Comparing and Contrasting the Sublime

Nicole Tesorio

What can be said about the sublime? Class discussion led to the definition of sublime as the element found in travel literature that is unexplainable. It is that part of travel literature where the writer is in awe of his or her surroundings, where nature can be dangerous or where nature reminds a human being of their mortality. The term "sublime" has been applied to travel texts studied in class and it is hard not to compare the sublime from texts earlier in the term to the texts in the later part of the term. Two texts that can be compared in terms of the sublime are A Tour in Switzerland by Helen Williams and History of a Six Weeks' Tour by Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. There are similarities and differences found in both texts concerning individual perspectives of travel and the sublime. The main focus of this commentary will be comparing and contrasting the perspectives of Williams and Shelley within their respective texts, the language of the sublime and the descriptions of the sublime.

Both Shelley and Williams write from a personal perspective. Both travel to and make observations on the area that interests them. Williams travels to Switzerland while Shelley travels through Geneva to Chamonix. In the introduction of Williams's text she immediately reveals the reason why she wishes to visit Switzerland while Shelley assumes that the reader recognizes that he is a traveler who wants to go from point A to point B. Williams's introduction reveals that she has already dreamed about what it would be like to visit Switzerland and she shares with her readers that 'I am going to gaze upon images of nature; images of which the idea has so often swelled my imagination, but which my eyes have never yet beheld' (1). Anticipating a renewed vision of nature, from what is imagined to what actually exists, gives reason for Williams to look outside of herself in order to experience the reality of her outside world rather than relying on presumptions based on the act of imagination. This sets up the foundation on one way on interpreting her text. Where the reader recognized that Williams will focus on renewing her outlook on nature and the effects it has on her emotions. In Shelley's text, his perspective is more simplistic in that he is a traveler who is making observations on what he sees in order to write an account of those observations for others to read. His perspective is personalized as well, but not to the effect that he wishes to renew his outlook on nature. Rather, Shelley is interested in his surroundings on a more practical level. This is shown in the excerpt of the Bosson Glacier when Shelley remarks "Sassure, the naturalist, says, that they have their periods of increase and decay: the people of the country hold an opinion entirely different …" Shelley's interest in the opinions of the countrymen shows an interest on his part towards the history of an area he has not visited. Being in the company of a naturalist shows that Shelley wants to become familiar with the geography of the country and that he is in search of scientific knowledge. Consequently, although both Williams and Shelley do write from a personal point of view, the objective for both individuals appears to be different. Where Shelley is interested in scientific data, Williams is concerned with her personal emotions and her involvement with nature.

The language used to describe the sublime is different between Williams and Shelley. Throughout her text, Williams dramatizes what she sees because it effects her on a deeply emotional level. This idea of personal involvement with nature and the way nature effects personal emotions is one way to look at the sublime. One way to judge Williams's personal reaction is to look at the language she uses in her text, from an excerpt on Williams's tour of the Rhine falls Williams writes "Oh majestic torrent! which hast conveyed a new image of nature to my soul, the moments I have [61] passed in contemplating thy sublimity … thy course is coeval with time, and thou wilt rush down thy rocky walls when this bosom … shall beat no longer!"(2). The first line in itself is extremely dramatic, where Williams exclaims the wonder she feels at the sight of the falls, the use of the word "majestic" emphasizing the grandeur of her surroundings. This is immediately followed by the renewal of her soul. This transformation is really powerful adding to the drama from experiencing the Rhine falls. Williams ends by showcasing the eternal power of the falls, that even when her heart stops beating, the Rhine will continue to cascade down its rocky precipice. The sublime in this text can also be seen as dramatic and poetic at the same time. In Shelley's text, the language used to describe the sublime is not as significantly dramatic as the writing found with Williams. The language that Shelley uses has less to do with emotion than it has to do with expressing the wonder of his surroundings. The tone is more mysterious and dark. From an excerpt found in the Entrance to the Valley of Chamonix entry of his text Percy writes " … forests inexpressibly beautiful ,but majestic in their beauty-intermingling beech and pine, and oak, overshadowed our road, or receded, whilst lawns of such verdure as I have never seen before occupied these openings, and gradually became darker in their recesses." The dynamics of the forest, first its beauty followed by the shadows made by the clusters of trees then the lawns that recede and become darker, lends mystery and shadow to the excerpt. Shelley is not in a place with light but with a mixture of light and dark, figures and shadows. Here, the sublime is shrouded in mystery, more somber rather than dramatic. As a result, the reader sees a different approach between Williams and Shelley. Williams's colorful and emotional language of the sublime compared to Shelley's more subdued yet powerful use of wonder and awe to describe the sublime.

Finally, a difference between Williams's text and Shelley's text is the way both writers portray their description of the sublime. Williams focuses on the sensuality and grandeur of the sublime. Williams's sensuality comes from her deep involvement with her emotions. She identifies the sublime using her senses. Sights and sounds dominate her descriptions. The " … stupendous cataract rushing.." and "… those long feathery surges… that spray rising into clouds of vapour, and reflecting the prismatic colours …"(2) all have a sensual element. Here, Williams utilizes sights and sounds to effectively describe the sublimity of the water and it is felt through the rushing of the water. The movement of the falls is also in itself sublime, first the waters rushing down, then the waters move as gradual bursts and then finally to a more subdued vapor rush. Also the idea of the sound of the waterfalls being a turbulent roar gives a dangerous aspect to the waters of the Rhine. In Percy's text, descriptions of the sublime focuses on the power of nature. Visiting the Mer de Glace, a massive area filled with great glaciers, Percy notes the power he feels. The landscape found in the Mer de Glace is described precisely and accurately. The glaciers "…banked up with ice and snow, broken, heaped high, and exhibiting terrific chasms" and the summits described as "sharp" and "naked" all imply an unearthly magnificence to the glaciers in the Mer de Glace. An important passage that effectively sows the terrible power of the glacier is as follows:

Lines of dazzling ice occupy here and there their perpendicular rifts and shine through the driving vapors with inexpressible brilliance: they pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth. (Shelley)

The fact that something as magnificent and worldly as a glacier made by nature can pierce the clouds of the heavens is truly the most amazing power that nature proves to have on this earth. The sublimity of the glacier surpasses mere thought and imagination. Agreeably, both Williams and Shelley do capture the power of sublimity as it exists within the power of nature, though Williams may use the senses to convey the sublime and Shelley the power and terror of nature, both focus on a deliver the idea that the sublime exists within a dynamic and unstable environment, nature being unpredictable and ever changing.

In conclusion, Williams and Shelley offer their own interpretations of the sublime and it is seen that the sublime does not necessarily follow one thought or idea but many. While Williams remains more dramatic, Shelley remains practical. Where Williams adds personal emotion, Shelley portrays the power of nature in all its terrifying wonder. It is this duality that makes it easier to understand what the sublime means, different perspectives offering more leeway to understanding the sublime. On a more personal note, comparing how Williams and Shelley write about the sublime has made the idea more clear in my mind on how to approach readings that contain the sublime, it is much easier to understand and furthermore, it offers more than one way of looking for and at the sublime.

Works cited

Extracts from:

"The Shelleys at Chamonix:1816." Mary Shelley and P. B. Shelley History of a Six Weeks' Tour. London: T. Hookham, 1817. Romanticism: The CD-ROM. Ed. By David Miall and Duncan Wu. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997.

Williams, Helen Maria. A Tour in Switzerland; or, A view of the present state of the Government and Manners of those Cantons: with comparative sketches of the present state of Paris. 2 Vols. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1798.