Loading
Notes
Study Reminders
Support
Text Version

Aesthetics: Shelly

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday

    -

    7am

    +

    Tuesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Wednesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Thursday

    -

    7am

    +

    Friday

    -

    7am

    +

    Saturday

    -

    7am

    +

    Sunday

    -

    7am

    +

We continue with our study of the English Romantic writers and their employment of aesthetics. So far, we have looked at William Wordsworth and William Blake. Today in this session, we will look at Percy Shelley. We will begin with an excerpt from Mont Blanc, a landscape poem which clearly implies sublime aesthetics. 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 for ever, Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. Shelley suggests that the “universe of things” (Shelley’s term for all things external to the human mind) flow through the passive universal mind. You will recall that we have seen this attitude in Wordsworth and the others as well. You might remember that we had a little discussion about the image of the mind as a harp in Coleridge’s “Aeolian Harp” in which the mind is a passive instrument. When the universal wind flows through this mind, it activates the mind. But as we discussed in our earlier session, Coleridge was a little unhappy at the idea that the human mind is just passive. He thought of the mind as energetic and dynamic. Remember that these are authors who work with the idea of organic unity. Shelley suggests here that the universe of things flows through the passive universal mind as a river flows through a ravine. Mont Blanc is compared to the universal mind and the River Arve to the universe of things. Slowly, like Coleridge, Shelley’s speaker will change his stance and go on to suggest that the mind is also wild. It is not the river that is wild or the mountain which is sublime. It is the mind and the imagination which are sublime. Let us look at an excerpt from Mont Blanc wherein he would state this… Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee I seem as in a trance sublime and strange To muse on my own separate fantasy, My own, my human mind, which passively Now renders and receives fast influencings, Holding an unremitting interchange With the clear universe of things around; One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings Now float above thy darkness, and now rest Where that or thou art no unbidden guest, In the still cave of the witch Poesy Note here that the wildness is not out there in the world. It is not nature that is wild. Wildness is in the mind. Shelley believes that active impressions impinge on a passive universal mind. It is in the interactions between mind and matter that a third category, the human mind, evolves. In order to make this argument that the human mind evolves between, in an interaction between mind and matter, in order to make this argument, Shelley will invoke the sublime. He speaks of related matters: the River Arve is terrifying in its power, its mobility and sheer volume. It works across two senses – aural as in the sound of the river charging down and of course, there is the image of waters rushing. Proceeding from this is the awareness of the extent and power of the “universe of things”, that is the Natural world. In other words, Shelley’s speaker’s passive mind is overwhelmed by the universe of things. But the speaker is not defeated by the sublime. Rather, it is in the “unremitting interchange/ With the clear universe of things around” that the speaker’s own “legion of wild thoughts” emerges. Now that he has the legion of wild thoughts, the speaker uncovers the true meaning of Mont Blanc. So initially in the poem, the suggestion is that he is overwhelmed by what he is seeing which is huge, sublime and incomprehensible. But now that wildness has been internalised and there is a set of wild thoughts in his head, he is able to uncover the meaning of Mont Blanc. The sublimity of the world/ Nature is what enables the speaker to expand his consciousness. In other words, the sublimity of nature is matched or paralleled by the sublimity of the human mind or more specifically, the poet’s mind. This is what Shelley writes in Mont Blanc. 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. Interesting, is not it? Shelley does not claim that everybody will understand the voice and the meaning. That is, the sublime renders many overwhelmed by awe, fear and speechless terror, it defeats the sense of comprehension. Yet for some, it is the source of meaning itself. But the meaning itself is sublime, and we can only recognize the limits of our understanding Like Wordsworth, like others, Shelley is a Romantic who also situates the poetic mind as possessing something special and as being above other common minds like yours and mine. Think about this. For ordinary folks like you and me, the sublime generates terror but for people with more refined minds like poets, the sublime is a source of meaning. Shelley’s speaker will discover the meaning of life. Let us look at the Section IV of Shelley’s Mont Blanc. 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;—the bound With which from that detested trance they leap; The works and ways of man, their death and birth, And that of him and all that his may be; All things that move and breathe with toil and sound Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell. Do you see what he is talking about here? He is talking about a theme that has obsessed writers right from Edmund Spenser onwards and on which theme Shelley has a poem of the same title. Mutability – this is what sublime nature embodied in the wild regions of Mont Blanc teaches. Yet there is something more… We turn to another excerpt from Mont Blanc. Power dwells apart in its tranquility, Remote, serene, and inaccessible: And this, the naked countenance of earth, On which I gaze, even these primaeval mountains Teach the adverting mind. Shelley casts this lesson of mutability, of the endless power of something we cannot even comprehend. As he has already said, it is a ‘power’ that is ‘inaccessible’. The rest of section IV is a reiteration of this… The race Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream, And their place is not known. Below, vast caves Shine in the rushing torrents’ restless gleam, Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling Meet in the vale, and one majestic River, The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever Rolls its loud waters to the ocean-waves, Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air. “The power is there” says the speaker about the top of the mountain. He just gestures at it: this is where it is. The mountain is the source of all senses, there is nothing one can see on the mountain itself. Rather, it generates the ability to see. Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there, The still and solemn power of many sights, And many sounds, and much of life and death. In the calm darkness of the moonless nights, In the lone glare of day, the snows descend Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there, At the top of the mountain, there is an unseen power he says who may not be interested in human beings at all. If so, we are back at the sublime, beyond knowing and beyond caring. But Shelley does not stop at this. He turns the question of knowledge and the ‘meaning’ back into the human concern with the human mind. And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, If to the human mind’s imaginings, Silence and solitude were vacancy? This is how the poem concludes. That is, if “silence and solitude” of sublime spaces such as that of Mont Blanc were only vacancy, if they are vacant to the human mind, then man would be overwhelmed by the mountain. But what Shelley is proposing is something different. The human imagination has the power to interpret the vastness, blankness and wilderness of the mountain. That is, if the mountain has value only because it serves as a trope or a metaphor for human minds, then how is it as a mountain at all? In other words, if all sublime Nature is finally subject to the human mind, then what is truly sublime? The universe of things or the human mind? That is the question, isn’t it? That if it overwhelms us, it does not work. But if the mind is able to capture this, then which is sublime? The mountain or the mind? Shelley is not worried about the sublime blankness of the mountain top or the absence of God. What worries him is the absence of imagination (vacancy). You might recall Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode”, in which he says: I see but do not see. Coleridge is not worried that there is beautiful nature out there. He is worried that he is not able to understand or perceive nature. So Coleridge and Shelley here are both worrying about the loss of imagination. Nature is sublime only when mankind’s imagination fails to work, to see and recognize because the only thing truly sublime is the mind. Shelley’s sublime connects to both Coleridge’s and Blake’s. It is the mind that is the key component. It is the ability to imagine that is the key component. When mankind’s mind works even on things as vast as the sublime Mont Blanc, it creates meaning. The mountain may have a vast range of effects on you including terror and awe but that is not the true point. The point is that it is imagination that allows you to comprehend anything, to take in anything. So the true sublime actually exists in the poet’s mind. Not in the minds of ordinary people. But as we know, Shelley is distinguishing between ordinary minds and poetic minds. Poetic minds, he says, are sublime.