abcbdaedcfgghfiihi

Note the gaps between certain rhyming lines, and the closeness of others, but more significantly the unrhymed (e), sun, one of only three unrhymed line endings.

Occasionally, rhymes sit next to each other, or now and again alternate, but often there is some distance between them, which stretches the echo and introduces uncertainty. Stanzas 2, 3, and 4 also display similar rhyming sequences.

What Is the Metre of 'Mont Blanc'?

'Mont Blanc', although dominated by the iambic foot, isn't your average plodding 10-syllable-a-line iambic pentameter poem.

Throughout the five stanzas there are lines that break with convention as trochee, spondee, anapaest and pyrrhic feet appear from time to time. These alter the voice's stress patterns, allowing for different syllables to be emphasised—bringing added interest and texture for the reader.

In places, the pulse-like iambic beat remains in the background, providing a quiet, formal rhythm for the often dynamic language and packed syntax.

The first stanza:

The ev / erlast / ing u / niverse / of things
Flows through / the mind, / and rolls / its ra / pid waves,
Now dark / —now glitt / ering—now / reflect / ing gloom
Now len / ding splen / dour, where / from se / cret springs
The source / of hu / man thought / its tri / bute brings
Of wa / ters —with / a sound / but half / its own,
Such as / a fee / ble brook / will oft / assume,
In the / wild woods, / among / the moun / tains lone,
Where wa / terfalls / around / it leap / for ever,
Where woods / and winds / contend, / and a / vast river
Over / its rocks / ceaseless / ly bursts / and raves.

Lines of pure iambic pentameter : 2,3,4,5,6,7 (line 3, glittering, is given 2 syllables).

Line 1: fourth foot is a pyrrhic (no stresses, relatively speaking)

Line 8: first foot is a trochee (stress on first syllable), second foot a spondee (both syllables stressed).

Line 9: second foot is a pyrrhic, fifth foot has an extra beat on 11th syllable.

Line 10: fourth foot is a quiet pyrrhic, fifth foot has two stresses and unstressed final beat.

Line 11: first foot is a trochee, third foot is a trochee.

Literary/Poetic Devices

Alliteration

When two or more of the same consonants are found close together, altering texture of sound:

rolls its rapid...../...A loud, lone sound

Assonance

When two or more similar sounding vowels are close together in a line:

overhanging heaven, that spread..../....even these primeval mountains

Caesura

Breaks or pauses in a line often midway, caused by punctuation but sometimes occurring naturally:

Remote, serene, and inaccessible..../...But for such faith, with Nature reconciled

Metaphor

When one thing becomes another, enhancing understanding, intensifying imagery:

majestic River/ the breath and blood

Personification

When an object or thing is given human attributes, traits:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue

Simile

When one thing is compared to another, often using the words as or like:

The glaciers creep/like snakes

Sources

  • NPG 1234; Percy Bysshe Shelley - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery
  • Hall, Spencer. “Shelley's ‘Mont Blanc.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 70, no. 2, 1973, pp. 199–221. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4173802. Accessed 5 Aug. 2021.
  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005.
  • Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005.
  • Why Write Poetry?, Jeannine Johnson, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007
  • 2015JunejaP.pdf (brynmawr.edu)
  • 'The Unity of Consciousness' (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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