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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1817

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Summary and Study Guide


“Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a 144-line lyric and ode consisting of five stanzas. The poem, written in iambic pentameter and no set rhyme scheme, gives the mental meanderings of an unnamed first-person speaker as they survey Mont Blanc and its surrounding landscape. Mont Blanc is the highest mountain peak of the Alps and rests in France, Italy, and Switzerland. A political and social rebel and historically controversial figure, Shelley wrote the poem in the summer of 1816 while he traveled to visit fellow Romantic poets George Gordon, Lord Byron with his then-lover (and future second wife) Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Godwin’s stepsister Jane “Claire” Clairmont. “Mont Blanc” was then published in 1817 in History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, a collection of journal entries, letters, and other texts that Shelley and Mary Godwin wrote and then collected detailing their travels. The poem serves as a prime example of a text produced in the Romantic period of British literature with its focus on nature, the imagination, and the capabilities of the human mind. Traces of Shelley’s personal trials and tribulations can be read into the text as well, including the loss of his first child with Mary Godwin, his separation from his first wife, the passing of his grandfather, his financial woes, and the disconnect with his family and friends.

Poet Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792, to Timothy Shelley and Elizabeth Pilfold. He was the oldest of seven children. His father was a member of Parliament and has been described as “a weak, conventional man who was caught between an overbearing father and a rebellious son” (Reiman, Donald H. “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” Britannica, 2022.). Percy Shelley was poised to inherit this parliamentary position as well as wealthy estates from his grandfather Bysshe Shelley. Percy Shelley grew up in Field Place, located close to Horsham (near Sussex, England). Growing up in the countryside, Shelley fished, hunted, and explored the natural wonders his surrounding landscape had to offer.

From 1802 through 1804, when Shelley was approximately 10-12 years old, Shelley attended school at Syon House Academy. He then received his education at Eton College, attending the institution from 1804 through 1806. While at Eton, Shelley suffered mental and physical bullying from schoolmates. During this period, his imagination served as his safe haven. Following Eton, Shelley went to the University College in Oxford in 1810 to continue his education.

While at Eton, Shelley had started producing various poems. However, his first publication was not poetry but a Gothic novel published in 1810 titled Zastrozzi. In this controversial novel, the villain Zastrozzi gives voice to Shelley’s own opinions, many of which were deemed heretical and atheistic at the time. Shelley had met Thomas Jefferson Hogg at Oxford and, also in 1810, the two worked together to produce the satirical poem “Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson.” Shelley also worked with his sister to publish Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. However, one particular publication resulted in Hogg and Shelley being expelled from University College. In 1811, Shelley and Hogg published “The Necessity of Atheism.” Rather than admit or deny that he wrote the text with Hogg and label himself a Christian, Shelley refused to give the college any answer. The break between the school and Shelley likewise affected a division between Shelley and his family. They wanted Shelley to denounce his “vegetarianism, political radicalism and sexual freedom” “Percy Bysshe Shelley.”). Without his father’s support, Shelley continued to have financial difficulties for another two years.

After his expulsion from Oxford, Shelley eloped in August 1811 at the age of 19 with a 16-year-old named Harriet Westbrook. Westbrook was the daughter of a tavern owner, and Shelley’s family had attempted to ban their son from seeing her. By early 1812, Shelley moved to Dublin with Westbrook and her older sister Eliza. Here, Shelley wrote and published political pamphlets promoting Catholic rights and Irish independence, among other nonconformist ideals. After Dublin, the group also lived in Lynmouth, Devon, and in North Wales.

However, the marital bliss between Shelley and Westbrook soon waned, and Shelley’s attention turned toward a teacher named Elizabeth Hitchener. Hitchener inspired Shelley’s first long poetic publication, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem. The eponymous character came from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and in the work Shelley details a vision of utopia. The poem features aspects of the “freethinking Socialist philosophy” from Shelley’s friend William Godwin and contains nine cantos of blank verse and lyric. The poem appeared in print in 1813, when Shelley was in London due to financial difficulties and seeking assistance from moneylenders.

June 1813 saw the birth of Shelley and Westbrook’s first child, Elizabeth Ianthe. However, in 1814, Shelley met and fell in love with William Godwin’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Mary Godwin’s mother had been the famous writer and proto feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Without her father’s approval or support, Mary Godwin and Shelley eloped to France on July 27, 1814. The couple also took with them Mary’s stepsister Jane “Claire” Clairmont. Their father was so upset with the elopement that he didn’t speak to Mary for three years. After six weeks of traveling from France to Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, the touring group ran out of money and returned home. No warm homecoming awaited them, as they were largely ignored by friends and family alike. In November of 1814, Shelley’s wife gave birth to a son, Charles, and the following February Mary gave birth to a baby girl who only survived two weeks. When Harriet Westbrook learned that Mary was pregnant at the same time she was, she filed for divorce, child support, and custody of her children.

The Shelley family received a financial reprieve when Shelley’s grandfather passed away in January 1815. Shelley no longer had to run from his debts but was able to pay them off and also received an annual income of 1,000 pounds per his grandfather’s will. The family settled in Windsor Great Park in England. Even amid the turmoil in his personal life, Shelley still found time to write. A Vindication of Natural Diet appeared in print in 1813, and Shelley wrote a 720-line poem titled Alastor, of The Spirit of Solitude (which was published in 1816 with other works of poetry). Mary again gave birth to a son in January 1816 named William, and in May both Shelley and Mary along with Jane “Claire” Clairmont traveled to Geneva to meet with Shelley’s fellow poet and creative genius George Gordon, Lord Byron. Clairmont had begun a tumultuous affair with Lord Byron, and the four spent the entire summer in Switzerland. This time in Switzerland proved to be an especially productive period for Shelley. Works Shelley produced during this period include “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and “Mont Blanc.” Mary herself received inspiration on the trip to begin her most famous work, Frankenstein.

By fall of 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Jane returned to England. That same December, Shelley’s first wife Harriet drowned in a death by suicide. Before the end of the year, however, on December 30, 1816, Shelley and Mary officially married. Mary’s father, William Godwin, even gave his blessing for the union. Despite their happiness, their joy did not last long as, “Following Harriet’s death, the courts ruled not to give Shelley custody of their children, asserting that they would be better off with foster parents” (“Percy Bysshe Shelley.”).

Finally married, Shelley and Mary moved in March 1817 to Marlow in Buckinghamshire, where Shelley met and became friends with poet John Keats and essayist Leigh Hunt. Shelley wrote Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City in 1817 as well. In keeping with many of his other publications, this narrative poem was also controversial due to its topics of incest and religious critique. The publisher “feared that Shelley’s idealized tale of a peaceful national revolution, bloodily suppressed by a league of king and priests, violated the laws against blasphemous libel” (“Percy Bysshe Shelley.). Shortly after publication, the text was recalled, edited, and then published again as The Revolt of Islam in 1818. Shelley wrote various political essays and pamphlets as well, which he signed “The Hermit of Marlow,” and Shelley and Mary both worked together to produce History of a Six Weeks’ Tour from letters, journal entries, and poetry (including “Mont Blanc”) produced during their travels.

Shelley’s health and the renewal of financial instability sent the husband and wife with Clairmont abroad once more in 1818. By this time, Clairmont had a daughter with Lord Byron named Allegra, and she wanted to bring their daughter to Italy to meet her father. The Shelleys and Clairmont moved from one Italian city to another. In the summer of 1818, Shelly produced his own translation of Plato’s Symposium, wrote an essay titled “On Love,” and wrote the poem Rosalind and Helen. Shelley’s works began to shift away from a political focus to much more idealistic messages. This idealism contrasts with the personal suffering and pain the Shelleys experienced while in Italy when their daughter Clara (who had been born in 1817) passed away.

Other works Shelley began writing and finished in Italy include Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama, The Cenci, and The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England. He also began Julian and Maddalo, “in which Byron (‘Maddalo’) and Shelley debate human nature and destiny” (“Percy Bysshe Shelley.”). Prometheus Unbound “inverts the plot of a lost play by Aeschylus in a poetic masterpiece that combines supple blank verse with a variety of complex lyric measures” (“Percy Bysshe Shelley.”). Prometheus Unbound appeared in publication in 1820 along with poems including “Ode to Liberty,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “The Cloud,” and “To a Sky-Lark.” Shelley structured The Cenci (1820) as an Elizabethan drama “based on a case of incestuous rape and patricide in 16th-century Rome” (“Percy Bysshe Shelley.”). The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England (published after 1823) was Shelley’s reaction to the Peterloo Massacre that occurred in England in 1819, and it advocated for peaceful but effective protest.

During this time the Shelleys also lost their son William, who became infected with malaria. In the fall of 1819, Mary gave birth to Percy Florence Shelley, who would be the couple’s only surviving child. Shelley would continue to produce many more texts throughout his time in Italy. On July 8, 1822, Shelley died sailing back home after visiting with his friend Leigh Hunt. Many claimed his death as accidental, though some believed Shelley was murdered for his political views. Shelley’s body was cremated at the spot his body washed ashore in Viareggio, and his ashes were buried in Rome in the Protestant Cemetery. Mary Shelley collected her husband’s unpublished works and printed them posthumously in 1840. Honor has also been given to Shelley with his inscription in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Poem Text


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.


Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—

Thou many-colour'd, many-voiced vale,

Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail

Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,

Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down

From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,

Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame

Of lightning through the tempest;—thou dost lie,

Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,

Children of elder time, in whose devotion

The chainless winds still come and ever came

To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging

To hear—an old and solemn harmony;

Thine earthly rainbows stretch'd across the sweep

Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil

Robes some unsculptur'd image; the strange sleep

Which when the voices of the desert fail

Wraps all in its own deep eternity;

Thy caverns echoing to the Arve's commotion,

A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;

Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,

Thou art the path of that unresting sound—

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,

Seeking among the shadows that pass by

Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,

Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast

From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!


Some say that gleams of a remoter world

Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,

And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber

Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;

Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl'd

The veil of life and death? or do I lie

In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep

Spread far around and inaccessibly

Its circles? For the very spirit fails,

Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep

That vanishes among the viewless gales!

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,

Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;

Its subject mountains their unearthly forms

Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between

Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,

Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread

And wind among the accumulated steeps;

A desert peopled by the storms alone,

Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,

And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously

Its shapes are heap'd around! rude, bare, and high,

Ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven.—Is this the scene

Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young

Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea

Of fire envelop once this silent snow?

None can reply—all seems eternal now.

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue

Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,

So solemn, so serene, that man may be,

But for such faith, with Nature reconcil'd;

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.


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.

Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,

Remote, serene, and inaccessible:

And this, the naked countenance of earth,

On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains

Teach the adverting mind. 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 pil'd: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,

A city of death, distinct with many a tower

And wall impregnable of beaming ice.

Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin

Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky

Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing

Its destin'd path, or in the mangled soil

Branchless and shatter'd stand; the rocks, drawn down

From yon remotest waste, have overthrown

The limits of the dead and living world,

Never to be reclaim'd. The dwelling-place

Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;

Their food and their retreat for ever gone,

So much of life and joy is lost. 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.


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,

Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,

Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend

Silently there, and heap the snow with breath

Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home

The voiceless lightning in these solitudes

Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods

Over the snow. The secret Strength of things

Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome

Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,

If to the human mind's imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy?

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.’” 1817. Poetry Foundation.


“Mont Blanc” shifts in focus across its five stanzas. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the connection between the universe and the human mind. The waters of the universe the speaker describes turn out to specifically be the waters of the river Arve in the second stanza. The speaker gives the physical details of the ravine in which the river flows, and they consider how the human mind is capable of perceiving the sublimity of nature but cannot fully understand or appreciate it in its entirety. After musing about the different layers of reality and mental comprehension at the beginning of the third stanza, the speaker once more gives physical details, this time of Mont Blanc. They speculate about what the highest portions of the mountain peak look like with its emptiness and solitude. The fourth stanza begins with the broadest focus of all, listing general landmarks and natural occurrences and acknowledging the same cycle of life that everything in the universe must follow. Projecting into the future, the speaker describes how everything must end, even the existence of mankind. By the fifth stanza, the speaker has returned to their particular focus on Mont Blanc and urges the reader to consider their own relationship with nature. Throughout the five stanzas, the speaker stresses the interconnection between all things within the universe and the fact that no one will ever completely understand the entirety of nature.