Sunday, March 26, 2006

Poem of the Week 3/27/2006: from Mont Blanc

from Mont Blanc

Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni*

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom--
Now lending splendor, 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,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

*Through the Chamouni valley flows the river Arve, which originates in a glacier on the mountain and empties into Lake Geneva, from which flows the Rhone, which reaches the Mediterranean.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1816

This poem was shown to me about six months ago, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever, period. Please, I entreat you, read it out loud. Shelley is a master of language; the words will come out shaped like rivers. It is enough to merely read this stanza, for the words are beautiful without the meaning. On top of that, though, sits Shelley's theory of mind. He engages epistemological (the philosophy of how we know what we know) theory in his treatment of the river, using it as a symbol for the human mind.

The words reflect the natural phenomena they describe. The first line is expansive, but Shelley channels it "through the mind" in the next stanza by organizing "the everlasting universe of things" in a stream of thought. This river is vibrant and energetic, reflected in the repetition of the "r" sound, the round word "roll," and the iambic rhythm of "and rolls its rapid waves." Shelley then slows us down with three even dashes. In the third line, one senses a river's repeated leaps. The structure, like that of a river, is constant; there is a set of four "nows" and four stops, of which the first three are dashes and the last a comma. But just as a river's water is constantly replaced, so the description of the flow of thought changes. Dark and magical diction reveals that "the everlasting universe of things" is rich and varied, per a Romantic sense of mysticism. "Dark," "glittering," "gloom," and "splendor" emphasize a mysterious, glorious train of things through the mind.

The winding rhyme scheme also recalls the twisting of a river; "waves" and "raves" almost encircle the stanza, while "things," "springs" and "brings" bubble up within five lines. Shelley plays with rhythm in much the same way, darting between iambic (unstressed, stressed), trochaic (stressed, unstressed), and even spondaic (unstressed, unstressed) tropes.

The next three lines or so are syntactically twisted, as if caught in an eddy. Shelley creates a circle of language with the early prepositional phrase "from secret springs." He gives us an origin of water before even mentions water, tying the end of the phrase to the beginning. We thus have to untangle "Where from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings / of waters." It becomes, "where it brings its tribute of water (gotten from the source of secret things) to the mind."

So here we are at the mind. This dynamic river is actually the mind, the flow of thought. Shelley is adopting, perhaps, Kant's epistemological stance: that there are indeed outside objects our senses percieve, but the mind sorts and organizes them into ideas of color, shape, texture etc. The first lines may be summarized more philosophically as "random and chaotic things in the universe enter our mind through the senses, which channels and sorts their infinite variety."

If the river is a representation of the mind, then the first half of the poem establishes the mind's power. It picks its way through an infinite sea of data, essentially constructing the world. This would seem to be an almost arrogant claim, in fact, were it not for the later half of the poem. Close up, it sorts infinity, but zoomed out this great faculty is merely "a feeble brook" among other natural elements. Notice how the earlier description "The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves." sits in comparison to "with a sound but half its own, / Such as a feeble brook will oft assume." The later description diminishes the river by dropping action and active diction. Shelley peoples the second phrase with small words like "but," "such as," and "oft," while the original look at the river incorporates eternity and infinity.

Our river is suddenly dwarfed by the chaotic energy of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. It is a small flash among powerful forces. In the world outside the mind loom "mountains lone," towering over our little rill. Its dark eddies seem peaceful compared to the battle between expansive woods and gusting winds, and it appears a trickle when set against "waterfalls around it [leaping] for ever" or the vast river that "ceaselessly bursts and raves."

Of course, Shelley rhetorically packs the other elements of nature with energy as well. He repeats the "w" sound to create a whistling gale through the final five lines, again playing with rythmn to provide a chaotic drumbeat of nature. Then, too, verbs like "leap," "burst," and "rave" strain off the page, their aural impact leaping, bursting, and raving out of the poem. I repeat them because there is no better way to describe it - they are the best possible words, the ripest, the most energetic.

It's important to note that Shelley does not deny the mind its power, merely to put it in perspective. The elemental forces in the second half of the poem do not diminish the beauty of the first. In the poem as in life, mountains and tempests remind us that we are small, take us outside ourselves long enough to remember that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreampt of in the philosophy of men.

1 comment:

glo said...

yes, i usually try to avoid such declarative statements but i find i must say that this must be, everlastingly, the most profoundly beautiful piece ever.