Glaciers, an integral feature of any mountainous landscape, were the focus of interest, curiosity and admiration for many travelers in the Romantic period, especially those in the Swiss region of Chamounix. During the 18th and 19th century, four of the voyagers who wrote excerpts on the glaciers were Coxe, Bourrit, Ramond and Shelley; these travelers made similar comparisons to each other regarding the nature of glaciers and the emotions evoked upon their viewing.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was not a significant amount of scientific information known about the character of glaciers and therefore these travelers would not have had nearly the same exposure to factual information as a visitor in modern times. Even without the modern knowledge, the four writers make a diligent attempt to formulate words to describe the indescribable and unfamiliar, and to explain the nature, formation and behavior of glaciers.
The initial description of the glaciers offered by each writer is in regards to the immense size in non-descript factual and numerical terms, for instance Coxe states that the ice ranges rise "abruptly from their base and parallel to each other" and Bourrit analyses the height of Mount Blanc with mathematical descriptions "when that height is thirty or nearly forty times increased upon a base proportionally massive…". Faced with such massive and overwhelming landscape features, it was probably an element of comfort to associate a numerical perspective in order to better understand the height of the monumental masses in relation to the self. The writers are in general agreement that glaciers are an aspect of the landscape which is hard to describe and formulate words concerning their appearance; this was mainly due to the unfamiliarity and even strangeness of glaciers upon first sight. For instance, Coxe expresses difficulty in describing the glaciers with the sentence beginning "I can no otherwise convey to you an image of this immense body of ice…" and Bourrit states that Mount Blanc "especially produces a sensation which is very difficult to express." It is understandable that the travelers were almost at a loss for words when viewing immense images such as mountains and glaciers because if viewing for the first time with little background knowledge, the effect would have been powerfully overwhelming. The glaciers were very different from picturesque and familiar aspects of the scenery such as lakes and meadows, and the sheer enormity of the glaciers would have rendered it difficult to formulate a description that could be appreciated by anyone who had not ever seen one.
In some instances, words cannot adequately achieve the same meaning, effect and impact that an image conveys; therefore it would have been difficult to achieve a parallel between visual and textual when describing the appearance of the glaciers.
In order to familiarize the unfamiliar, some viewers sought to compare the appearance of a glacier to something more familiar in order to gain a better understanding (a view simultaneously explored in presentation by Anne, Khagan and Luke). For example, Bourrit describes Mount Blanc as an obelisk and then further along in his passage characterizes the Bossons Glacier as similar to "a prodigious citadel built with strong towers;" Ramond offers another perspective by likening the mountains with their glaciers to an immense desert covered by a uniform carpet. Making these comparisons was a way for the travelers to associate an element of familiarity, thereby diminishing the strangeness of the unfamiliar. The comparisons likely allowed the travelers to feel more at ease in the environment and feel less threatened by the sheer size and overwhelming nature of the glaciers. It is interesting that Coxe, Bourrit and Shelley all express a very similar viewpoint of the formation of glaciers, comparing them to vast bodies of ice which have frozen suddenly during a violent storm. These comparisons illustrate the presumed violence of nature as a symbol for glacial appearances, and the abruptness of the formation may indicate the feelings of inferiority of the viewer as well as a sense of the power which the glacier exerts over the landscape. The violence of the storm which formed the glacier may act as a symbol for the feared violence of glacial activity, such as ice and rock avalanches and the constant breaking and bursting of some of the layers of ice. The power of the glacier captured in Bourrit's description: "A sea vehemently agitated by a storm and arrested by a severe sudden frost represents very well the appearance of this Glacier."
Another method of familiarizing the unfamiliar was for the writers to display their knowledge of the nature and behavior of the glaciers and pose theories towards the impact of glaciers on the surrounding environments. Coxe seems to have sufficient knowledge of formation of the chasms and estimating their depth, Bourrit speculates on the cause of the heaps of ice at the bottom of glaciers, and Ramond and Shelley probe extensively into the topic of glacier increase and advancement. Glaciers were likely a feature of great curiosity and fascination because of their unfamiliarity and their active role in nature; the constant shifting and breaking of the ice as well as great cavern and chasm formation would excite those of a scientific and non-scientific background alike. Ramond and Shelley present perspectives on glacier advancement in a tone of active urgency, almost similar to modern theories of global warming and climate change. Glaciers are described in their viewpoint as threatening and violent elements of nature, which are slowly wreaking havoc on the local environment by consuming everything in their pathway as they advance upon the countryside. Although in scientific reality the glaciers were actually only advancing quite slowly, the tone of urgency and the dramatic language presented by Ramond and Shelley would lead one with no background knowledge to assume that glaciers were actively consuming the local landscape and threatening entire communities. The essence of the threat of glacial increase is captured in Ramond's quote "it menaces every communication; the most fruitful pasturages are threatened by its invasions" and Shelley's quote "these glaciers flow perpetually into the valley, ravaging in their slow but irresistible progress the pastures and forests which surround them." The passages would be quite alarming to a reader who wasn't accustomed to the nature and behavior of glaciers, and the severity of the tone makes the perceived threat and impact greater than it actually was.
A very important aspect of the scenery was the relation to the sublime, a popular element of travel texts, and each of the four travelers incorporate components of the sublime into their writing about glaciers. The violence of nature and the disruptive activity of glaciers was a commonality that rendered a general agreement between the writers and indicated the level of fear towards these enormous towers and sheets of ice. Coxe explores the violence of nature surrounding glaciers when he explains the storm activity as the party was leaving the glacier: "(the tempest) soon became very violent, attended with frequent flashes of lightning and loud peals of thunder." This observation on the violent storm relates to the concept of dynamic sublime in that the storm activity was more physically powerful than Coxe himself and therefore forceful enough to cause harm. A level of fear towards the powerful storm is indicated as Coxe recognizes the need to leave the glacier immediately before the storm renders the ice slippery and produces fog. The storm passage is a central component to the idea of the sublime because it is believed that "of all natural scenery, the ocean, agitated by a violent storm attended with thunder and lightning, is perhaps the most capable of filling the mind with sublime emotions (Ashfield and de Bolla, 1996)." Since sublimity must rouse an elevated sense of emotion within an individual, a violent storm is the ultimate in producing a combination of fear and astonishment and giving a deep sense of the power and fury of nature. Bourrit discusses the fissures and clefts of the Mer de Glace glacier and the active nature of the ice as it cracks and bursts to form new clefts. For a first time visitor, the activity of the ice shifting and breaking would produce a feeling of fear and uneasiness; a feeling which would be heightened in those venturing across the glacier. Shelley also examines the power and violence of nature as he describes the constant activity of the ice: "masses of ice detach themselves from on high, and rush with a loud dull noise into the vale." There is a commonality among the writers that the power that the glaciers exhibit induces a sense of fear due to the sheer size and constant activity in terms of breaking, avalanches, rockfall and other motions. In relation to the dynamic sublime, the sense of fear would be partly due to the fact that the glaciers were significantly more physically overpowering than the individual.
The travelers also express feelings of terror, horror and a sense of danger due to the unfamiliarity and forcefulness of the glaciers. Marshall describes, in his brief examination of the sublime, how sublime features in the landscape produce heightened emotions and have a degree of danger (real or imaginary) associated with them (Ashfield and de Bolla, 1996). Glaciers were able to bring about a heightened emotional level due the perceived terror that an accident might occur while crossing, or the terror associated with their foreboding and inhospitable appearance. Several travelers discuss the dangers associated with crossing the glaciers, such as an enlarged chasm or fracture, and the difficulties of ascending the mountains to access the glacier. Though none of the travelers personally experienced danger, there would have been an elevated level of perceived harm to the self due to the unpredictable nature of the ice. This idea is captured in Bourrit's quotes "one trembles at the idea only of such an accident" when he describes a glacier crossing and "but the apprehension of danger, in being exposed to the fall of fragments from so brittle a fabric, made us draw more towards the right" in the description of the Bossons Glacier.
Another aspect of the sublime which is expressed by the four writers is the feeling of awe and astonishment, which is usually accompanied with feelings of terror. Sublime objects, such as mountains and glaciers, produce sentiments of majesty, grandeur, superiority and causes an increase in emotions almost to the point of overwhelmed speechlessness. The mind becomes active as it tries to accommodate the different emotions and stretches the limits of imagination as the eye and mind attempt to work in unison to understand and appreciate the sublime objects. For several visitors to the glaciers, the journey was as much a mental one as a physical, as a variety of new emotions were acquired and individual points of view expanded to accommodate these new emotions. Feelings of awe and astonishment are captured by the four writers in various views of the glaciers in their environments. Coxe expresses feelings of awe as he describes the appearance of the Needles, sharp mountain points extending above the clouds. Bourrit perfectly captures the extent to which terror and astonishment coincide in his description of actively admiring and marveling over the mountains, but at the same time reflecting with horror on the "eternal frozen lake" of the glacier with its "yawning clefts and deep abysses." Bourrit's increased mental activity is captured in the quote "our minds voluptuously employed in the contemplation of so many wonders" and his imagination has become active as he strives to express the beauty and of the scenery combined with the perception of danger. Awe and astonishment in relation to increased mental activity is captured in the last section of Ramond's text, in the belief that "the eye (is) lost in the immense chaos of mountains which it surveys, thinks it beholds a universe, and this universe is but a point when it contemplates the azure space in which we wander." It is the belief that the activity of the mind when contemplating sublime features of a landscape cannot be distracted or misled; concentration therefore becomes fixed and the mind is alive with accumulating new perspectives on nature. The final writer, Shelley, although not in a state of amazement like the other writers, describes the glacier of Montanvert as a "scene of dizzying wonder" and comments on the fascination at seeing the summits of the mountains and the ice formations. A sense of appreciation, fascination, curiosity, astonishment and amazement is incorporated into the four travel texts and there is a sense of the overwhelming grandeur of the sublime landscapes of mountains with their glaciers.
In conclusion, one finds several similarities among Coxe, Bourrit, Ramond and Shelley when analyzing their notes on glaciers. For those who traveled to view the glaciers in Switzerland, the scenery would have greatly elevated the senses and emotions and produced feelings of awe, horror, astonishment, terror and wonder. Writers strove to find words to be able to describe these enormous areas of ice and to obtain knowledge into their appearance, structure and function. A visit to the glaciers would have been an incredible experience, as the both the mental and visual fields interacted to accommodate such grand scenery.
1) Anne, Khagan and Luke. Three Views of Chamounix. Presented in Romantic Travellers class on March 24, 2005.
2) Bourrit, MT. A Relation of a Journey to the Glaciers in the Dutchy of Savoy. From website by Miall, David. Romantic Travellers. Course Home Page. January 2005-May 2005. Dept. of English, University of Alberta. March 26, 2005 http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/Glaciers.htm
3) Coxe, William. Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland; in a series of Letters to William Melmoth, Esq. From website by Miall, David. Romantic Travellers. Course Home Page. January 2005-May 2005. Dept. of English, University of Alberta. March 26, 2005. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/Coxe-Williams.htm
4) Marshall, William. From A Review of the Landscape, a Didactic Poem, 1795. in The Sublime: A Reader in British 18th Century Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Ashfield, Andrew and de Bolla, Peter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
5) Ramond, M. Observations on the Glaciers. From website by Miall, David. Romantic Travellers. Course Home Page. January 2005-May 2005. Dept. of English, University of Alberta. March 26, 2005. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/Glaciers.htm
6) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. History of a Six Weeks Tour. From website by Miall, David. Romantic Travellers. Course Home Page. January 2005-May 2005. Dept. of English, University of Alberta. March 26, 2005. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/Shelley1.htm