On reading Book VI of Wordsworth's thirteen-part version of The Prelude, I was particularly struck by the passage in which, following his crossing of the Alps, the poet describes "the sick sight / And giddy prospect of the raging stream" (VI. 564-565) of the Arve Ravine as both an apocalyptic foreboding and an expression of millennial unity in his theory of the One Mind:
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.
The unity of God, man, and nature is of course a common theme in Wordsworth's poetry, having been given equally memorable treatments in Tintern Abbey and elsewhere, but it was the seemingly paradoxical sentiment of this passage from The Prelude that made such a strong impression on me. As John Beer points out in his article "Romantic Apocalypses," "Although traditionally the apocalypse and the millennium have gone together, recently, the first, with its sense of doom, has been more prominent" (109). To a reader who has lived through the passing of both a new century and a new millennium, the phrase "Characters of the great Apocalypse" tends to evoke feelings of eschatological anxiety, and to suggest the fragility and transience of the landscape Wordsworth is attempting to describe. It is easy to forget that Wordsworth used the term in its original sense of "simply 'revelation,' the name given to the English version in the New Testament" (Beer 109); and that in its evocations of Pope's Essay on Man and Milton's Paradise Lost (Wu 392, n. 18), the passage is meant to express eternity rather than finitude; harmony rather than destruction.
The time in which Wordsworth and the other Romantics wrote was itself at the turn of a century, and the events of the French Revolution - and later, the Napoleonic War - also served to aggravate apocalyptic/millennial thinking, in both senses. The initial promises of the overthrow of the monarchy to bring about a unified 'millennial' society soon gave way to "the lurking destructive potentialities [that] became evident with the Reign of Terror" (Beer 110) and the declaration of war between Britain and France - in which people known to Wordsworth had become involved, many losing their lives in the process. The journey retold in Book VI of The Prelude was one Wordsworth had made in 1790, when he was twenty years old, when the turn of the century was still ten years away, and when the Revolution was still in its earlier, more optimistic phases. As he had also done in Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth uses his memories of the travels of his younger days to reflect upon the changes in his life since those days, as well as to express his belief in "The universal reason of mankind / The truth of young and old" (VI. 476-477) that would always endure even through the most violent upheavals in society.
Many times throughout The Prelude, and especially in his musings on the imagination and the One Mind in Book VI, Wordsworth contrasts his earlier use of the picturesque with his later use of the sublime, which itself contributes to the poem's paradoxical views of transience and transcendence. A literary device much loved by the Romantic writers, the sublime expresses the contrast between the lone, finite individual and the much greater, eternal universe of which he/she is one small and limited part; for Wordsworth, however, this contrast does not suggest detachment from the world, but rather unity with it:
Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
Is with infinitude, and only there --
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Furthermore, this realization of unity with the world, both imminent and immanent at the same time, is not something that can only be achieved at the end of time, as the reference to "the great Apocalypse" might suggest at first glance, but is something that can be attained in the here and now, "in flashes that have shown to us / The invisible world" (VI. 535-536), through the power of the imagination and the sensory impressions of viewing nature, working upon each other. Indeed, Wordsworth places the imagination higher than the mere viewing of nature alone, as he expresses disappointment, on his first sight of Mont Blanc (VI. 452-456), that the reality paled in comparison to his idealized mental image.
Ten years after Wordsworth completed The Prelude, Shelley wrote Mont Blanc both as an account of his feelings during his own travels in the Alps, and as a reply to the themes of nature and imagination as expressed in Tintern Abbey; since The Prelude in its final form was not published during Wordsworth's or Shelley's lifetimes, the similarities in setting between Mont Blanc and Book VI of The Prelude are not necessarily intentional. However, the two poems share an interesting similarity in their use of apocalyptic and millennial imagery to express the relationship of man to nature and to the higher powers. Since Shelley did not believe in the Christian God, he instead characterized the creative force of the universe as "The still and solemn Power" (V. 128), an analogue of sorts to Wordsworth's One Mind, which could be read either in the religious sense or in a more pantheistic sense. Both Shelley and Wordsworth drew ideas on the imagination from their impressions of Mont Blanc, but where Wordsworth admitted that the real Mont Blanc was far less remarkable than his conception of it, Shelley's reaction was the opposite. In a letter to Thomas Love Peacock, he wrote that he was so struck by the sight of Mont Blanc that he felt as though he "never knew, . . . never imagined what mountains were before" ("Journal-Letter" 844). Within the poem itself, Shelley shares Wordsworth's belief that "The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind" (I. 1-2), but unlike Wordsworth, who placed great store in the interaction of the human mind with its environment, Shelley emphasizes the passivity of the mind in the "unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (II. 39-40); in Shelley's view, nature is the messenger and the imagination acts upon the message only after having received it.
Wordsworth and Shelley both described the environment of Mont Blanc in terms that can be called apocalyptic or millennial, but in different ways. Where The Prelude speaks of a millennial vision of perfect unity, Part IV of Mont Blanc is, at first blush, an apocalyptic vision in the more familiar sense of impermanence and destruction. Shelley refers to the glaciers as "A city of death, distinct with many a tower / And wall impregnable of beaming ice" (IV. 105-106), leaving behind in their wake "a flood of ruin / . . . the rocks, drawn down / From yon remotest waste, have overthrown / The limits of the dead and living world, / Never to be reclaimed" (IV. 107; 111-114). However, these images of destruction are contrasted to the eternal, unchanging image of the mountain itself at the beginning of Part V; even in the midst of the lifeless, glacier-dominated environment, "Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: the Power is there" (V. 127) - thus reinforcing the idea of the universe and nature as existing above and beyond human time.
Both The Prelude and Mont Blanc are powerful examples of the millennial thinking that was a prominent characteristic of Romantic writers, and which carried throughout the bulk of Wordsworth's and Shelley's writings. Wordsworth hoped that his poetry, by expressing man's engagement with the One Mind through nature, could bring about the sense of millennial unity he expressed in his work; and Shelley, though no friend to organized religion, "constantly projected visions of a millennial age about to dawn" (Beer 112), though more in terms of social and political improvements and departure from repressive institutions than in Wordsworth's more visionary terms. Whether influenced by the sociopolitical conditions in which they lived and wrote, by their engagements with - or deviations from - the religious and philosophical ideas of their time, or by their emotional and spiritual reactions to the places they visited on their travels, both poets used the essential paradox of apocalypse and millennium not to prophesy the destruction of the existing world, but to make their readers aware of the greater harmony of the universe, both within and outside the boundaries of time.
Beer, John. "Romantic Apocalypses." Wordsworth Circle 32.2 (2001): 109-116.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamounix." 1816. Romanticism: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 845-849.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Excerpt from "Journal-Letter from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Thomas Love Peacock, 22 July to 2 August 1876." Romanticism: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 844.
Wordsworth, William. Excerpt from The Thirteen-Book Prelude, Book VI. 1806. Romanticism: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 389-392.