In five stanzas, a first-person poetic persona addresses the mountain in its sublime majesty. In the first stanza, he considers “the everlasting universe of things” that he infers from observing nature. Human thought in comparison is feeble, gaining its splendor from the natural world that it thinks about. The second stanza focuses on the mountain itself, with its crags, trees, and ice, but together something huge and sublime; it is dizzying, too big even for independent thought to capture it. The feeling that he cannot comprehend it all continues; as he works to take it all in, the serene mountain awaits, unmoved. He is tempted to resort to mythology but realizes that nature is too strong for that, for merely human things. The wise see nature’s reality. In the fourth stanza, he expands past the mountain to more of the natural world, which persists long past any human life; we do not have access to that raw immortality. Nature’s power, or the mountain’s, is like an unstoppable glacier. In the last stanza, he turns his eyes back to the mountain’s features, finally concluding that the spirit of nature is in the mountain, which finally teaches him that knowing such things fills his mind with a welcome, silent solitude.
Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Swiss Alps near the French/Italy border. Picture the young Shelley standing on a bridge over the Arvre River in the Valley of Chamonix, in what is now southeastern France. Shelley later wrote to Thomas Love Peacock that the poem “was composed under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe; and, as an indisciplined overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang.”
The poem resembles works of the earlier Romantics, specifically Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” which was a major influence on Shelley during his writing of this piece. Both poems “question the significance of the interchange between nature and the human mind” (Abrams 1740). Shelley, however, offers a view different from Wordsworth’s. The speaker is caught up in staring at this giant wonder of nature, and immediately he begins to personify the mountain because otherwise it is too big to understand. He thus draws parallels between its awesome creation and that of his own mind. Shelley brings forth the central problem about comprehending the nature of the “power” of the “everlasting universe of things” by employing the river as a metaphor. Like human understanding, the river, over time, has had the ability to cut through the mountain, though it begins as a “feeble brook.”
In the beginning of the second stanza, the speaker tells of the river’s path as it travels “down” from its guarded, and gilded, throne high in the “clouds” of the mountain to the “dizzying” ravine. It is a destructive journey, “bursting” with force that cannot be stopped or “tamed,” and the speaker is metaphorically wondering what all is lost in the path from the serendipitous moment of spiritual thought to its articulation. He wishes his thoughts could be as the river: “to muse on my own separate phantasy, my own, my human mind … With the clear universe of things around.” By the fourth stanza, the speaker describes the intricate creation and relationships between all forms of nature, of which man is only a mortal part. As the river flows down the mountain from high above, it has the power to destroy and carry everything in its path, and it has the power to destroy man and all he has built—in a flash. The freshwater mountain river is the life of all species and climates, from the frozen desert to the ocean.
The last stanza is praise for the power of the mountain. Like nature in general, the mountain is so large and sublime that it cannot be comprehended all at once. It is a mystery, a secret, which commands nature’s power. The speaker finally asks, however, what nature could be without the human mind to perceive it, even if only to stand in silent awe of its greatness. “Mont Blanc” thus compares the majestic power of wild nature with the miniature size of man.
Accordingly, the speaker acknowledges that nature, not the human mind, is the “everlasting universe of things.” Can a mind really comprehend something so large? Again, imagine Shelley on a bridge looking up at this giant. Like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Mont Blanc” takes in both the immediate object of nature perceived by the poet and the larger power of nature, turning to the issue of how the human mind can come to terms with something having such huge, silent power. Shelley’s poetry keeps confronting this problem, and we frequently see this combination of hope in the human understanding with the calm, skeptical acknowledgment of the limits of human comprehension.