Sunday, March 7, 2010

Context for Frankenstein: Percy Shelley, "Mont Blanc" (1817)

Percy Shelley’s famous poem, Mont Blanc, was written in 1816 alongside Mary’s work on Frankenstein. Together, they (with Claire Clairmont, of course) visited the Chamounix Valley and beheld Mont Blanc, its most scenic attraction, standing at around 16,000 feet. Writing about it in their co-authored work, A History of a Six Week’s Tour (1817), Shelley writes, “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud so deep that the very roaring of the untamable Avre, 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.” Not surprisingly, Mont Blanc and its surroundings features prominently in Frankenstein (when he first encounters his creation), sharing much of its rhetoric with Shelley’s poem—one of his most characteristic Romantic outpourings. Writing about Mont Blanc, Stephen C. Behrendt notes, “With image piled upon image, complex rhetorical constructions, anagrammatic transformation of words, blank verse and rhyme, and numerous philosophical inconsistencies, Mont Blanc reproduces for the reader the sensations he felt in viewing [the mountain].”

I strongly encourage you to read the entire poem, which sheds light on Mary’s own thoughts while writing Frankenstein. In part, the poem concerns the power of the sublime to create images in the responsive brain, a response which questions the true nature of such visions. Do they come from Nature, the Mountain, or God Himself; or do they come from the poet’s imagination, simply waiting to be “sparked” by some divine incident? Is the sublime actually the mind of the poet magnified, or do we worship mutely at the oracles of divinity? Here are excerpts from Part I and III of the poem:

I (Complete)
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,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap forever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly burst and raves.

Part III (excerpt)
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
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,
Save when the eagle brings some hunters bone,
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously
Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarred, and riven.—Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply—all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.


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