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I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me,
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture: I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.
(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 3, stanza 72)
In the 1690s John Dennis, Lord Shaftesbury and Joseph Addison made separate journeys across the French and Swiss Alps, which led to the publication of a series of influential accounts of wild and ‘wasted’ landscapes. In The Moralists (1709), for example, Shaftesbury blends delight with repulsion in describing a mountain as a ‘noble ruin’, and in 1712 Addison describes ‘the heavings’ of the ocean as the source of ‘a very pleasing astonishment’. The sense of ‘agreeable horror’ that the vast and the irregular in nature instils in Addison is sustained in Edmund Burke’s description of that ‘delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime’. Written in 1757, Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful includes among its repertoire of sublime objects and events the ‘noise of vast cataracts, raging storms’ and ‘thunder’. Byron’s poem, with its focus on the dizzying sights and sounds of the alpine landscape, culminates in an account of a thunderstorm that shows the influence of Burke’s Enquiry. Arrested by the raging noise of the thunder, and by the contrasting sight of lightning in the ‘glorious night’, the poet wishes to become a ‘sharer’ in the storm’s ‘fierce and far delight, – / A portion of the tempest and of thee!’ (93).
The aesthetics of the sublime revolved around the relationship between human beings and the grand or terrifying aspects of nature.View images from this item (1)
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around […]
Shelley’s identification with the vast and overpowering aspects of the alpine landscape may be read in several ways. Unlike Coleridge, whose 1802 ‘Hymn Before Sun-rise, In the Vale of Chamouni’ depicts the ‘sky-pointing peaks’ as emblems of God, and differing also from Wordsworth, whose 1805 Prelude makes related claims for mountains as symbols of the connection between the human and the divine, Shelley’s Mont Blanc is defiantly remote and ‘inaccessible’. Like J M W Turner’s watercolour sketches of the area around Mont Blanc, which depict human figures dwarfed by vast, over-hanging precipices and barren swathes of ice, Shelley’s visionary landscape is forbidding and austere. In the absence of God, the poem seems to suggest, mountains have meaning solely as a result of the animating power of the human imagination.
The manuscript of Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’. In the absence of God, the poem seems to suggest, mountains have meaning solely as a result of the animating power of the human imagination.View images from this item (14)
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Held by: © Barclays Group Archives and Estate of Percy Bysshe Shelley & Harriet Shelley
J. M. W Turner’s watercolour sketch of the area around Mont Blanc, which depicts human figures dwarfed by vast, over-hanging precipices and barren swathes of ice.View images from this item (1)
Joseph Wright of Derby’s terrifying image of the eruption of Vesuvius reflects the pleasing horror of sublime violence.View images from this item (1)
 Spectator, issue 489, 20 September 1712.
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