The Shelleys at Chamonix, Notes

Chronology | Letter and "Mont Blanc" | Comment


1792 born. Attends Eton, Oxford; expelled from Oxford March 1811.

1811 Aug: elopes with Harriet Westbrook; married in Edinburgh

1812 Oct: meets William Godwin in London

1814 May 5: may have met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in London; affair begins in June

-- July 28: elopes with Mary, accompanied by Claire; across France to Switzerland, Lucerne; return via Rhine, reach England Sept 13

1816 April: Claire seduces Byron

-- Nov 9: Harriet commits suicide; Dec 30: Percy and Mary are married

1817 Nov: History of a Six Weeks' Tour published (anon.): includes Mary's travel journal of 1814; Percy's 1816 letters on Lake Geneva boat tour and visit to Chamonix, and "Mont Blanc"

1818 Jan: Frankenstein published (anon.)

-- March 13: Shelleys leave England, settle in Italy; live briefly in Naples, Rome: Nov 1818-June 1819

1822, July 8: Shelley drowned; Mary died in 1851.

Letter and "Mont Blanc"

Note. The first subtitle of the poem was "Scene -- Pont Pellisier in the vale of Servox." (Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Eds., Shelley's Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 2002, p. 97).

The Cascade de l'Arpenaz
The first fell from the overhanging brow of a black precipice on an enormous rock, precisely resembling some colossal Egyptian deity. It struck the head of the visionary image, and gracefully dividing there, fell from it in folds of foam more like to cloud than water, imitating a veil of the most exquisite woof. It then united, concealing the lower part of the statue, and hiding itself in [146] a winding of its channel, burst into a deeper fall Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep
Of the ethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptured image; the strange sleep
Which, when the voices of the desert fail,
Wraps all in its own deep eternity; (25-9)

Approach to Servox
As we proceeded, our route still lay [149] through the valley, or rather, as it had now become, the vast ravine, which is at once the couch and the creation of the terrible Arve. We ascended, winding between mountains whose immensity staggers the imagination. Thus thou, ravine of Arve -- dark, deep ravine --
Thou many-coloured, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams (12-15)

Ravine of the Arve
the ravine, clothed with gigantic pines, and black with its depth below, so deep that the very roaring of the untameable Arve, which rolled through it, could not be heard above -- all was as much our own, as if we had been the creators of such impressions in the minds of others as now occupied our own. Nature was the poet, whose harmony held our spirits more breathless than that of the divinest. 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 (1-6)

View of Mont Blanc near Servox
Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew -- I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aeriel summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the [150] sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness. Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
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. (53-61)

Cf. Bourrit: Mount Blanc especially produces a sensation which is very difficult to express. . . . the mind is almost lost in the sublimity of its own idea, and no tongue whatever is capable of describing, and conveying justly to others, the humiliating, elevated, awful feelings of the soul upon the sight of such an object. (7-8)

Bosson Glacier
where the ice has once descended, the hardiest plant refuses to grow; if even, as in some extraordinary instances, it should recede after its progress has once commenced. The glaciers perpetually move onward, at the rate of a foot each day . . . They drag with them from the regions whence they derive their origin, all the ruins of the mountain, enormous rocks, and immense accumulations of sand and stones.                             the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed. 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

Mont Blanc region
Do you, who assert the supremacy of Ahriman, imagine him throned among these desolating snows, among these palaces of death and frost, so sculptured in this their terrible magnificence by the adamantine hand of necessity, and that he casts around him, as the first essays of his final usurpation, avalanches, torrents, rocks, and thunders, and above all these deadly glaciers, at once the proof and symbols of his reign 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 (61-7)

At the Mer de Glace
One could think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Stoics, was a vast animal, and that the frozen blood for ever circulated through his stony veins. And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?


A proto-ecological approach to nature can be detected in three domains in which natural phenomena are described. This seems to authorize animation of several kinds of natural features.

-- a sense of the defining influence of landforms on life
landforms, i.e., cliffs, ravines, mountains [150] Though it embraced a vast extent of space, the snowy pyramids which shot into the bright blue sky seemed to overhang our path

"The secret strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!" (139-141)

the network of interrelated lifeforms
natural life: forest, flowers, animals, insects

[151] forests inexpressibly beautiful, but majestic in their beauty -- intermingling beech and pine, and oak, overshadowed our road

"Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging, / Children of elder time" (21-2)

Autonomy -- intrinsic and wayward force of water rivers, waterfalls, lakes*

[150] the very roaring of the untameable Arve

"the rushing torrents' restless gleam, / Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling / Meet in the vale" (121-3)

*glaciers? Cf "The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains / Slow rolling on" (100-102). And see Ramond below.

Other examples from Bourrit and Ramond on glaciers, and Gilpin:

Presence: We beheld a spacious icey plain entirely level; upon this there rose a mountain all of ice, with steps ascending to the top, which seemed the throne of some divinity. (Bourrit 112). Another: It is a valley so contracted, that it affords room for little more than the river, and a path at the bottom; while the mountains, on each side, are so perpendicular, that their summits are scarce more asunder than their bases. It was a new idea. Many mountains we had seen hanging over the sides of vallies: but to be immured for a space of almost three miles, within a chasm of rifted rocks, (for that was in fact the idea presented by the scene before us,) was a novel circumstance, tho we had now been two or three days the inhabitants of mountains. (Gilpin, Lakes 217-8 -- Watenlath).

Community: In the most distant retreat, in deserts where I do not find the footsteps of man, I find a family of birds, which is the emblem of our own; a republic of insects, which recalls the idea of our nations; their industry, their relations and antipathies. (Ramond 334)

Autonomy: The inhabitant of the plain beholds with astonishment the invader protruding amidst his harvests, bid defiance even to the sun by which they are ripened; the shepherd, seeking refuge at the foot of the precipice, perceives it with terror, mounting the tops of the steep which separated him from it, and deluging his abode with torrents and avalanches. (Ramond 302-03). A more typical example: The water falls within a few yards of the eye, which being rather above it's level, has a long perspective view of the stream, as it hurries from the higher grounds; tumbling, in various, little breaks, through it's rocky channel, darkened with thicket, till it arrive at the edge of the precipice, before the window; from whence it rushes into the bason, which is formed by nature in the native rock. (Gilpin, Lakes 169-70 -- Rydal Falls)

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Document created March 10th 2003