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Example close reading

Below is an example of a close reading written for the module by a now-graduated student. It demonstrates how to focus on the text and balance close reading with cultural context (although is slightly longer than the essays we now ask you to write).

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Mont Blanc' (ll. 1-48)

(Chloe Todd-Fordham)

In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley states:

‘[poetry] creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos […] it compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know’ (954).

In 'Mont Blanc,' Shelley illustrates a vision of familiarity turned to chaos and creates a landscape of ‘dizzying wonder’ (Journal-letter to Thomas Love Peacock) ‘an awful scene’ (l. 15) that terrifies with its immensity. Shelley’s subject is a vast, immeasurable, all-encompassing landscape; an ‘everlasting universe of things’ (1). In 'Mont Blanc,' the reader is, at first, confronted with ‘the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought’ (A Defence of Poetry 949) as Shelley confuses imagery of enormity and confine, interior and exterior, permanence and transience and separates the human mind from the natural world. To Shelley, the mind is no more than a constant creative channel through which nature flows and ‘rolls its rapid waves’ (l. 2). It is the poetic imagination that unites this limitless landscape with the miniature mind. In a ‘trance sublime and strange’ (l. 35), Shelley transforms perception into feeling and knowledge into poetry. The imagination turns ‘some unsculptured image’ confused by ‘many-voiced’ sounds, and ‘many-coloured’ images, into ‘one legion of wild thoughts;’ a unique sensibility exclusive to the individual. For Shelley, the mind and the natural world are organically connected, bound together by the imagination and expressed through the medium of poetry. In exploiting the natural world, Shelley exposes the individual poetic mind.

'Mont Blanc' is a conclusive poem. Certainly it is primarily descriptive but as the poem unfolds and the reader is exposed to more of Mont Blanc, an educative narrative appears which culminates in Shelley’s reasoned assertion in the final three lines of the poem. 'Mont Blanc,' in its entirety, traces the transformation of the naïve and vulnerable poet into the controlled, rational rhetorician and this progression is also apparent in the first two stanzas of 'Mont Blanc.' The first image of the poem is not supported by the comfortable invocation of the subjective ‘I’ as in Clare’s 'I am,' or Keats’ 'Ode to a Nightingale'; instead the speaker of the poem is belittled by a vast landscape, diminished by a terrifying permanence and lost in ‘the everlasting universe of things’ (1). The casual yet precise use of the word ‘things’ in the opening line suggests that Shelley’s natural world is neither specifically located nor easily contained; instead, it is ubiquitous, sweeping and all-inclusive. In comparison, the individual is tiny and alone. The speaker in 'Mont Blanc' is an absent presence. His physicality is swallowed by the aggressive surroundings so that only the restless voice of an overwhelmed mind remains in the poetry.

A clutter of inconsistent images characterises the poetic voice, reducing it to a mere ‘sound but half its own’ (l. 6). In the first two lines alone, Shelley moves from the colossal to the miniature, the exterior to the interior, and the panoramic to the personal. In a tight, controlled, eleven line pentameter verse, the reader is exposed to a slideshow of images which come into focus briefly and then dissolve each into each. Permanent vocabulary – ‘ceaselessly’, ‘forever’, ‘everlasting’ – follows sporadic, fleeting, kinetic verbs; ‘bursts’, ‘raves’, ‘leaps’, passive mountains and constant rocks are attacked by ‘vast rivers,’ while darkness is usurped by light within a single line. The rhythm and movement of lines such as:

‘Now dark, now glittering, now reflecting gloom
Now lending splendour…’ (ll. 3-4)

imitate the constant fading and illumination of images. With the incessant repetition of ‘now’, the line seemingly blinks between dark and light, and the concept of time is lost to the imminent urgency of the word ‘now’. Until line 34, Shelley’s landscape is not exclusively his own; instead it is a collective experience, ‘many-coloured’ and ‘many-voiced’. The vision of 'Mont Blanc' is ‘a dizzying wonder […] not unallied to madness’ (Journal-letter to Thomas Love Peacock 844). Thoughts are likened to ‘chainless winds’, the senses are confused and mingled in lines such as ‘to drink their odours’ (l. 23), dark transforms abruptly into light in the line; ‘…caverns sail / Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams’ (ll. 14-15), and the landscape is filled with this ‘old solemn harmony’ (l. 24), ‘a loud lone sound no other sound can tame’ (l. 31). Nature is both assuredly permanent and restlessly ephemeral. Shelley vividly describes ‘an awful scene’ (15); frightening, savage, destructive and devoid of human contact. With these images, Shelley seeks to overwhelm his reader. Both the reader and the poet are vulnerable and impressionable, their minds exposed to the terrifying force of the natural world.

Paradoxically, fear and irrationality are conveyed in a rigid, formal structure. The iambic pentameter becomes the heartbeat of the poem, driving it forward to a conclusion. Like Mont Blanc, the regular pulse of the metre and the delicately placed rhymes and half-rhymes make the poem an organic construct. Ironically, 'Mont Blanc' is not ‘some unsculptured image’ but is a carefully chiselled poem, from start to finish. Shelley’s oscillating images are seemingly ‘spontaneous overflows’, ("Preface" to The Lyrical Ballads) ‘wild thoughts’ that ‘burst and rave’ but the elevated blank verse suggests that, while Shelley seems forever searching for his own voice in the ‘many-voiced vale’, it is, in fact, there from the beginning. The exclamatory climax to Part II, ‘thou art there!’ is forty-eight lines too late.

When the iambic pentameter does fall apart it is calculated. As ‘the voices in the desert fail’, Shelley is subjected to a dialogue implicit in nature. Both the speaker and the reader are made dizzy by a sickening of the senses and the continual oscillation of imagery. In the following quotation, Shelley employs anaphora, caesura and repetition to create an accumulation of replicated words, an intense build-up of enduring imagery and a didactic, pulsating rhythm which climaxes with the exclamation. ‘Dizzy ravine!’:

‘A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame:
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound…’ (ll. 31-3)

With the expletive ‘Dizzy Ravine!’ there is sudden release and the overwhelmed mind of both the poet and the reader is soothed by the comforting evocation of the subjective ‘I’. Shelley has experienced – in his own words – ‘the sublime’. ‘Dizzy ravine!’ is an ‘awful’ expression of fear, a temporary paralysis of language, a sudden gasp which disrupts the natural rhythm of blank verse; indeed, the shape, movement and pace of the poem in these lines imitates the sensation of the sublime.

With the introduction of the first-person, Shelley claims the language as his own and asserts control. At last, specificity invades the terrifying collage of contradictions cocooned within the mind of the poet, and trapped in the pentameter of Part I; Shelley sees Mont Blanc with a cleansed perspective. As rationalist, Shelley takes possession of the language, vocabulary and metre of the poem; ‘the voices of the desert’ meld into one unique voice and the oxymoronic images of dark and light, sleep and unrest, interior and exterior are arrested in ‘one legion of wild thoughts’ by a formal, empirical - almost scientific and political - language:

‘My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange…’ (ll. 38-40)

Nature and the poetic mind become one and the same thing at this point in the poem. The human mind is a microcosm of the natural world; it is both untamed and tranquil. Just as ‘the woods and winds contend[ing]’ in part I allegorise the divided conscience and the ‘secret springs’ act as a metaphor for the private, unfathomed wealth of the imagination, the mingling of ‘thou’ with the pronoun ‘I’ in lines 34-35 confuses the subjectivity of the poem so that the natural world and the human mind are bound together by the imagination. The human mind is constant and fixed - as is Mont Blanc – while nature is constantly changing and moving – as is Mont Blanc’s verdant decoration; ‘the vast rivers’ and ‘the wild woods’. As Shelley states in a Journal-letter to Thomas Love Peacock, nature and the mind inseparable:

‘…one would think that Mont Blanc was a living being, and that the frozen blood forever circulated through his stony veins’ (844)

Unlike the passive human mind, the imagination is active; it ‘seeks among the shadows’, processes knowledge into art, sorts through the ‘many coloured’ perspectives of a terrifying world and arrives at one single unifying vision, unique to the individual. The imagination is real, unlike the images it creates. Like the material delusion that is poetry, like the artificial literary construct of ‘the gothic’ that Shelley alludes to in the following lines:

‘Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image…’ (ll. 46-47)

poetry, to Shelley, cannot be wholly authentic. Shelley cannot replicate reality as Wordsworth sought to do in The Lyrical Ballads; instead, Mont Blanc is ‘a faint image’ of the natural world. Indeed, in 'Mont Blanc,' Shelley’s vulnerable, frightened speaker arrives at the conclusion that poetry is ‘a mirror which makes beautiful that which it distorts’. (A Defence of Poetry 947) The imagination is a means to control ‘the everlasting universe of things’, to process thoughts and prompt the ‘secret springs’ of poetic expression; it ‘compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know’ (954).

It is ‘in the still cave of the witch Poesy’, ‘among the shadows’, where the imagination marries nature to the human mind. Here, the ‘universe of things’ is no longer alarmingly permanent, idealistic and ‘everlasting’; instead, it is definitive, exact, ‘clear.’ In contrast to the destructive, ‘Power’ that bursts ‘through these dark mountains like the flame’ (l. 19), the final image of Part II is one of softness and tranquillity:

‘Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
[…] In the still cave of the witch Poesy.’ (ll. 42-44)

With the affirmative exclamation ‘thou art there!’ Shelley’s desperate search for external stimuli has led him, not into the wilderness of the natural world, but inside himself, into ‘the still cave of the witch poesy’, to the reality of his own poetic imagination.