General context

This passage occurs as Morgan approaches the ascent of Mont Cenis (the standard route for travelling from Lyon in France to Turin). As she notes, "The passage of the Alps, from Hannibal to Napoleon, has been always described as awful and terrific; as something worse 'Than fables yet have feign'd, or fear conceived'" [Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 627]. Expecting the dangerous crossing that previous travellers had described, she is pleasantly surprised to find a new road that allows the passage of their carriage (earlier visitors, she notes, were carried on the shoulders of porters: cf. Gray's account in 1739). Thus, she begins the present paragraph, books are not to be trusted. While the ascent was smooth enough, however, the descent was less pleasant, and may have inspired the account of the dreadful and dangerous aspects of nature: "The winding precipitous road hung suspended for fathoms down, terrace beneath terrace: an arch flung across a gulf, which, when reached, was carelessly trotted across, seemed, as it was viewed from on high, scarce passable by the chamois' foot."

"distrust the promises of books": presumably travel books, especially those that include descriptions of the sublime.

"the unworn expectation": echoes a common trope: expectations that are disappointed, e.g., Wordsworth's first view of Mont Blanc (The Prelude (1805), VI, 452-6).

"But nature never disappoints": This sounds as if she is following Wordsworth, "nature never did betray / The heart that loved her" ("Tintern Abbey" 123-4); but she will be making exactly the opposite point: nature always exceeds our ability to imagine it. See: "the imagination feels the real poverty of its resources."; "the falsity of the trite maxim . . ." and "The mind in such scenes is not raised. It is stricken back upon its own insignificance." In other words, we cannot write nature.

Semplon: contrast with Wordsworth's account in The Prelude (1805), Book VI, especially the transit through the Gondo Ravine (549-72).

"material world": explicitly denies the transcendent or participatory understanding of nature familiar from Wordsworth or Shelley, and (riskily) echoes the contemporary debate on the material basis of life that is echoed in Frankenstein (1818).

"unimitated and inimitable": the inexpressibility thesis. At sublime moments, as we have seen with other writers, expression is said to fail, the abyss or aporia of meaning. (A deficit perhaps made up by recourse to Shakespeare and Milton.)

"horrible imaginings" [Macbeth, I.iii.138]: the first of four references to Shakespeare and Milton, which paradoxically provide an imaginative context for situating the terrors of nature. Macbeth:

                              Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

"science and industry of man": presumably the roads, bridges, galleries, etc., that have begun to thread such mountain regions as Mont Cenis and the Simplon.

"the precipice skreened": cf. the route from Chamonix to Martigny described by Thomas Raffles in 1817. Beyond the Tête Noir: "Here the pathway became extremely wild and difficult, climbing the face of the rocks, and running along the edge of the precipices in the most daring and fantastic style" (Letters during a Tour through some parts of France, etc., p. 188).

"an ideal and proximate peril": Morgan seems to have in mind something like Radcliffe's account of terror (in preference to horror), since the mind can create a prospect more fearful than any literal reality.

"that wander through eternity" [Paradise Lost II, 148]:

To be no more; sad cure; for who would loose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowd up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion?

"its own insignificance": cf. Bourrit on the sublime, "the humiliating, elevated, awful feelings of the soul" (Relation of a Journey 8).

"sublime deformities": verging on an oxymoron; and indicating the inadequacy of framing nature through the sublime.

"reduce man": in contrast with Shelley in "Mont Blanc," who, however, after all his imaginative investment raises the question at the end of the poem whether "Silence and solitude were vacancy?"

"nothing is in conformity with him": i.e., no inward capacities, no forms of consciousness, can accommodate such scenes; no participatory ethic as in Wordsworth.

"the destructive elements": cf. Shelley's "Mont Blanc," where "a flood of ruin" overthrows "The limits of the dead and living world" (107, 113). Apparently in agreement with Byron's principle of Arimanes, the destructive principle of Persian theology (Manfred).

"the mystic womb": the passage as a whole seems to refer to the effect of large volcanic eruptions (e.g., the lava fields left on Vesuvius and Etna would represent "awful stillness and permanent desolation"); at the same time, it suggests a feminized view, that of "mother nature."

"the fallacy of calculation": appears to be a reference to the aspirations of science.

unaccommodated natures [King Lear III.iv.107]: King Lear on the heath has just seen Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom:

Ha! Here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.

"cold performs the effect of fire" [Paradise Lost II, 595]:

Beyond this flood a frozen Continent . . .
Where Armies whole have sunk: the parching Air
Burns frore, and cold performs th' effect of Fire.

"immortal glory": possibly a reference to Napoleon's attack on the Austrian hegemony in Italy, or to Swiss victories over similar oppressors; "their country's struggling rights" seems to refer to either France or Switzerland, and points to the rise of nationalism in Europe. The passage from here to the end of the paragraph seems at odds with the earlier emphasis on the insuperable power of nature and the insignificance of human endeavours: now humans are "disputing with nature in all her potency," etc. This emphasis on material improvement (tunnels, roads) is in marked contrast to Shelley's postulated "faith" evoked by contemplating "Mont Blanc" with its power to "repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe" (79-81).

"coeval": contempory with, at the same time as; i.e., a reference to the creation of the world at the beginning of time.

"pierced the granite": the description matches such feats the new road through the Simplon Pass, built by Napoleon's order in 1802-07.

"made straight": possibly an echo of Luke: "the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth" (Luke 3, 5).

"desert": a term often applied to the desolate summits of the mountain passes of the Alps.

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Document created April 1st 2003