Confronting Nature in Radcliffe and Shelley

W. Glasgow Phillips '93 (English 32, Autumn 1990)

"Emily, often as she travelled among the clouds, watched in silent awe their billowy surges rolling below; sometimes, wholly closing upon the scene, they appeared like a world of chaos, and, at others, spreading thinly, they opened and admitted partial catches of the landscape — the torrent, whose astounding roar had never failed, tumbling down the rocky chasm, huge cliffs white with snow, or the dark summits of pine forests, that stretched mid-way down the mountains."

In this section of Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, Ann Radcliffe uses the technique of €word-painting to describe the speaker's surroundings in intricate detail, almost achieving a "cinematic effect" ("Radcliffe and word-painting" Context 32) with language. Shelley also uses this technique in "Mont Blanc" :

Far, far, above, piercing the infinite sky
Mont Blanc appears, — still, snowy, and serene —
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps.

Both writers use specific detail to accomplish their ends rather than vague generalities: Radcliffe does not write that "the clouds looked really weird," and Shelley does not write that "the mountain was really big." No. The phrases "billowy surges rolling below" and "Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky" convey much more about what is being described than "weird" or "big." In addition, the authors use the sounds that their words make to describe the scenes onomatopoetically. The round, hollow sounds in "billowy . . . rolling below," created in the back regions of the open mouth, bring to mind the muffled sounds and shapes associated with clouds; the relatively sharp, thin sound of the vowel "i" combined with the percussive consonants in "piercing the infinite sky" conjures the feeling of altitude and clarity. Both writers begin at the top of the panoramas they describe, sliding down the courses of riverbeds (frozen or not) to the valleys below. This is just the way a viewer would probably see either scene if he were there, first overwhelmed by the majesty of the heights, and then allowing his gaze to pass downward into lower regions.

Radcliffe manages by use of metaphor to evoke the theme that perceptual experience is constantly changing, and that occasionally moments of €epiphany will occur as a result of this constant change. She describes the clouds: "sometimes, wholly closing upon the scene, they appeared like a world of chaos, and, at others, spreading thinly, they opened and admitted partial catches of the landscape . . . . But who may describe her (Emily's) rapture, when, having passed through a sea of vapour, she caught a first sight of Italy . . ?" This description of a concrete visual scene subtly parallels the theme mentioned above. "Mont Blanc" deals with the same theme in its opening lines:

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark — now glittering — now reflecting gloom — now lending splendour," [Norton p. 685].

Shelley is writing the poem from and about a moment of epiphany. He feels that he has a deep understanding of the nature of things as he looks at the mountain later in the poem:

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 (himself)
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel."

Both works function in the context of the Gothic style, which the Norton Anthology defines as "vital, primitive, but irregular . . . with the qualities of the barbarian North." The images in "Mont Blanc" are certainly vital and primitive, and frozen, and Shelley calls up unchristian gods such as "Power in the Likeness of Arve" (p. 685) and "the old Earthquake-daemon"( p. 687). Radcliffe, one of the great Gothic novelists for the content and descriptive detail of her work; the passage above has a wild, chilly feel to it.


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