Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway) / Juri Mosidze (Tbilissi)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

'... to me/ High mountains are a feeling'

Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)


Begun in 1809, in Ottoman-ruled Albania, whose fate Byron deplores and whose national costume he advertises with typical ostentation, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is roughly coextensive with the troubled Regency years of British history. A medically tested lunatic on the throne of proud Britannia had been separated from his nation by symbolic aphasia for one full year when, in 1812, the first two cantos appeared. Within a year of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Canto III came out, followed, in 1818, by the last quarter.

Modern in subject matter and as mental disposition, the poem took its paradigmatic protagonist across European chronotopes of identity. It brought along travels in foreign lands, in search of difference, caused by satiation with luxury, and it proposed escapes in the immediate or more remote past, again in search of difference, entailed by boredom and disgust with a mean present. Its title hero was a restless blue-blooded youth, imposing upon himself willed aphasia, intent on finding fulfillment in natural isolation. It was a declaration of intention, and the certificate of a modern lifestyle, one including tourist activities as part of daily existence, and that in more than merely the aristocratic quarters of the social edifice. Among the weird reactions of this hero of the times was the realization that the harder the access to the recesses of wild nature, the deeper his satisfaction. '[T]o me/ High mountains are a feeling', Harold declares at one point, anticipating, as it were, the magic mountain complex and its apposite therapy.

The supercilious infante rambles across Belgium, along the Rhine Valley, and up in the Jura Mountains. His Swiss peripateia includes the one big must, the Alps, which exert a special fascination on him. Each and every solitary place - and he determinedly looks for such places - puts him in mind of crucial events or people, to the effect that space reads into time with the symbolic force of felicitous coincidences. Suffice it for Harold to cast a glance at this or that letter writ large in the Book of Nature, for the reservoir of memory to be activated and the ghostly past to become bodied present. Likewise, in Canto IV, the evocation of celebrated Italian cities instantly resurrects the great dead, from Dante and Petrarch, to Boccaccio and Tasso. Pride of place is given to Rousseau, the 'self-torturing sophist', 'the apostle of affliction', who 'from woe/Wrung overwhelming eloquence' (III, lxxvi, 1-4). Engaged in a colossal work of new education, Rousseau could only see his Émile victorious through the pedagogy of Mother Nature, the only guarantor of freedom, the true nurse of genuine curiosity, and protector of personal intimacy in the face of a more and more intrusive urban milieu.

The shift occurring between the first recorded experience of the Alps in European culture - Petrarch's climbing Mt. Ventoux on 26 April, 1335 - and Rousseau's emotional experience of the Alps is now food for cultural taxinomy. For theorists of Romanticism like J.H. Van den Berg, the former is the assimilation of convention: Petrarch simply sees 'the landscape behind Mona Lisa'. Four hundred years later, Rousseau 'lays the foundations of the great change' by defining a 'sense of nature' in his Confessions (Van den Berg, 62). It becomes the fashion to visit Switzerland and climb the Alps, to 'Rousseau it', instead of 'Petrarching it', to see in the Alps a tourist attraction and chic challenge, where, so far, the Alps had been an obstacle and undesirable, therefore preferably avoidable challenge.


The Alps are not singular in an imagological geography for our current use. Reputedly the Urals are the easternmost border of the Western world. When Russia became a sensitive and sensible issue on the European accession agenda, the Urals were symbolically swallowed up. This resulted in Eastern Europe being promoted to a more embracing Central European status, and cultural divides being revisited or downright revised. Landscape, in other words, can be political (Warnke: 1994), as Harold's case undoubtedly proves. Without and within, landscape can be invested with classificatory power. For the proud Roman masters of our common antiquity the Mediterranean was lacus nostrum, a thing Ferdinand Braudel was to theorize two millennia later (Braudel, 1949). Dipped in the ink of cultural identity, the pen writes a text called the 'English Channel', which reads as 'la Manche' on the opposite coast. But landscape features on the political map within, as well: the Closed City of the emperors stands in symmetrical height to the Chinese Wall, to insulate the Kingdom of Heaven from merely the world around. None of these is devoid of anthropological valorization.

The Alps as European border within Europe had been on the map of the human mind before Roman history, though, of course, Hannibal's crossing this celebrated threshold with a caravan of elephants, to take Rome, remains a chronotopic point of reference. To this day, the southern mountainous range in Romania has remained in the collective memory as 'the Carpathian Alps'. Alpine activities, alpinist fervour and related enterprises may sound Latinite enough, but the etymological relation with Alba, of which the romanticized 'perfidious Albion' points to old Indo-European, if not earlier times. Be it as that may, when the Alps entered the Grand Tour circuit as a sine qua non link in the chain of initiatory encounters across the Continent, the mere imitation of Rousseau's experience set the model. It marked attitudes with a sense of model things to do and sealed off a fashion, a mode: rambling at the foot of the mountain, ecstatically gazing at its snow-capped tops, piercing the spotless azure of the diaphanous skies, getting lost in a world of the impossible turned possible. In a word, it meant a new dimension within the ken of the race, something like Keats' experience of Homer's universe, via imaginary travels 'in the realms of gold'. Like the London poet's discovery, the Byronic hero's exploration was an eye-opener.


According to Petrarch, in De remediis utriusque fortunae (I, 4), we appreciate a thing aesthetically by defining it as gratior: 'more graceful'. This is so because of what we find in it, 'non rem ipsam, sed spectantium iuditia respicit': 'not the thing in itself, but what the beholders think of it' (Tatarkiewicz: 293). As an emotionally involved beholder, Laura's eulogist invests the mountainscape with as potent a fluid as he does the seascape. In effect, in his ramblings Petrarch writes the name of his beloved on the all-encompassing pages of nature and despairs to see his tear-bathed graphs washed off by sea waves or blown away by mountainous gales. From Mount Ventoux, Petrarch takes in a vastness of a vista, something almost unattainable in his day. The sublimity of nature in his epiphanic fit precedes its cultural sedimentation that we owe to Burke. Petrarch's effacement of background and foreground landscape in his epoch-making ascension 'rather than indicating emancipation from the vicious circle of European anthropomorphism is merely a more subtle assertion of the latter' (Plesu: 17). From this, it will be one step to the internalized landscape of caves, depths and heights of the soul or the heart.

'No two words were more fixedly associated in the mind of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries than 'Nature' and 'simple'. Consequently the idea of preferring nature to custom and art (...) carried with it the suggestion of a program of simplification (...); it implied primitivism' (Lovejoy, 13). Eighteenth-century debates register repeated pendulum swings between natura and cultura, valorizing the former mostly in terms of the latter. Historians of ideas have pointed to this. Spitzer (1967: 6) detects as many as seventeen meanings attributed to the word 'nature' in the 1700's. Lovejoy, again, draws the basic divide. There is 'nature' as those inborn attributes 'which are most spontaneous, unpremeditated, untouched by reflection or design, and free from the bondage of social convention', and 'nature' as the external world designating those parts of the universe which come into being independently of human effort and contrivance' (1948: 238).

As early as 1712, Addison remarks in The Spectator, No. 412, that surprise 'gratifies [the Soul's] Curiosity', because 'whatever is new or uncommon contributes a little to vary human Life, and to divert our Minds, for a while, with the Strangements of its Appearance'. It is particularly effective as 'a Kind of Refreshment' as it can curb 'that Satiety we are apt to complain of in our usual and ordinary Entertainments', and it is the one factor that 'bestows Charms on a Monster, and makes even the Imperfections of Nature please us'. Abrams's famous theodicy of the landscape sets in contrast the Palladian standards of beauty and the Romantic taste for the harsh, the irregular, and the terrifying, already burgeoning in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. In The Sacred Theory of the Earth, of 1726, Thomas Burnet, conceives of the world as created 'smooth, regular, and uniform; without Mountains, and without a Sea' (1973: 97). In the 1640's, Gerrard Winstanley's New Law of Righteousness had relegated 'mountaines, and valleys, and hils, and all unevennesse' to our inherited sinfulness (1973: 163). Later mathematical and mechanistic valorizations of order only confirm this sincere horror of whatever is erratic. Security and peace guarantee the 'legal nature' of controlled hazard (Lenoble, 220).

We will remember that during their picaresque exploits, Tom Jones and his friend Partridge make the acquaintance of the Man of the Hill, a 'great traveller', a 'man of (...) sense and knowledge' (1975: 429), who has completed his Grand Tour experience. Knowledgeable about human diversity in mores and manners, this 'contemplative beholder of the works of the omnipotent Author' (430) has grown into a misanthrope. Fed up with the detestable spectacle of human decay, the Man of the Hill seeks for solace and pleasure in the isolation of nature. While, in the 'solemn gloom which the moon casts', Partridge shudders at the sheer sight of mountain tops, the recluse finds it 'beyond expression beautiful' and able to cultivate 'melancholy ideas' (397). In Defoe's Tour, a collier comes out of the mining pit to see a flabbergasted tourist unable to take in the idea of subterranean reality.

The sublime spectacle of fathomless depths and measureless heights stands at the other extreme from the spectacle of beauty, which, for Johnson's and Fielding's rationalistic age is arrested in the illustrious formula 'small is beautiful'. Thus beauty translates as the direct experience of a pleasurably harmonious landscape: 'the sort of sense [people] have had of being swiftly drawn in an easy coach on a smooth turf, with gradual ascents and declivities' (Burke, in Moore: 60). Sublimity, in exchange, rooted in the 'emotion of terror' (Monk, 27), is cultivated by a poetry of graveyards and ruined castles, as well as by vastness, infinity and power, as in mountains and precipices.

Horace Walpole writes something similar to this in his Anecdotes of Painting in England, of 1762. A beautified sublimity transpires from the imagination of poets and painters, whose 'sunny hills, (...), grottoes (....), cooling breezes, (...) rocks, (...) precipices and castellated mountains' are all imitations of Virgilian topoi, while 'our ever verdant lawns, rich vales, fields of haycocks and hop-grounds are neglected as homely and familiar scenes' (Woodall: 3). Walpole's delight in the gothic, that is, is emphasized to the disadvantage of rational control. Gainsborough himself dreams of getting lost in the rural wilderness, but he will take his viola-da-gamba, on which, as on his canvas, the wild will be tamed. Everyman with his 'claude glass' or 'landscape mirror' softening the wrinkling bumpiness of the landscape into the well-brushed unruffledness of 'landskip'.


Once in Switzerland, '[t]he majority of tourists preferred to cross the Alps (...). Most tourists then saw mountains for the first time' (Black: 32). Pococke's adventure of being carried in a sedan chair, exactly the way Gray and Walpole were, on winding Alpine routes, competes with Brand's, later in the century. The latter already has an eye for 'extravagant exaggerations of danger', as he is carried 'under some fright' to see 'hoary mountains', 'down a step stony road with sharp angles' (33). The Fourth Earl of Rochford is reported to have been a fortnight in the Savoy Alps, which time he spent 'visiting glaciers and collecting minerales', delighted, like an anonymous traveller before him, by the 'romantick views [of] the high mountains' (33). A Cantabrigian acquitting himself of the Grand Tour duty in 1740 stayed a while in what was to become the Shelleyan display of sublimity - 'the vale of Chamouni', with Mont Blanc 'gleam[ing] on high' and 'the power [being] there,/ The still and solemn power of many sights,/And many sounds, and much of life and death'.

A poem entitled The Alps, by George Keate, came out in 1763, and in the process made the natural frontier across the Continent the more admired. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, great grandfather of Ferdinand and celebrated geologist and mountaineer of his day, got to the peak of Mont Blanc for the set purpose of admiring glaciers and collecting rock samples. He too was fascinated by the eternal layers of snow mingling with clouds above range after range of cliffs. In 1777, the naturalist Sir Joshua Banks brought from Iceland lava stones from the volcano Hekla and establishes the first rock garden in England with a publicly accepted display of exotic nature. Even the elaborate wildness of landscape painting of the day gets infected by the weird taste for the unruly and unruled: picturesque scenery, rustic scenes, farming environments, and rural figures engaged in typical occupations coexist with fictive steepness, especially mountains seen from close to emphasize the terrific.


Visiting the Western Islands of Scotland, in 1775, Dr. Johnson establishes a philosophical-aesthetic category in its own rights called 'mountains'. Philosophically considered, that is, with rational means, the height of mountains is computed from the surface of the next sea. When they affect the eye or imagination of the traveller, tough, mountainous heights make either a spectacle or an obstruction. Mountainous regions are places of secrecy, of old age and uncorrupted nature. Truly, they can offer shelter to those adverse to society, but they are also places where courage and bravery reign. To Johnson's rationalistic mind, mountainous regions are enclaves untouched by commodities for sale, thus providing niches of primitive roughness in a world open to commerce. Perfectly aporetic, they are at the opposite pole from harbours, the wondrous pores of modern exchanges and human inventiveness. As he travels with his friend Boswell to the Hebrides, Johnson arrives at Loch Ness to observe that it is much pleasanter to sit at home and conceive rocks, heath, and waterfalls, thus sparing oneself the toil of useless labours up and down mountain paths.

If we accept that '[t]he Nature of most of the romantics is simply an emotionalised version of the Reason of the philosophes' (Cobban, 136), it will be fairly easy to follow this translation move in a transitional figure. With the lessons of Rousseau learnt, namely, that 'private emotion and intimate experience' are part and parcel of 'direct literary expression' (Hough: 19), Thomas Gray acknowledges that prose is flat, and that poetry needs to strike the race in their fancy, ear and the heart. He is fond of lonely walks by the lake, and of 'hill-tops, deep serene waters, and long shadows of mountains' (23). Cultivated wildness, like extravagant utterances, is a form of rambling out of common habits (extra-vagare). Peter Schlemihl, the romantic mountaintop stroller, was to leave behind the pleasure of mountainous nomadism, something we could call montivagare.


Thus Childe Harold. Longing for something far away, 'beyond the sea', he feels attracted by 'the shades below' (I, vi, 7, 9). Throughout his peregrinations, Harold seeks the invisible, the hidden, the unnerving, convinced that this will provide a much-desired and needed cure. Where he does not fall upon it, he digs the unruly out of the layers of history. The decay of Greek culture sends him to wild nature, as does the vale of tears of this 'world of woe' (III, v, 1). He is confident that he will find spiritual rebirth in nature, once he abandons the adverse world. A rebel, and proud to be so, he wants '[a] life within itself, to breathe without mankind' (III, xii, 9). Here is Harold, in the Swiss wilderness:

Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends,
Where roll'd the ocean, thereon was his home;
Where a blue sky and glowing clime, extends,
He had the passion and the power to roam,
The desert, forest, cavern, breaker's foam
Were unto him companionship; they spake
A mutual language, clearer than the tome
Of his land's tongue, which he would oft forsake
For Nature's pages glass'd by sunbeams on the lake.
(III, xiii)

Carl Becker concludes that, 'having denatured God, [the philosophes] deified nature' (63). The reverse, of course, happens in romantic poetry, where God is embellished with the attributes of Supreme Poet. The homologation extends further, with great men sharing the sumptuous appearance of wild nature, and the poet himself feeling one with them. Napoleon is like '[h]e who ascends to mountain-tops' to reach symbolic 'loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow' (III, xlv, 1, 2). To the set image of physical ascent, Byron adds the allegory of power:

He who surpasses or subdues mankind,
Must look down on the hate of those below.
Though high above the Sun of Glory glow,
And far beneath the Earth and Ocean spread,
Round him are icy rocks, and loudly blow
Contending tempests on his naked head,
And thus reward the toils which to those summits led.
(III, xlv, 3-9)

Like Napoleon, the poet is raised to the dignity of superhuman height with only the divine quarters above. In between the Alps stand, majestically looking down on futile human endeavours, aspiring to divine stature, eminent and sublime:

Above me are the Alps,
The palaces of Nature, whose vast walls
Have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps,
And throned Eternity in icy halls
Of cold sublimity, where forms and falls
The avalanche - the thunderbolt of snow!
All that expands the spirit, yet appals,
Gather around these summits as to show
How Earth may pierce to Heaven, yet leave vain man below.
(III, lxii)

By extended equation, indeed, the poetic I and the mountains become one, as do the waves below and skies above. Like the wandering Wordsworthian cloud floating lonely 'on high, o'er Vales and Hills', Harold's poetic soul soars to the firmament of liberation, indeed to feel firm far from the bondage of worldly slavery. In Canto IV, the rambler goes on a pilgrimage to the Temple of Nature very much like Wordsowrth's youth, 'still nature's priest', in The Immortality Ode, carrying within himself the seal of the innermost image of glory.

The Alps also feature in Manfred, where the Gothic gallery that hosts the inceptive scene serves as a preface to Manfred's castle hanging on rugged Alpine heights. Aware of human vanity, the mysterious outcast finds appropriate abode in a 'Lower Valley in the Alps', where he converses with a 'Cataract (...) and the Witch of the Alps' (II, ii). Enchanted nature plays the role of storehouse for his 'spirit [which] walk'd not with the souls of men' (II, ii, 51). The Caucasus, in Heaven and Earth, A Mystery, is itself an Alpine presence in whatever sense of the word: it seems 'unfathomable (...), so varied and so terrible in beauty', a 'rugged majesty of rocks' (I, iii, 2, 3, 4). It holds in its deep bosom enormous reserves of energy which, like the mighty fountain in Kubla Khan, could at any point rearrange the relief of the world. Mountains reach heaven with their head because they have their feet steeped deep in hell. Of this cosmic marriage are born the restless poetic souls for which high mountains are a feeling.

© Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)


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