On Reading Edmund Burke before Percy Shelley:
The Sublime in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni”
by Russell Magee
Long has been the debate on the significance of literary criticism in relation to reading poetry. Many critics claim that to fully understand a poem, a reader must be familiar with the influences that precede the poem and its author. To read “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” by Romantic poet Percy Shelley and fully engage with it requires a certain degree of knowledge about the Romantic era, the previous eras, and all the critics and their ideas that came before Shelley and, therefore, influenced his creation. Other critics claim that reading and knowing criticism is not essential for reading a poem; that one can read “Mont Blanc” and still have full, lasting, and engaging experience, without a knowledge of the theory, history, and depth of criticism that extends far beyond the lines of the poem and into the past.
However, a reader who is still able to have a fulfilling and elevating experience reading “Mont Blanc” lacking the knowledge of literary criticism does so without realizing it is due to a phenomenon frequently cited and described in literary criticism: the Sublime. In his formative work of criticism A Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and the Sublime first published in 1757, Edmund Burke defines the Sublime in great detail drawing on and analyzing many categorical attributes, some of which include terror, power, and vastness. Reading Burke’s essay and gaining an understanding of the Sublime enhances the experience reading Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” because it enables a reader to recognize instances wherein terror, power, and vastness are invoked in the poem, which in turn work to broaden the context and shed light unto the nuances buried within it. The Sublime is at the crux of “Mont Blanc” and it is evident within the first eleven lines of the poem.
At the forefront of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” is terror, which according to Burke is a defining attribute of the Sublime. He writes, “Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime”; however, one of the strongest modes through which terror is depicted is obscurity. On obscurity, Burke writes, “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary” (Burke 48). It is important to note that there are two categories to Burke’s definition of obscurity: the physical and the expressive. Physical obscurity–darkness, vagueness, ambiguity–is terror-inducing because of its inherent unknowability. Burke writes, “When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (Burke 48). In the opening lines of “Mont Blanc”, the universe encapsulates physical obscurity: “The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,/ Now dark–now glittering–now reflecting gloom–” (Shelley, lines 1-3). The universe–the darkness of its appearance and the mystery of its workings–is itself a physical obscurity. “Our eyes” cannot become accustom to it because it is unknowable in its fullest extent; one cannot see the fullest extent of the universe. Furthermore, the vast majority of the universe is dark, referred by the description “Now dark” which works to emphasize the sense of obscurity. The physical obscurity of the “dark” and “everlasting universe” inspires terror, and is therefore a source of the Sublime.
However, expressive obscurity is also conveyed within these first lines, which for Burke, comes in the form of metaphor. To convey a meaning through a connection between two unlike objects is to remain vague, ambiguous, and obscure. “Mont Blanc” opens with a metaphor: “The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,” (Shelley, lines 1-2). What does it mean for the universe to “flow through the mind”? Such a statement cannot be taken literally, and instead alludes to another meaning, a different context wherein the unknowable “everlasting universe of things” stands for something else; and for that something to “flow through the mind” alludes to the mind being a vehicle of sorts through which “the universe” can flow. For Burke, the metaphor induces terror because the plausible meanings of such a statement imply the unknowability of the mind. That the mind should be the medium through which this unknowable, mysterious “everlasting universe of things” flows, presupposes that the mind is in itself an empty vessel, merely a receptacle that regurgitates life, the universe, and everything else. Such a recognition–that an individual perceiving the universe does not actually act upon his own sentience and free will but is instead himself an existential estuary, the “universe of things” just “flow[ing] through his mind”–exemplifies Burke’s definition of terror. Burke writes, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” (Burke 47). Within the first lines of Shelley’s poem, “the mind” is robbed of its agency and sentience. Since the metaphor induces terror, the metaphor itself is Sublime. Shelley establishes this connection in the first lines of his poem as a motif that will extend to the very end.
Alongside terror is power. Of power, Burke writes, “I know of nothing sublime which is not a modification of power” (Burke 53). Something has power if it can influence and change circumstances, and like obscurity, Burke writes, “[power] arises from…terror, the common stock of everything that is sublime” (Burke 53). Not only is the description of “the everlasting universe” a powerful image within itself, the comparison to “rapid waves” further emphasizes its force. And the descriptions of nature continue to emphasize the notion of power: “Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,/ Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river/ Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves” (Shelley, lines 9-11). Water and wind are two of the greatest sources of natural power: waterfalls geographically carry a strength rarely matched in nature and certainly unmatched among people; wind is a turbulent force with the capacity to do great damage; and a river moves with an unpredictable power, a chaos that “bursts and raves.” Water and wind can influence and change circumstances; the power within these phenomena makes them both instances of the Sublime. The inclusion of these images further establishes the theme of the Sublime in the exposition of the poem.
However, in the lines preceding the powerful descriptions of “the waterfalls” that “leap forever,/ where the woods and winds contend” is the metaphor of the individual. Shelley relates the individual– the mind that perceives the universe; “the source of human thought”– to water but not a roaring, powerful body of water like a waterfall. Instead, he relates the mind to one “with a sound but half its own/ such as a feeble brook” (Shelley, lines 6-7). The juxtaposition between the small and the great emphasizes the dynamic between superiority and inferiority, an idea that Burke links to power. He writes, “…pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly. So that strength, violence, pain and terror, are ideas that rush in upon the mind together” (Burke 53). An imbalance of power instills “pain and terror” in an individual, therefore the juxtaposition between the mind and nature in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” evokes the Sublime. Not only is nature powerful, dangerous, and a source of great terror, but the mind when compared to the power of nature, has so little power that nature appears an even greater source of terror and, therefore, an even greater source of the Sublime.
Alongside terror and power is vastness. On vastness, Burke writes, “Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime” (Burke 59). Vastness relies on perspective; when a person faces an enormous object, the top of which extends high into the air, according to Burke’s definition, that individual faces something sublime. A “vastness of extent, or quantity, has the most striking effect…in length, height, or depth” (Burke 59). Shelley’s poem is at its very core about vastness. “Mont Blanc” takes its title and subject from the highest mountain in the Alps, a natural rock formation that is itself “greatness of dimension.” Also, in the first line of the poem is the greatest example of “greatness in dimension”: the universe, which is infinite. For Burke, the universe is the ultimate source of the Sublime since its vastness knows no bounds. However, Burke includes another dimensional attribute to his definition of vastness which points in the opposite direction.
Vastness, as Burke defines, is not only the large, but also the small. He writes, “as the great extreme of dimension is sublime, so the last extreme of littleness is in some measure sublime likewise” (Burke 59). A person is remarkably tiny next to a mountain such as Mont Blanc. The mountain itself is remarkably tiny next to the “everlasting universe” at large. A person then next to both objects, the mountain and the universe, is so overwhelmingly miniscule that that person exemplifies the “last extreme of littleness,” a source of the Sublime. In Shelley’s poem, the speaker is the personification of this notion: the infinitesimal focal point of the universe regarding its never-ending size and, in turn, realizing their own proportion. However, Shelly goes a step further regarding minuteness. Because both the vastness of the mountain and “the everlasting universe of things flows through the mind” (Shelley, lines 1-2), the mind itself is the source of the vastness. On a small level, the mind is vast: it is so infinitely intricate, both biologically and psychologically, one cannot know its full extent. But also, since the universe “flows” through the mind, and the universe itself is vast, the mind therefore is vast as well because in that moment, it contains the universe. What Shelley begins the poem with is the idea that the mind is a source of the Sublime. The mind, with its “great extreme of dimension” and its “last extreme of littleness” is in itself Sublime.
Shelley establishes three ideas within the first eleven lines of his poem: that the universe, nature, and the mind are all sources of the Sublime. The universe is a source of the Sublime through terror, defined by its obscurity, and its “everlasting” vastness. Nature is a source of the Sublime in its power from the natural forces of wind and water, and its vastness in the “greatness of [its] dimension.” The mind is a source of the Sublime in all three attributes: in the terror induced by the unknowability of its inner workings; in its power, the capacity to bring about change, the source of a person’s thoughts and agency; and its vastness, not simply in its infinite complexity in itself but also its infinitesimal proportion in relation to the universe. And yet, the mind is the reason why the universe and nature are sources of the Sublime. Because the mind perceives, imagines, tries to understand, and reasons the outside world, the universe and nature are not Sublime until realized that they are Sublime. It is only the recognition of the Sublime that yields its presence. The mind itself creates the Sublime. Shelley establishes this theme–that the Sublime is something that takes place within the mind–within the first stanza; a theme that will endure to the end of the poem and spur a revelation for the speaker.
Without the knowledge of the Sublime, which Burke so elaborately defines in his critical work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, a reader would pass over these first eleven lines of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” with a certain assumption that Shelley is attempting to connect the universe, nature, and the mind, without an idea of why. Without the knowledge of the Sublime, a reader would look upon Shelley’s metaphor, relating “human thought” to “a feeble brook” and see it as it is, a simple comparison and nothing more. But a person who has read Burke’s essay, who is indeed familiar with the Sublime and its various categorical parts, would scan the beginning of the poem and see far deeper than the novice reader. For the seasoned reader, the metaphors take on a whole new meaning: the descriptions of nature are painted with brilliance and scope; the intention buried within these lines flies to the surface and leaps from the page. To read “Mont Blanc” without the knowledge attained from Burke’s essay is not to fail in penetrating the poem’s surface, but only to tread in its shallow waters. However, to read Shelley’s poem with the knowledge attained from Burke’s criticism is to penetrate its surface, dive to its greatest depth, and see with greater clarity the brilliance of his poetry.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by Paul Guyer, Oxford University Press, 2015.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.” 1817. Poetry Foundation poetryfoundation.org/poems/45130/mont-blanc-lines-written-in-the-vale-of-chamouni. Accessed 03 October 2020.