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Prophet of Doom

Prophet of Doom

Two centuries on, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” invites us to rethink our presumptuous relationship to nature.

Matt Hanson

The mighty Mont Blanc—the tallest mountain in Western Europe, which intersects three different countries—may be a new casualty of climate change. Massive chunks of its ice are melting at a worrying pace. The Planpincieux Glacier, the largest of them all, is sliding down the Italian side of the mountain at the alarming rate of a meter a day, quite a bit faster than the usual ten-centimeter pace. The mayor of the nearby town has declared an emergency, and locals, tourists, and skiers have been warned of imminent danger.

It’s an especially apt moment to reflect on Percy Shelley’s poem, “Mont Blanc,” written a little over 200 years ago. In light of the above news, the poem isn’t just one of the English Romantic’s finest efforts. Its evocative imagery and prophetic insight also give us an eerily prescient model for how we need to rethink our approach to nature.

The romantic poets tended to separate their ideas about nature between the beautiful (the pleasure one feels gazing at a flower or a sunset, for example) and the sublime (the awe one feels when contemplating the majesty of a mountain or the vastness of the sea). Shelley begins “Mont Blanc” by noting how “the everlasting universe of things/ flows through the mind.” He never lost touch with his youthful rebellion, during which he wrote pamphlets about “the necessity of atheism” that got him kicked out of school. He wrote “Mont Blanc” partly as a response to a more sentimental Coleridge poem about the mountain that credits God for creating the loveliness of the landscape.

For Shelley, Mont Blanc’s distant, forbidding presence was rather a contraindicator for a benevolent God:

I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
the veil of life and death?

Not likely, is the subtext. Instead, Shelley describes the formidable mountain standing alone,

piercing the infinite sky . . . still, snowy, and serene-
it’s subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps.

This magnificence is entirely the mountain’s own.

What’s more, it’s almost impossible for anyone to fathom the meaning of Mont Blanc—only a select few are up to the task of truly comprehending its sublimity:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild . . . that man may be
but for such faith with nature reconciled.

Scholars have explained that the use of the word “but” in this context means something more like “only” which suggests that either deep doubt or a very hesitant faith in our ability to come to terms with nature is the best that we humans can do.

Two hundred years later, this carries us straight to the all-too-human attitude implicated in climate change in the first place: hubris. One can draw a clear line between the vastness and unknowability of Mont Blanc—and by extension nature itself—and our myopic impulse to trash the joint for our short-term gain. The technocratic mindset can’t tolerate the unknowable or stand in awe at the sublime; it doesn’t feel responsible for what it can’t comprehend. The world’s natural resources are no more than fuel for the relentless engine of technological progress.

The more politically minded Romantic poets took this issue very much to heart in their own time. Blake and Wordsworth brooded about the “dark satanic mills” that were corrupting the pristine English landscape, or how “we murder to dissect.” Shelley, arguably the most consistently radical of the bunch, suggests that beholding the natural world can inspire both positive and negative responses. His “Ode to the West Wind” juxtaposes the cycles of birth and death that follow in the wild wind’s wake. Those of us in the 21st century can read “Mont Blanc” not only as a cause for poetic astonishment but as an indictment of mankind’s arrogant urge to devastate the natural world from whence we came.

It’s a little eerie how precisely we can read Shelley’s language as anticipating the impending ecological disaster. Towards the middle of the poem he describes, with impressive clarity, what it might be like to for locals to gaze on the mountain these days:

The glaciers creep
like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice,
frost and the sun in scorn of mortal power
have piled . . . a wall impregnable of beaming ice.

One thing time has proven Shelley to be mistaken about is the “impregnable” part. If anything, recent reports tell us that those immense walls of ice are pregnable after all; a little later he refers to “a flood of ruin” that “rolls its perpetual stream.”

Interestingly, Shelley considers the ominous sliding of the glaciers as an example of its “scorning” the power of mere mortals to influence it. These days it seems like mortal power is doing most of the scorning. Shelley probably couldn’t have imagined the complexity of modern technology that now endangers Mont Blanc and the people around it, but he did have something to say about “the secret strength of things/ which governs thought” and how powerful it can be. Shelley’s darkly pointed questioning concluding the poem—“What were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea/ If to the human mind’s imaginings/ Silence and solitude were vacancy?”—can be read as a warning about the morally empty and unimaginative way we’re treating the natural world.

Granted, it’s a little bit of a snobby attitude, but Shelley thinks that only a select few, like poets and philosophers, can really understand what Mont Blanc truly means. Then again, he might be correct in certain sense. One needs a heightened awareness of beauty and reverence, of the mountain’s ultimate sublimity, in order to begin to grasp a true sense of it. But at the same time, the shameful way we’re treating it now begs a question. What if all this poetic perception has been made moot due to our worldwide haste to innovate our way into utter mastery of the planet and everything in it?

Reading “Mont Blanc” today offers an opportunity for us to change course. Dire news of the effects of climate change appear in our news feeds daily. Shelley’s potent voice invites us to rethink our presumptuous relationship to nature. Now is a particularly urgent time to approach Mont Blanc with a renewed sense of awe and reverence.

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Baffler, Guardian, The Millions, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.