Shelley and Mont Blanc; Existential Connections

by g

In preparation for my upcoming essay I wanted to start pinpointing my thoughts on Shelley’s intricate poem “Mont Blanc” or Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni. What makes this poem fascinating is the way in which the sublime connection of all things, something that in class we have had a lot of meaningful discussion about, is portrayed as a force that will at some times bring a person to a state of ecstasy (when they think of their own place in it all) but  may also throw people into a state of despair when they come to realize that although everything appears connected, our minds are isolated in our own thoughts on how this is so. The existential strain that runs through this poem is hard to overlook;

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 phantasy,

My own, my human mind, which passively

Now renders and receives fast influencings,

Holding an unremitting interchange

With the clear universe of things around;

That although we may at times see a crystal clear pattern with the way in which life huddles around itself, there is also a powerful force that drives us into the darkness and solitude of our own minds. What Shelley begins to do, is to explain this isolation as the result of the limitations placed upon us by language and communication. That we all must display our inner feelings like a painter with brushstrokes, or a carpenter with wood. Language becomes simply metaphor, and as a result we are lost in the translation. Shelley puts his poetic talents on display by writing about a very chaotic position that man is in, (alluding heavily to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave) but he does so in a way that captures the ineffable quality of his subject matter while at the same time being very calculated with the form, as if he was a madman trying utterly to find a pattern and make sense of it all.

Seeking among the shadows that pass by,

Ghosts of all things that are

The difficulty going forward will be the question of how one must discern between Shelley writing about the beauty of the landscape, and the just as aesthetically pleasing way he writes about how his mind is simply an apparatus translating it all. I want to find out exactly what Shelley is saying about man’s position in the universe in relation to how his contemporaries defined it. What makes him different? What does Mont Blanc hope to accomplish philosophically? Socially? What about the existential nature of some of his lines? Do you agree with me that Shelley appears to be a modernist in the 19th century? And finally, what exactly is the “voice,” of the mountain? what are the Alps telling him?