"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"

From Mood and Trope: The Rhetoric and Poetics of Affect by John Brenkman. 

© 2020 by The University of Chicago. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Shelley’s thought has always been swiftly labeled. He is a Platonist, an atheist, and a revolutionary. That these three commitments—or self-designations—do not fit easily together seldom keeps readers from ignoring the caveat proffered by W. K. Wimsatt regarding “the conflict between French atheism and Platonic idealism which even in Prometheus Unbound Shelley was not able to resolve.” Platonism seems to announce itself in the very title of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” and the exclamation in “Mont Blanc” that “the wilderness has a mysterious tongue” whose teachings, if fully heard, might reconcile man with nature gives the idea of “nature” a force similar to that associated with Rousseau of exposing all societal artifice, convention, and wrong:

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.

Such a thematic compass turns out to be extremely misleading. The term Intellectual Beauty is unquestionably redolent of Platonism and easily raises the expectation of a poem in which the earthly beauty encountered in experience will be the mere material imitation or shadow of the idea or ideal of beauty whose light can only be approached by the mind overcoming the material world itself, and the poem’s very first image seems to confirm just this shadow realm whose source will be addressed as Spirit of Beauty and O awful Loveliness:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

Floats though unseen amongst us

Platonism furnishes Shelley’s idiom. But an idiom is not necessarily a conviction or controlling doctrine. The Platonic conception comes into his poetry as part of its metaphorical structure. While it may be tempting to take the title “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” to be the key to the poem’s meaning, such a temptation presupposes that the meaning of Intellectual Beauty is already known, whereas what Intellectual Beauty is will only be divulged in the fabric of the poem. It’s not the title that names the poem, but the poem as a whole that unfolds the name Intellectual Beauty. Here the fact that in literature the artwork and criticism share the same medium of expression—language—can be a trap, for Platonism turns out not to be the poem’s ultimate meaning but rather its means of making meaning. Platonism is more signifier than signified.

The matter/spirit and body/soul dichotomies in Plato’s thought have proved a rich resource for poetic language because they so readily lend themselves to the making of metaphor and analogy: the body is to the soul as x is to y. That structure frequently undergoes a meaning-altering twist when body appears twice in the analogy, first as body and then as soul. For example, body:soul::clothes:body gives rise to motifs such as the empty sleeve as a figure of the body from which the soul, figured as body, has escaped; the bodiless clothing signifies the soulless body. Wallace Stevens draws on the expressive resources of this chiasmic ambiguity in “The Idea of Order at Key West”—

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.

The water never formed to mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeve

—as does Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,” where “a tattered coat” first figures an aging man himself and then his body (“mortal dress”), in which his soul, now figured as a body, might reawaken to “clap its hands” and create new song:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress

In short, while such metaphors of body and soul undoubtedly trace their genealogy to Plato, the thought to which the resulting percepts and affects give rise is not necessarily Platonic at all. So it is with Shelley. Only the workings of trope will yield how he thinks the beautiful.

The opening stanza is a preamble evoking the “unseen Power.” Before the poem turns to apostrophe in the second stanza and addresses this power as Spirit of Beauty, the visitations of the unseen shadow of the unseen Power are likened, via multiple similes, to ephemeral moments such as the invisible breeze stirring a field of flowers:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

Floats though unseen amongst us,—visiting

This various world with as inconstant wing

As summer winds that creep from flower to flower.—

Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,

It visits with inconstant glance

Each human heart and countenance;

Like hues and harmonies of evening,—

Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—

Like memory of music fled,—

Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and dearer still for its mystery. (1–12)

The similes are more than similes. They tip over into a list of actual instances of the appearance of the beautiful. Every such appearance is fleeting—so emphatically fleeting that vanishing is felt to be a part of appearing. In the stanza’s controlling trope, the unseen Power is itself figured as fitfully casting its eye on human beings:

It visits with inconstant glance

Each human heart and countenance

That beauty appears only intermittently in the heart and face underlies the pathos expressed in the unanswered question addressed to the Spirit of Beauty—

Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,

This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate? (16–17)

—unanswered because unanswerable, for the question is as fruitless as all others that wonder why “Doubt, chance, and mutability” (31) rule over human life:

Ask why the sunlight not forever

Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain river,

Why aught should fail and fade that once is shewn,

Why fear and dream and death and birth

Cast on the daylight of this earth

Such gloom,—why man has such a scope

For love and hate, despondency and hope?

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever

To sage or poet these responses given—

Therefore the name of God and ghosts and Heaven,

Remain the records of their vain endeavour,

Frail spells—(18–29)

Within the scope of this recognition of inescapable mutability and mortality, Shelley praises the Spirit of Beauty in hyperbole that conveys by negative implication exactly what humankind cannot attain:

Man were immortal and omnipotent,

Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,

Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart. (39–41)

How, then, to understand the relation of the beautiful, in its appearing and vanishing, and this figure of the Spirit of Beauty? Beauty is transcendent, ideal, and eternal in Plato, and the beautiful is its earthly transitory shadow. But does this hold for Shelley?

The poem contains three discrepant figurations of the relation of the Spirit of Beauty to the transitory shining of the beautiful:

It visits with inconstant glance

Each human heart and countenance (6–7)

Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate

With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon

Of human thought or form—where art thou gone? (13–15)

Thou—that to human thought art nourishment,

Like darkness to a dying flame! (44–45)

The meaning common to all three tropes is that the beautiful is a fleeting lighting or shining of human thought, form, or feeling. The divergence, even contradictoriness unfolds from there, as though each trope were an approximation or new attempt to interpret the source of these transitory flashes. According to the first image, whenever and wherever the Spirit of Beauty casts its eye upon the human world the beautiful occurs. In the second, the beautiful is the occurrence of the Spirit of Beauty’s light shining upon and coloring the human. And, finally, in an image whose boldness earns the Shelleyan exclamation point, the Spirit of Beauty is the darkness, the emptiness, the void, against which human thought’s “dying flame” flashes into appearance.

This third trope interprets the Spirit of Beauty’s transcendence—the transcendence by which it enables the beautiful to appear—not in the Platonic manner of an eternally existing Idea but in a way that suggestively anticipates Heidegger’s conceptualization of Angst as the attunement to the nothing: “Holding itself out into the nothing, Dasein is in each case already beyond beings as a whole. Such being beyond beings we call transcendence.” Transcendence pertains not to the Ideal or Real, as in Plato, but to the nothing. In the fable of the cave the material world of human concerns and experiences is represented as the shadows that the real—that is, the ideal—realm of forms casts on the cave’s walls. Here, though, the transitory, vanishing, remembered glimmers that constitute the beautiful in earthly experience become apparent on account of the surrounding darkness. That helps make better sense of the poem’s enigmatic inaugural image in which the visitations of the Spirit of Beauty are the unseen shadow of an unseen Power.

The first of the three tropes in question is the one that seems to openly contradict the third—except that it can be construed in two quite different ways. On the one hand, “It visits with inconstant glance” says that wherever the Spirit of Beauty looks upon the world the beautiful appears. In that case, the beautiful is gathered into a transcendent unity insofar as what the Spirit of Beauty sees is, taken as a whole, Beauty itself. On the other hand, “It visits with inconstant glance” can be taken as saying that when the Spirit of Beauty looks upon the world and human beings, all that it sees are the intermittent occurrences of the beautiful because it is unable to see all else that makes up the “dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate.” The beautiful does not form a unity, since it only flashes up intermittently in the midst of all that the Spirit of Beauty is blind to. In that case, the third trope does not really contradict the first but confirms it: the beautiful occurs thanks to the void that lets the transitory flashes and the dying flames shine. The result is a decidedly inside-out Platonism. The transitory and inconstant nature of Dasein—its Immersion in “Doubt, chance, and mutability”—is what makes the appearance of the beautiful possible. Human finitude itself is the source of the beautiful. The “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” thus names Intellectual Beauty: the manifold, passing shinings of the material and human world that flash into appearance thanks to darkness and vacancy are all the beauty there is and all that beauty is.


Mont Blanc

From Mood and Trope: The Rhetoric and Poetics of Affect by John Brenkman. 

© 2020 by The University of Chicago. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Let’s now return to earth and sky in their determination as Nature. Once again the problematic gets framed philosophically by Kant, since nature figures centrally in both the beautiful and the sublime in the Critique of Judgment. At the same time, the beautiful and the sublime find a poetic framing in the juxtaposition of Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc.”

The beautiful is luminous and fleeting in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” a transitory flash occasioned by darkness and void. “Mont Blanc” seems on the face of it to affirm something else. Addressing the mountain in the concluding lines, Shelley asks:

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

If to the human mind’s imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy? (142–44)

The Alps are already a point of reference for Kant, especially because of the German translation of Horace-Bénedict de Saussure’s multivolume Voyages dans les Alpes. Saussure (1740–1799), a Swiss geologist, ascended Mont Blanc in 1787 around the time Kant began to conceive the Critique of Judgment. Kant draws on an anecdote in Saussure’s work to illustrate his own notion that the experience and judgment of the sublime in nature requires “a far greater culture” than the experience and judgment of the beautiful: “The good and otherwise sensible Savoyard peasant (as Herr de Saussure relates) had no hesitation in calling all devotees of the icy mountains fools”; what “we, prepared by culture, call sublime will appear merely repellent to the unrefined person. He will see in the proofs of the dominion of nature . . . only the distress, danger, and need that would surround the person who was banished thereto.” There is much suggested by the word “banished” here (or the likewise suggestive “exposed,” in Bernard’s translation). The peasant who inhabits the Alpine valleys and slopes secures there his dwelling, workplace, and livelihood; the glaciers and peaks loom as the inhospitable horizon of his world, a fearsome site of exile and exposure. For the scientist, adventurer, tourist, or poet, by contrast, the same glaciers and peaks arouse a unique sense of grandeur, though Kant does allow that the peasant may be right about foolishness if, unlike Saussure himself, the visitor were to undertake “the dangers to which he there exposed himself, as most travelers usually do, merely as a hobby, or in order one day to be able to describe them with pathos” (§29).

The Alps and the sublime had become an intensely charged element of European culture during the three decades between 1787, when Saussure made what was considered only the second ascent of Mont Blanc, and the summer of 1816, when the Shelleys arrived at Chamonix filled with expectations. They had just toured Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) with Byron, visiting the sites of Rousseau’s Julie, ou, la nouvelle Héloïse and tracing the fictional footsteps of Julie and Saint-Preux. By a stroke of luck they even managed, like Rousseau’s lovers themselves, to sail in a storm on the lake. Simon Schama gives a lively albeit archly ironizing account of the “sublimity tourism on the roads to the Alps” and yet considers Shelley’s poem “one of his darkest and most disturbing.” Saussure, scientist and mountain climber, was also the great-grandfather of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of structuralism. I do not intended to unravel this tangle of geology, philosophy, tourism, language, and poetry so much as to enter into it in the hope of understanding Shelley’s poem and Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime” (§23–29 of the Third Critique).

The philosopher and the poet touch in their respective modes of thinking on the sublime’s relation to the beautiful, its antagonism to superstition, its uncanny relation to human dwelling, and its wrenching of the inner/outer boundary. Even though the philosopher’s concepts and the poet’s percepts and affects will never neatly align, Kant and Shelley share those four themes: inner/ outer, beautiful/sublime, sublimity/superstition, poetry/dwelling.

Kant approaches the sublime, the beautiful, and nature through a sequence of interlocking propositions. The capacity for the aesthetic judgment of the beautiful in art is the precondition for apprehending beauty in nature, but this precedence of art over nature in the formation of aesthetic judgment is counterbalanced by the preeminence of natural beauty insofar as it stirs a moral feeling off to the side, so to speak, of aesthetic judgment. While the cultivated capacity for aesthetic judgment of the beautiful is the precondition for the capacity to experience the sublime in nature, the moral dimension is internal to the aesthetic judgment of the sublime, not merely alongside it. Roughly speaking, there is a sequence in which one facet of aesthetic judgment is the precondition for another facet that in some sense outdoes it: the beautiful in art → the beautiful in nature → the sublime in nature. The sequence is not a simple succession, however, as all three facets of aesthetic judgment in effect coexist. Kant’s procedure for distinguishing among them is designed to account for the underlying harmony among the mind’s three distinct faculties: imagination, understanding, and reason.

As with so many other moments in Kant’s aesthetics, the account of nature in relation to art, the beautiful, and the sublime often rattles the very concepts and categories he deploys. Let’s work through each moment in the sequence.

The beautiful occurs in art and in nature. It is a phenomenon of technē and of physis. What is the relation? On the one hand, “art can only be called beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature,” while nature, on the other hand, is “beautiful, if at the same time it look[s] like art.” That is, the beautiful appears in nature thanks to the observers’ aesthetic disposition and receptivity as already shaped by art, while the beautiful appears in art only insofar as it looks like nature. Looking like nature, though, is not a question of resemblance or imitation for Kant; rather, “the purposiveness in its form must . . . seem to be as free from all constraint by arbitrary rules as if it were a mere product of nature” (§45). As if. On the one hand, we do not “learn from nature what we have to find beautiful,” for then “the judgment of taste would be subject to empirical principles” (§58). And on the other, the artwork is organic and autotelic and hence analogous to nature in the effect of its appearance on the observer. It is this aspect of the artwork that is radically rethought by Heidegger and Deleuze as, in the latter’s phrase, “the self-positing of the created.” It follows from Kant’s account, in keeping with the interpretation I have advanced thus far, that human beings experience the beautiful in nature only because they create art and through it develop their aesthetic sensibility and cultivate their judgment as the urge to persuade. Without art, there is no experience of the beautiful in nature.

Traversing the interlocking movement of nature and art in the reverse direction, there is, Kant asserts, a certain “preeminence of the beauty of nature over the beauty of art.” The art-dependent responsiveness to “the beautiful forms of nature” is accompanied by an interest that does not have a corollary, according to Kant, in the response to art itself. He calls this interest an “intellectual interest,” in order to distinguish it from the instrumental interest in the usefulness of natural entities and from those entities’ mere sensory “charms,” and he sees in it the unqualified affirmation regarding the beautiful in nature that it be:

Someone who alone (and without any intention of wanting to communicate his observations to others) considers the beautiful shape of a wildflower, a bird, an insect, etc., in order to marvel at it, to love it, and to be unwilling for it to be entirely absent from nature, even though some harm might come to him from it rather than there being any prospect of advantage to him from it, takes an immediate and certainly intellectual interest in the beauty of nature. I.e., not only the form of its production but also its existence pleases him, even though no sensory charm has a part in this and he does not combine any sort of end with it. (§42)

Leaving aside possible objections to Kant’s assumption that the artwork in producing the beautiful does not awaken an analogous sense of marvel, love, and pleasure in the work’s very existence, let’s simply follow out his thinking here in order to see the distinction he wants to make regarding the role of the faculties.

The beautiful in nature, as in art, occasions the accord of the faculties of imagination and understanding; that is, it combines the free sensibility to pleasure with the claim to universal agreement. Since no law determines this universality, as the rule derives from the example in the judgment this is beautiful, reason (the mind’s third faculty) plays no part in the judgment itself. Reason’s own judgments yield “pleasure or displeasure” in a “moral feeling” rather than as “taste.” However, reason does take an intellectual interest in the beautiful in nature because there the disinterestedness and universality of judgment are tied to an “objective reality” in the sense that nature (unlike art) is a law-governed domain of necessity. Reason perks up at the experience “that nature should at least show some trace or give a sign that it contains in itself some sort of ground for assuming a lawful correspondence of its products with our satisfaction that is independent of all interest.” Nature otherwise has nothing to do with morality, for it is amoral in itself and is ubiquitously the object of our self-preservative interests and needs. The beautiful in nature lets reason feel that disinterestedness and universality belong in the world. Kant puts this somewhat differently, and quite eloquently, in an early work when he says that “beautiful things indicate that the human being fits into the world.” The beautiful, it will be recalled, is also a “symbol of morality” (§59) insofar as one’s aesthetic judgment esteems the worth of others in claiming their universal agreement. In sum, reason finds an analogy to itself in the beautiful in general and takes an intellectual interest in the beautiful in nature in accordance with its own requirements of freedom, universality, and objectivity. In this way, reason is able to harmonize with the other two faculties, imagination and understanding, even though it has no role in their distinctive interplay in the aesthetic judgment of the beautiful.

The aesthetic judgment of the sublime, by contrast, brings reason into its own interplay with imagination. It hinges on the encounter with nature’s magnitudes and its power. The imagination’s ordering of sensibility is overrun by extreme magnitude: “What is excessive for the imagination . . . is as it were an abyss, in which it fears to lose itself ” (§27). Most especially with absolute magnitude: “The infinite, which for sensibility is an abyss” (§29). The very fact that the mind does not simply unravel in the face of this abyss results from its capacity to form a cogent concept of infinity; such conceptualization is the work of the faculty of reason and does not depend upon the imagination’s ability to gather sensations (“the real of perception”) into sensory-perceptual coherence. Here the inner drama of the faculties, as conceived by Kant, is one in which reason demands of imagination that it endeavor to make the supersensible sensible and then enjoys imagination’s failure to do so as an ultimate affirmation of its own unique grasp of the supersensible. In Kant’s words: “Yet for reason’s idea of the supersensible to produce such an effort of the imagination is not excessive but lawful, hence it is precisely as attractive as it was repulsive for mere sensibility” (§27). The judgment adducing this “conflict” “remains only aesthetic because . . . it represents merely the subjective play and powers of the mind (imagination and reason) as harmonious even in their contrast” (§27). “Harmonious even in their contrast”: Deleuze aptly calls this moment, rather, “a discordant accord.” The affect peculiar to the sublime is explained by this drama of the faculties: “The mind feels itself moved in the representation of the sublime in nature . . . This movement (especially in its inception) may be compared to a vibration, i.e., to a rapidly alternating repulsion from and attraction to one and the same object” (§27). Such is the mathematically sublime.

The dynamically sublime follows a similar but distinct pattern, now with respect to encounters with nature’s overwhelming strength and force. The affect in question is a distinctive permutation of fear, the permutation that supposedly goes over the head of the Savoyard peasant. “We can . . . consider an object as fearful without being afraid of it, if, namely, we judge it in such a way that we merely think of the case in which we might wish to resist it and think that in that case all resistance would be futile.” The sight of volcanoes, lightning, “hurricanes with the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean set into a rage, a lofty waterfall on a mighty river, etc., . . . only becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety, and we gladly call these objects sublime because they elevate the strength of our soul above its usual level and allow us to discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature” (§28).

What precisely is this other strength? Kant’s great innovation is to turn the tables on the superhuman force of natural occurrence as well as the sensible abyss of infinity, for “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power . . . at the same time . . . reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of it and a superiority over nature on which is grounded a self-preservation of quite another kind than that which can be threatened and even endangered by nature outside us, whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.” Pushed one step further, this experience of the gap between nature’s overweening power and the mind’s independence marks out how “nature is judged as sublime . . . insofar as . . . it calls forth our power [Kraft] (which is not part of nature) to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods, health and life) as trivial, and hence to regard its power [Macht] (to which we are, to be sure, subjected in regard to these things) as not the sort of dominion over ourselves and our authority to which we would have to bow if it came down to our highest principles and their affirmation or abandonment.” Self-preservation splits in this conception between life-preserving and value-preserving forces. The sublime affords the experience of this split in a value-heroic fashion: “Thus nature is here called sublime merely because it raises the imagination to the point of presenting those cases in which the mind can make palpable to itself the sublimity of its own vocation even over nature” (§28).

From another angle, Kant’s account of the sublime is a philosophical watershed in the process that Max Weber will call the disenchantment of nature. For millennia, and throughout the Christian era, lightning and thunder as well as droughts and plagues were experienced as  expressions of divine rage. A tradition that pictured the atmosphere and weather as the realm of Satan and his minions, whose evildoings were manifest in fog and foul air as well as hail, sleet, and thunderstorms, lasted well into seventeenth-century Protestantism and reached as far as Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the change articulated by Kant, the fearful in nature ceases to be experienced as a fear of God. That epochal change is part and parcel of a transformation—a maturation, in Kant’s eyes—in the response to God’s power and justness. “The right frame of mind to marvel at the greatness of God” cannot be obtained simply by consciousness that one’s  contemptible disposition” has “offended . . . a power whose will is irresistible and at the same time just.” Rather, only when a person “is conscious of his upright, God-pleasing disposition do those effects of power serve to awaken in him the idea of the sublimity of this being [that is, God], insofar as he recognizes in himself a sublimity of disposition suitable to God’s will, and is thereby raised above the fear of such effects of nature, which he does not regard as outbursts of God’s wrath.” In light of human fallibility and in the face of one’s shortcomings and failings, humility too can be “a sublime state-of-mind, that of voluntarily subjecting oneself to the pain of self-reproach in order gradually to eliminate the causes of it.” Whereas “fear and anxiety before the being of superior power” are founded on superstition, such humility and the upright  disposition are “the way alone” by which “religion internally distinguish[es] itself from superstition” (§28).

The account of nature and God—earth, sky, divinities—in the “Analytic of the Sublime” brings but the radicalness of Kant’s thinking. He in effect lays down two conditions that must be fulfilled before there can be an aesthetic experience and judgment of the sublime. The divine and the demonic must be dispelled from the physical world, and fear of divine retribution must dissolve and be supplanted by a disposition of the will attuned solely to being suitable to God’s will. Fear of God’s righteous wrath is not sublime, and nature’s destructive force is not divine. It’s Kant’s innovation to link these two negations. He conjoins the disenchantment of nature with, in the title of the major work after the Third Critique, religion within the limits of reason alone. The disappearance of the wrathful God from morality disenchants nature by overcoming the affective foundation of superstition. For later thinkers, a moral disposition suitable to the will of a just God need not ultimately affirm the existence of God at all; Habermas, for example, recasts Kantian morality as the formal pragmatics of communicative action in which the tacit pledge to mutual understanding orients the interlocutors toward what is right and just. Kant’s own formulations, by the same token, suggest that morality does not simply and permanently abolish superstition and myth but rather, like enlightenment in general, “is a difficult matter that can only be accomplished slowly” (§40). The upright disposition rises above the fear of nature and of God, and humility subjects oneself to the pain of self-reproach in order to lift one up again. These are processes rather than permanent achievements; while the spontaneity of fear and pain avoidance are overcome by moral action and transformed into respect and self-respect, there is no basis for assuming that such spontaneity can be overcome once and for all.

The sublime stirs turbulence in the conceptual-experiential distinction of inside and outside: “The sublime in nature is only improperly so called, and should properly be ascribed only to the manner of thinking, or rather to its foundation in human nature” (§30). Sublimity belongs to the subject even as he or she attributes it to nature. “Improperly so-called” signifies not a simple mistake, but ineluctable error. The misnomer is a kind of lived metaphor, an experience-structuring trope, which attributes the peculiar quality of elevation in the affect of sublimity to the “object” that occasions it. Recall that this is beautiful is also an as-if-objective judgment for Kant in which one “will speak of the beautiful as if beauty were a property of the object and the judgment logical . . . , although [the judgment] is only aesthetic and contains merely a relation of the representation of the object to the subject” (§6). In aesthetic judgment, whether of the beautiful or the sublime, the subject cannot help but attribute to the object the quality of the feelings aroused within by, in Kant’s terms, the interplay of the subject’s own faculties. By the same token, this interplay of faculties is not purely “subjective” in the ordinary sense because it could not happen without the “object”; likewise, the projected as if still distinguishes the beautiful’s luminous appearance (Schein) from sheer illusion (Schein). The Heideggerian lexicon aims at capturing the entwinement of inner and outer by shedding, or suspending, the terms subject/object altogether. The Kantian as if becomes the being-outside-oneself of attunement and ec-stasis.

In Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” the overwhelming of the senses—the exceeding of the imagination’s power to give sensory coherence to sensation in Kant’s terms—takes the form of an intensification of the senses that culminates in breaching the boundary between what is grasped as the visible outer world and what is sensed as rampant imaginings from within. The vertiginous confusion itself is attributed to the scene (“Dizzy Ravine!”) rather than the self:

Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee

I seem as in a trance sublime and strange

To muse on my own separate phantasy (34–36)

Perception and imagining mingle in an “unremitting interchange” (39), “one legion of wild thoughts” (41) which rises to its climax with the sensation that the mind’s imaginings are shadows projected in the “cave of the witch Poesy” (44) through which “some faint image” of the outer scene itself is sought, until abruptly “the breast / From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!” (47–48). “Thou art there!”: the outer scene breaks through the poetic spell that it itself set in motion; the sensory overabundance of the Ravine of Arve provokes and then halts the poet’s “own separate phantasy.”

Such spiraling movements between scene and mind are woven into the figurative pattern of the poem’s opening two stanzas, where Shelley pushes his propensity for simile and analogy to the verge of meaningless tautology as the mind is likened to a valley and the valley to a mind: “The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind” (1–2) like a river through a valley and produces a torrent of tones “Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—/ Now lending splendour” (3–4) in and to the mind, which itself is like a “feeble brook” feeding and overtaken by “a vast river”:

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 . . . (1–12)

Through this “many-coloured, many-voiced vale” flows the Arve, like “The everlasting universe of things / Flows through mind,” and yet the bursting raving river is itself a likeness:

awful scene,

Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down

From the ice gulphs that gird his secret throne,

at the same time that sky provides the image of earth: “Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame / Of lightning through the tempest” (15–18). Unlike the Coleridgean model of symbol in which the poetic description of outer nature is at the same time the metaphorical evocation of the poet’s inner nature, harmonizing Nature and Self, Shelley’s entangled analogies trace the breakdown of inner and outer.

As in Kant’s “dynamically sublime,” nature is encountered in all its might. Its fearsomeness is immediately, unmediatedly present and yet does not pose a threat. Might inspires awe rather than fear so long as one does not have to flee bodily harm. In the right season and weather, the sublime is an experience that can be sought out in relative security, but the fact that the Shelleys’ 1816 travels in the Alps followed an established touring route in no way undercuts the significance of the experience, nor the originality of Shelley’s attempt to capture it poetically. It does mean, though, that he arrived with expectations regarding what he would see and an awareness of the literary precedents inspired by that landscape. One of those antecedents he  answers intertextually, indeed rebuts, namely, Coleridge’s “Hymn before Sun-rise, the Vale of Chamouni.” Many are the images and paradoxes in Coleridge (“most awful Form”; “thy silent sea of pines”; “I worshipped the Invisible alone”; “Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!”; “eagles, play-mates of the storm”; “lightnings”; “thy sky-pointing peaks”; “Thy kingly Spirit enthroned among the hills”; etc.), that Shelley will echo, all the better to reject Coleridge’s evocation of God as source of sublimity and creator of the scene. Coleridge:

Who made you glorious as the Gates of Heaven

Beneath the keen full moon? Who bade the sun

Clothe you with rainbows? Who, with living flowers

Of loveliest blue, spread garlands at your feet?—

God! let the torrents, like a shout of nations,

Answer! and let the ice-plains echo, God!

God! sing ye meadow-streams with gladsome voice!

Ye pine-groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds!

And they too have a voice, yon piles of snow,

And in their perilous fall shall thunder, God!

Where Coleridge has recourse to God as the unmoved mover, Shelley calls the unseen force moving through the earth and human perception “Power.” And he attributes the power to name Power solely to the “human mind’s imaginings”:

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

If to the human mind’s imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy? (142–44)

Shelley’s agon with the preceding, still active generation of poets also drives the intertextual moment that concludes “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” where he affirms his worship of the Spirit of Beauty for its formative role in his youth and prays for its continuing sustenance—

Thus let thy power, which like the truth

Of nature on my passive youth

Descended, to my onward life supply

Its calm—to one who worships thee,

And every form containing thee,

Whom, Spirit fair, thy spells did bind

To fear himself, and love all human kind (78–84)

—just as Wordsworth affirms his worship of nature in “Tintern Abbey”: “Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.” Against Wordsworth’s Nature, Shelley affirms the beautiful, and against Coleridge’s God, the imagination.

The concluding question of “Mont Blanc”—“And what were thou . . . ?”—clinches a motif that runs throughout the poem. The visible adduces a palpable sense of the invisible: “Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, / Mont Blanc appears,—still, snowy, and serene—” (60–61), while within its visible stillness the ice-encased mountain invisibly gives birth to the roaring Arve. Its glacial landscape is “A desert peopled by storms alone, / Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone” (67). A series of striking images conveys the perception of imperceptibility:

In the calm darkness of moonless nights,

In the lone glare of day, the snows descend

Upon the 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 snow with breath

Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home

The voiceless lightning in these solitudes

Keeps innocently . . . (130–38)

It is now possible to see how the elements of the sublime converge in a new configuration in the three primary events of the Shelleyan sublime: (1) the unmediated contemplation of nature’s overawing might volatilizes inner and outer reality; (2) the ecstatic overabundance of the visible makes the invisible palpable; and (3) the mind’s imaginative capacity in the face of solitude and silence transforms vacancy into images of the unseen and unheard. It is the pulsation among these three that constitutes the sublime in nature. The imaginative capacity at issue is not the faculty of imagination in the Kantian sense of the mind’s power to assemble sensations into sensible coherence through representations of pleasure/displeasure. Or, rather, Shelley’s poem’s percepts and affects are oblique to Kant’s concept. For it is a question now of the artistic or poetic imagination. As Kiefer puts it, the artist (or poet) “directs us to what our senses cannot perceive.”

“Mont Blanc” also provides a different angle on Kant’s notion that the sublime in nature depends upon the beautiful and that the beautiful in nature depends upon the beautiful in art. That the sublime in nature ultimately originates from art is evinced for Shelley in the experience afforded by his own poetic imagination that silence and solitude in the face of mountain, earth, stars, and sea do not yield vacancy. Without art, mere vacancy. Which is to say that artistic or poetic imagination itself originates from—in the sense of emerges out of—vacancy. Such is the movement of Rausch out of Angst that Heidegger fails to articulate. By the same token, imagination is not purely “subjective” or purely the “subject’s.” It is an ec-stasis—transports of the mind and senses, a dissonant attunement—as “the everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind.” As for the beautiful, it scintillatingly appears—is scintillating appearing—according to “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” thanks to darkness, the Spirit of Beauty being “like darkness to a dying flame.” Vacancy and darkness. The nothing and the abyss. These are not simple negations of the cultivated capacity for the experience and judgment of the beautiful and the sublime. They are also its precondition. How is it possible to be both precondition and negation at the same time? Such a notion is implied in Nietzschean Rausch; the frenzy of creation and the rapt attentiveness of receptivity cannot be sustained. In Heidegger’s terms, the aesthetic attunements and artistic acts that override Angst then lapse back into it. Such a rhythmic vacillation is what I have called Dasein’s being enfolded-upon-and-in-strife-with-itself. Shelley’s two poems disclose the nothing in its double aspect of precondition and negation of the artistic state by evoking the temporality of the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is fleeting; the sublime is unendurable.

From yet another angle, what emanates from the configuration in “Mont Blanc” of inner/outer, visible/invisible, vacancy/imagination, is a theme concerning time and formlessness. Mont Blanc rises in majestic stillness and serenity, while

Its subject mountains their unearthly forms

Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between

Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps (62–64)

The sheer formlessness evokes the unimaginable violence of earthquake or volcano hidden in the depths of geological time:

—how hideously

Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high,

Ghastly, and scarred, 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, envelope once this silent snow?

None can reply—all seems eternal now. (69–75)

The earth’s formless forms seem eternal in human perspective; they indeed inform our very sense of eternity while at the same time providing the image of the seismic upheavals and catastrophes that created the landscape we inhabit. Havoc appears in the guise of permanence, the glacial pace of chaos. A double paradox is posed by the formlessness in the sublime: the mountains are unearthly earth and their glaciers and ice forms are an uninhabited city:

there, many a precipice,

Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power

Have piled: 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 . . . (102–8)

This passage invites a rethinking of the boundary that Kant draws between the Savoyard peasant and the cultivated traveler. The peasant’s sense of banishment and exposure as he contemplates “the icy mountains” does not contrast with the Shelleyan sublime so much as give access to it. The emphatic experience of the divide between the hospitable and habitable and the inhospitable and uninhabitable earth is at the core of Shelley’s experience and symbolization of the sublime. When Kant says that “beautiful things indicate that the human being fits into the world,” does he imply, wittingly or not, that the sublime, in contradistinction to the beautiful, registers our not belonging-in-the-world?

Mont Blanc gives a glimpse of earth before humankind (the unmeasured time of “the old earthquake-daemon”) and of earth without humankind (“A city of death . . . Yet not a city”). Mind encounters earth stripped of mind:

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 breath with toil and sound

Are born and die; resolve, subside and swell.

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. The glaciers creep

Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,

Slow rolling on; (92–102)

The predator image likely alludes to the history of the Mer de Glace snaking down the mountain and causing the village of Le Bois, as well as other settlements, to be abandoned in the early seventeenth century, during the Little Ice Age. The power of nature to destroy “the works and ways of men” belongs of course to Kant’s dynamically sublime. But the meaning of the inhospitable earth has today acquired new valences. Just two hundred years after the Shelleys visited Chamonix and Percy wrote this poem and Mary conceived the scene where Victor Frankenstein is confronted by his creature on the Mer de Glace itself, the glacier has melted down and shrunk back to but a semblance of its former self. Less an icy predator of villages and villagers than a serpent’s shed skin, the Mer de Glace has become Europe’s emblem of global warming in the Anthropocene.

The stomach-churning pathos aroused by the receding glacier, whether witnessed firsthand or simply seen in photos and graphs, renders an uncanny inverted twin to the reading of “Mont Blanc.” Moving counter to the awe that Shelley evokes with such unmatched intensity and complexity is the dismay and pity that ecological awareness stirs at the sight of the melting glacier. Nor can the glacier any longer stimulate awe in the historically aware spectator in the form of the Kantian feeling of the mind’s moral superiority to mere physical force, the superior “strength of our soul” and reason over nature. As the sublime evaporates, a new order of fear and danger unfolds within this pity for nature, since among the victims of the anthropocentric hubris of the industrial, technological, and economic forces that alter climate and extinguish whole species is anthropos itself. Dasein—the being that we ourselves are—is the endangering species endangering itself. The very transformations of nature that sustain human life also tear at it; what Marx called humankind’s metabolic interchange with nature has unveiled itself as asymmetrical warfare: the more anthropos exercises its power over physis, that is, its physical rather than its moral power, the more physis threatens to overpower anthropos. The flaw in the pity-for- Nature stance is that nature cannot lose: “Nature cruel in her cheerfulness; cynical in her sunrises,” in Nietzsche’s words (WP 850).