In May, 1816, Percy and Mary Shelley, accompanied with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairemont, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland. They stayed in a cottage a stone's throw from Lord Byron’s luxurious Villa Diodati named Mont Alegre, near the southernmost tip of Lake Geneva, with a view of the Jura Mountains to the west, and the Alps and Mont Blanc to the east. When the lake was calm, Mont Blanc could be seen reflected on the water, its image cast by the sun rising behind its peak. Sunlight that year, however, was a rarity.
The weather that summer was unusually cold and wet. This was due, ostensibly, to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, in 1815. “An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house,” Mary wrote in a letter, “but when the sun bursts forth it is with a splendour and heat unknown in England.”
During their confinement in Byron’s villa, they gathered around a blazing fire and read German ghost stories to one another and talked about galvanism, the twitching, contraction, and seeming animation of muscle stimulated by electric current. Their intellects were stimulated in particular by the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, “who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”
Bryon suggested they each write a tale of the supernatural. The rest is history. Villa Diodati became the birthplace of Frankenstein.
On June 23rd, the lake was calm. Percy, Mary, and Claire rowed to nearby Hermancé. From there, they traveled, by sailboat, to Nerni, Yvoire, and Evian. In Melleire, they dined, and, according to Percy Shelley, “had some honey, the best I have ever tasted, the very essence of mountain flowers, and as fragrant.” They visited the dungeons and towers of the Castle of Chillon, where they observed columns with iron rings attached, each column “engraved with a multitude of names,” “one date was as ancient as 1670.”
They visited Vevai, where Jean Jacques Rousseau “conceived the design of Julie,” which Percy happened to be reading. Eventually they arrived at St. Martin, and proceeded from there on mules to Chamouni. At Servoz, Percy Shelley took in Mont Blanc for the first time:
Mont Blanc was before us - the Alps, with their innumerable glaciers on high all around, closing in the complicated windings of the single vale - forests inexpressibly beautiful, but majestic in their beauty - intermingled beech and pine, and oak, overshadowed our road, or receded, whilst lawns of such verdure as I have never seen before became darker in their recesses. Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with clouds; 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 aerial summits excited when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness. And remember this was all one scene, it all pressed home to our regard and our imagination. Though it embraced a vast extent of space, the snowy pyramids which shot into the bright blue sky seemed to overhang our path; the ravine, clothed with gigantic pines, and black with its depth below, so deep that the very roaring of the untamable 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.
As Shelley’s language suggests, it is an ecstatic moment. His being is thrilled with a profound sense of the sublime. He makes it his mission to communicate this energy in a poem. Poetry, with its purer language and divine energy, is the ideal vessel for this supernal wine. “Mont Blanc” achieves Shelley’s vision. Realizes its energy in words galvanized by a sense of immanent divinity.
He sees the universe naked in rock and snow, an ethereal gloom of cold mist swirling around the peak of Mont Blanc, half in this world, half in the world beyond. Waterfalls plummet from dizzying precipices, everlasting as stars or space itself. Crags and chasms are remembered around the crackle of logs hissing out of their moisture. The mountains speak to his heart. He becomes a conduit for the divine. Which is ironic. Shelley has signed his name in the Swiss hotels in Greek words meaning ‘democrat,’ ‘philanthropist,’ and ‘atheist.’ He sounds remarkably shamanic for an atheist. But it is important to remember that Shelley’s divinity is not a being with a face and a personality but a unifying energy of which we are aspects.
The splendor of Shelley’s words describe a sense of life and being of ineffable and terrible beauty, impossible to describe as moonlight. Until this energy galvanizes us, we are but ghosts, traveling through life like zombies, somnolent and half-dead. We must hear the divine music in nature before we can come alive. The universe glittering on a lake, its secrets spilled in glacial milk tumbling down a rocky slope. The mind glitters on the lake of the page, the whiteness of paper, the winds in the needles of the pine galvanizing the words as they spill from a pen, rapid and wild. Wave upon wave crashing, undulating, swelling in meaning, a wild thing rippling in the air we breathe, dark and full of fragrance among the ancient whispers of an invisible force. A bubbling in the dark wood where the mountains are alive, ceaselessly alive, now a river lost in the forest, now a sound ghostly and lone, as someone bursts out in laughter, in raptures of thrilling nature.
“Mont Blanc” is an ode in five stanzas. “The everlasting universe of things,” it begins,
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 for ever,
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
What is remarkable about this vision is the fusion of human mind with the things it perceives. Which perceives which first is impossible to say; they are implicit, folded in upon another like a gestating fetus, a gastrula. As development proceeds, fold upon fold forms mouth, nerves, skin, anus, eyeballs and arms. And “some say that gleams of a remoter world / Visit the soul in sleep.”
The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower;
What is outside of us, thrilling and sublime, wild and uncontainable, is also in us. We contain that which cannot be contained. Hence, poetry. Poetry is the fountaining of the ineffable. That which cannot be realized in expression, nevertheless yearns for expression. In paint, in clay and marble, in dance, in words. Nothing that is created is purely created because we are not the ultimate creators. We channel the universe. Whatever that was that exploded into being those billions of years ago is in us, among us, around us, between us, over us, under us, and emanates from us.
If one were to put Tony Hayward at one of the human spectrum - representing that which is infantile, brutish, insensitive, arrogant, malignantly narcissistic - Percy Bysshe Shelley would be at the other end of the continuum, representing that which is wild, instinct, charged, electric, acutely aware of being a part of all things, even that which is most remote, serene, and inaccessible. One grubs for money. The other yearns for wholeness with the divine power generating the cosmos around us. One leaves dead oceans in his wake. The other leaves wild words alive and seething with force and lightning. Enlightenment. Rapture. Ecstasy.
Poet Michael McClure, who comes very close in his poetry to Shelley’s vision of nature and the universe, has recently suggested a “twinning” of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and old friend Jack Kerouac’s series of poems titled “Desolation Blues,” which is presented in the collection Book Of Blues in 12 choruses. These poems were inspired by Kerouac’s time spent on Desolation Peak in the Washington Cascade range at a fire lookout.
He was there for 63 days in 1956. He did not like it. He missed booze and company. But Kerouac is a very complex man. He had a deep spiritual side that certainly benefited, as he had hoped, from being there. His imposed asceticism worked to his advantage.
I see Shelley everywhere in “Desolation Blues.” Space surrounds him, and us, charged with divine energy, possibly benevolent, maybe not, but terrible and awesome in its power. The stars hang in silence while his brain shoots image after image in its sweet cerebral juices, stars streaking across the void, or clinging to his sleeves as moss. He drips words, and bacon and coffee in the morning. Earth spins and wobbles and spins while Kerouac stands on the peak gazing at nearby Hozomeen. His mind is awakened. He notices small things in acute detail, beetles, raccoons, rock tumbling down rock spitting water and fragment. The universe is at our toes, or frost in the window. Crazy patterns of breath and air that inform us we are one with the universe of things. Want is ephemeral. An hour is a minute or a month. The brilliant wizardry of light shoots into our world igniting bells and brisk air. Kerouac takes it all in, yearning to swallow the whole thing, free himself from himself, burst out of himself dripping words, squirting the juice of his mind in vibrations delicate as waterfall mist and strong as iron.
The 1st Chorus begins in silliness: “I stand on my head on Desolation Peak,” he opens,
And see that the world is hanging
Into an ocean of endless space
The mountains dripping rock by rock
Like bubbles in the void
And tending where they want --
That at night the shooting stars
Are swimming up to meet us
Yearning from the bottom black
But never make it, alas
That we walk around clung
Like beetles with big brains
Ignorant of where we are, how,
What, & upsidedown like fools,
Talking of governments & history
- But Mount Hozomeen
The most beautiful mountain I ever seen,
Does nothing but sit & be a mountain,
A mess of double pointed rock
Hanging pouring into space
O frightful silent endless space
- Everything goes to the head
Of the hanging bubble, with men
The juice is in the head -
So mountain peaks are points
Of rocky liquid yearning
The style is different than Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” but not remarkably so. The feelings of awe and rapture are identical. The vision of being at one with the universe is identical, aspects of the surrounding terrible void and its beauty. Shelley’s “secret Strength of things” is echoed in Kerouac’s “rocky liquid yearning.” And Kerouac’s “frightful silent endless space” is echoed in Shelley’s “unfathomable deeps, / Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread / And wind among the accumulated steeps.”
Kerouac’s language is more limber; he does not follow a Greek model, but allows his language freer rein and spontaneity. But that limberness was initially spawned in Shelley’s searching words. Shelley, too, was searching for a new language, a more supple language, to capture the mind’s more spontaneous moments, its raves and raptures, visions and dreams. This was a defining characteristic of Romanticism such as it existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, following the classicism of the 18th. In both works, the mountains feel alive. The mind of the universe emerges from a similar solitude and yearning. Both tend toward a sense of hanging in the void, of brisk mountain air moving in endless and invisible currents, full of electricity, the galvanizing, animating force of something ineffable and grand.
Into the Cold and Dark
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