This passage illustrates the prevalent Romantic theme that there is no purely objective reality: human consciousness "[holds] an unremitting interchange with the clear universe of things around"(39-40), both perceiving and creating nature. When the narrator looks at the ravine, he "[seems] as in a trance sublime and strange to muse on my own separate phantasy, my own, my human mind, which passively now renders and receives fast influencings." The narrator cannot look upon nature without looking also upon his own mind, because the two are inextricably connected. The narrator's "human mind" both "renders and receives". In "Tintern Abbey," the narrator describes a similar relationship with nature. He loves in nature "all that we behold / From this green earth; of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear, - both what they half create, / And what perceive . . ." (104-107) His mind, too, both perceives and creates, both absorbs and projects. Reality for both of these narrators is a product of the interaction between human consciousness and the world of things. The narrator in "Tintern Abbey" states that there exists "in the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that . . . rolls through all things" (99-102), while in "mont Blanc" "The Everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves . . ." (1-2)
Though both Shelley and Wordsworth wish to convey a similar message (evident in the preceding passages) concerning the interaction between nature and human consciousness, they confront their readers in different manners. The reader of "Tintern Abbey" adopts a passive role in relation to the narrator. Because for the first three stanzas the reader believes that she is the narrator's only audience, the reader automatically identifies with the narrator's intended audience (his sister) when she is introduced. Thus, when the narrator commands his sister through strong, imperative verbs such as "let" in lines 134 and 136 and "wilt" in lines 149 and 155, he also commands the reader. The narrator of "Tintern Abbey" knows what he thinks and commands the reader, through his orders to his sister, to think in the same way. The narrator of "Mont Blanc" interacts more with the reader, allowing the reader to adopt a more active role. He qualifies line 49 with "Some say", implying that some also do not say, leaving it up to the reader to decide which postion is closer to the truth. The poem is dotted with questions: "Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death? or do I lie / In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep/ Spread far around and inaccesibly / Its circles?"(53-57); "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?" (71-74). These questions stimulate the reader to consider her own experiences and own answers. By closing the poem with a question ("And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings Silence and solitude were vacancy?") Shelley provides the reader freedom to ponder the ultimate question of "what were "[Mont Blanc]" without "the human mind's imaginings." Wordsworth does not grant the reader of "Tintern Abbey" such freedom; the narrator tells the reader with absolute certainty the answers he has gleaned from personal experience. In "Mont Blanc", answers are suggested throughout the course of the work, but the ending question plunges the poem into the realm of infinite doubt.
Perhaps the freedom granted the reader of "Mont Blanc" is a reflection of the freedom with which Shelley lived his own existence. Shelley perpetually challenged the traditional confines of his life: he was expelled from school, he was an atheist, he eloped with two different women and fell in love with several others, he estranged himself from his father. (p661f-662) Not surprisingly, he pushes the reader to challenge the traditional confines of her own mind. Wordsworth lived a much more traditional lifestyle. He was a religious conservative. (IN: "Nature in Shelley's 'Mont Blanc'") He graduated from Cambridge, and from his interest in becoming a tutor (p141), one might guess that he believed in the principles of didacticism. His grounding in traditional education might account for his more didactic approach to the reader.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000