One of the crucial sections in "Mont Blanc," as well as one of the crucial passages in Romantic literature, deals with the relation of the individual to the surrounding world:
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem 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.
Inspired to look inward by the sight of the river valley, Shelley has a sudden and clear understanding of the workings of his mind: his mind is involved in a constant exchange of information with his environment. Shelley stresses that his mind "passively" partakes in this exchange, implying that he is, in some respects at least, merely a vehicle for the reception and transmission of information. This theme that the poetic mind acts as a passive receiver and transmitter is recurrent in Romantic poetry, most notably in the motif of the Eolian harp, a kind of wind-powered musical instrument, used by Coleridge in a poem named for the instrument and "Dejection, An Ode," as well as by Shelley himself in "Ode to the West Wind" (Norton p. 331).
This idea of the mind, especially the poetic mind, as a passive receiver and transmitter received much impetus from theories of the sympathetic imagination. Viewed in the technological context computers shows the problematic aspects of this cobnception of the mind. They are capable of assimilating vast sums of information, and rearranging it in various ways. That is essentially what Shelley proposes that the human mind does. Computers , as time goes by, have become able to arrange and manipulate the information they are fed in increasingly complex (one might almost say creative) ways. It is possible to extrapolate that creativity is not necessarily an affair of the "soul," but instead the cognitive ability to relate bits of information in different ways. This is a dehumanizing notion, but probably not one that Shelley, as and atheist and investigator of truth, would have shrunk from on those grounds.
Shelley uses the technique of apostrophizing the inanimate ravine in this passage, as he does throughout the poem, effectively drawing the reader into the dialogue with the environment.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000