When the children of the French Revolution threw off their tyrannical father Louis XVI and their wicked step-mother Marie Antoinette (who, as it turned out, were only like figures in a puppet show, you could pull off their heads, just like that), they thought they were free. But after a while they discovered that they were orphans, and the world which they thought was theirs was really bare and comfortless. . . . My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires. — Graham Swift, Waterland, 1983.
This passage from the novel Waterland has a dual relation to "Mont Blanc." The two intertwined subjects of Swift's passage are revolution (specifically the French Revolution of 1789) and land reclamation. The connections to "Mont Blanc" are subtle connections to nature and human power. Shelley, in "Mont Blanc," depicts a terrifying power of nature held by the mountain and marvels at man's impotence in taming that power. This ineffectuality of man over nature is echoed by the struggles of the Fenmen to control the river's route in Waterland. Further, Graham Swift draws an analogy from the failure of land reclamation to the failure of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution. Finally, the failure of the ideals of fraternité, egalité, and liberté is the historical context in which Shelley writes.
Swift's description of both revolution and land reclamation contain a sense of the inevitability of loss. Land reclamation is a process, the narrator, Crick, explains, of "repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost." Generations of Cricks and Atkinsons in Waterland attempt to reroute or control the Ouse, but the humanly-imposed changes never last for long. The "concept of natural power...in Waterland, as nature dominates the human existence, forever mark[s] the struggle of mankind." (A. Frumovitz, Int.) Shelley relays a similar sense of this human impotence over natural forces in "Mont Blanc:"
. . .the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed. . . .
Crick, the history teacher, reiterates this idea of an illusory change, a temporary one, with regards to the French Revolutionaries. "They thought they were free. . . But after a while they discovered that. . . the world that they thought was theirs was really bare and comfortless." Crick describes the disillusionment of the failure of the ideals of the French Revolution, which was, interestingly, the historical context of Shelley's "Mont Blanc" and other Romantic poems which dealt more directly with the post-revolution disillusionment such as "When the Lamp is Shattered."
In expressing these themes concerning nature and the natural cycles to revolution, Swift and Shelley each use a mixture of dictions. Swift's prose has some "high" phrases ("threw off their tyrannical father Louis XVI:") and some of 1980's common English ("...you could pull their heads off, just like that..."). He packs his prose with short phrases, incomplete sentences that he allows to stand alone, such as the series describing land reclamation: "A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business." Shelley also uses a mix, writing in the Romantic style of enjambments, of emotional and active words, mixed with archaic pronouns and constructions such as "thou art there!" Perhaps by mixing their dictions, Swift and Shelley wished to transcend time, fitting with their timeless subjects of revolution and nature.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000