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Première partie : Montagnes poétiques et esthétiques

In Sight of Mont Blanc: an Approach to Ruskin’s Perception of the Mountain

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty
p. 37-44


Dans sa biographie, Praeterita, John Ruskin décrit son premier aperçu des Alpes comme "not only the revelation of the beauty of the earth, but the opening of the first page of its volume" (XXXV. 116), établissant d’emblée un lien entre expérience et écriture, appréhension physique et méditation poétique, spectacle naturel et interprétation symbolique. Grand admirateur de Wordsworth, il prend soin par la suite de faire précéder chaque section de Modern Painters d’extraits de The Excursion, se faisant ainsi l’héritier d’une tradition romantique pour laquelle la montagne est le lieu privilégié de l’expression du sujet lyrique et le reflet d’une intériorité sans cesse en mouvement. Au fil de la plume, et à mesure que les découvertes géologiques et scientifiques nourrissent sa pensée, Ruskin s’éloigne cependant du romantisme et offre la vision d’un paysage déchiré, miroir d’une société en crise
Dans cette présentation, il s’agira d’analyser la façon dont Ruskin aborde la montagne sous un angle esthétique, mais également scientifique. A travers quelques exemples concrets d’esquisses et de descriptions de tableaux de Claude ou de Turner, nous verrons comment le regard du critique évolue et produit une vision changeante de la montagne, de simple objet d’étude à véritable métaphore de l’être humain

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1In his autobiography, Praeterita written in 1888-1889, John Ruskin describes his first view of the Alps as "not only the revelation of the beauty of the earth, but the opening of the first page of its volume" (I, 102), thus establishing a strong link between experience and writing, physical apprehension and poetic meditation, natural scenery and symbolic or spiritual interpretation. The famous quote also underlines the writer’s romantic heritage by showing the mountain not only as a backdrop to the author’s youth but as a Wordsworthian "spot of time": in Ruskin’s effort to look back on the past and trace his own development, the mountain acts as a catalyst for a particular kind of revelation or epiphany that continues to resonate long after the event itself. However, such an emotional and religious response to the mountain is also grounded in a close examination of the scenery, and a lifelong interest in geology (what we would now call the earth sciences). How do these two kinds of approach coincide and combine in Ruskin’s drawing and writing, and in his poetry? How does the visual inform the textual and give it its written form? How do text and image produce a singular and complex perception of the mountain as a sign? This is the issue I would like to address in this paper by focusing on some of Ruskin’s early prose, drawings and poetry and by looking back at the shape which his writing took in the 1840s.

2From a very early age, Ruskin was drawn to the contemplation of the natural world and his first attempts at versifying reveal his keen eye for the subtle changes in landscapes and natural scenery. In these and in his early drawings, the composition is extremely careful and shows the author’s awareness of the natural order and the natural laws governing the universe. In the poems just as in the drawings, man often appears as a quiet observer encouraged to learn from the spectacle of nature. In the Glen of Glenfarg, for example, a poem written on the boy’s first tour of Scotland at the age of seven, man is advised to look up at the stars in the sky for guidance, literal and moral. In another early poem simply called Glenfarg, written in 1827, nature has completely taken over and trees appear alive with movement and sound.

3By contrast, men "like spectres, among them, glide" (I, 3). Man’s presence in nature and his potential damaging of it, a recurrent subject in Ruskin’s later writings, already comes as a primary concern in the boy’s experience of the mountain. His feeling for the mountain, "le sentiment de la montagne", to take up the title of the 1998 exhibition held in Grenoble on the subject, is truly romantic as it combines a sense of admiration and fear.

4In Tour on the Continent, written in 1833, for example, the passage called "Chamouni" is clearly reminiscent of Byron’s description of the mountain in Manfred. Mont Blanc itself is described as "a gloomy tyrant", with a "cliffy diadem" that the traveller has to face and submit to (I, 157).

5In the next passage, Evening at Chamouni, the author re-enacts Balmat’s historic ascension of Mont Blanc in 1786 (I, 161) and pictures the scene by placing the hero within a particularly romantic literary and visual context:

He stood alone amid the storm;
Watching the last day-gleams decay,
Supposing its returning ray
Should see him lying there asleep,
With Alpine snow for winding-sheet,
Methinks I see him, as he stood
Upon the ridge of snow; the battering burst of winds above, -
The cloudy precipice below,
-Watching the dawn. (1.6-15)

6The style is highly reminiscent of many of Ruskin’s favourite authors at the time, among whom Shakespeare (more particularly Romeo and Juliet [Act 3, Scene 5]) in its foreboding of the pioneer’s death, which gives the subject a dramatic turn and introduces time as a crucial element in the expedition. As opposed to the mountain’s permanence, a recurrent feature that Ruskin notices in many of his descriptions of the mountain, man’s transient life on earth is seen as fragile and bound to be destroyed (as was proved in 1822, when an avalanche swept away several guides leading an international expedition to Mont Blanc). In his account of Balmat’s feat, Ruskin shows the hero’s strength by stressing his vertical position (the verb "stood" is repeated twice) and his powerful gaze on the landscape around him: seeing is the main sense that is represented as required in the climbing experience. It is what binds the poetic persona and the alpinist ("He stood watching"/"I see him as he stood") and allows both men and the reader to share in the spectacle of nature. Leaving aside all other modes, Ruskin allows the visual to take over from the poetic, the innocent eye prevail over the writing hand. Indeed, the spatial elements (with prepositions like "above", "below") compose a picture that almost sounds like a verbal description of Caspar David Friedrich’s very famous 1818 painting: Wanderer über dem NebelMeer (The Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist). The depiction of Balmat standing as if on top of the world, looking down on the precipice below, watching the day break, turns the event into a cliché where all the aesthetic standards of the time are present, from the sublime to the picturesque.

7However, such a conventional approach to mountain scenery does allow Ruskin to step for a moment into Balmat’s shoes and observe the mountain from above, from an aerial perspective. Far from holding what could be seen as an imperialist view on the landscape below, the alpinist with a commanding view of the scene rehearses, in Alice Jenkins’s words "the surveyor’s habitual ascension of high places, necessary to obtain triangulation for cartographic understanding of the landscape" (Jenkins, 69). In Ruskin’s case, it seems that both writing and drawing are thus grounded in his interest for topography and his eye for panoramas as well as geological structures.

8It is a well-known fact that on his 15th birthday, the boy received Saussure’s Voyage dans les Alpes (1779-1796), a book that remained a strong influence throughout his life and probably triggered his desire to write his own tour of the Continent which I mentioned earlier. The example of Saussure also encouraged Ruskin to write his first scientific article on the Alps, "Facts and Considerations on the Strata of Mont Blanc, and Some Instances of Twisted Strata Observable in Switzerland", which was published in The Magazine of Natural History in December 1834. However, as Cynthia Gamble remarks, with Ruskin, the painter’s eye always maintains a strong influence over the geologist’s science: "the opening sentence [in Ruskin’s first published article on geology] demonstrates that the young Ruskin saw the Alps through the eyes of a geologist as a well as a painter, especially when he writes: ‘The granite ranges of Mont Blanc are as interesting to the geologist as they are to the painter’". (Gamble, 188). The importance of seeing the mountain through a scientific as well as an artistic lens was demonstrated by the numerous illustrations accompanying the article.

9Drawing, which requires both an eye for perspective and an appreciation of scenery, was to be the meeting-point between word and image, narrative and vision. More than his articles, Ruskin’s diaries, as they were originally kept, give a very good idea of how text and image coexist to shape the author’s original perception of the mountain. Unfortunately for the modern reader, the printed version of the diaries only gives a hint of what the original manuscripts actually look like. In their initial form, they blend text and image and reveal the workings of Ruskin’s inquisitive mind and the development of his thoughts on many subjects, among which the mountain is a pervasive theme and motive—a reason for writing, as well as a visual motif. On the page, there is no boundary between text and image, so that the reading eye constantly travels from text to image and back.

10Here is a very striking example of how both media are used in order to convey a very scholarly and yet highly individual view of the mountain. The passage was written in July 1835, when Ruskin was sojourning in the Alps with his parents. At the beginning of the entry, there is a long and careful description of the valley of Chamonix, written in the style of nineteenth century travel journals. But as the description unfolds, Ruskin’s prose follows the relief of the mountain-chains: when it comes to describing the central mass of the Aiguilles de Chamonix, image and text are fused together to the point where the writing itself is pushed off to the side and distorted, a verbal replica of the broken lines of the panorama. The topographical view of the mountain that appears in the drawing is made alive by a constant shift in viewpoint, and there is a gradual change of style from mere account to impression: subjective verbs like "appear" are numerous and contribute to giving a dynamic and multifaceted view of the landscape. Years before Ruskin wrote his best pages on Turner’s art and cloud depiction, he is showing an extraordinarily keen eye for the changing aspect of the mountain. Even at such an early stage in Ruskin’s life, the mountain, and more specifically Mont Blanc is taking on a symbolic and almost mythical dimension. The elusive mountain, whose needles look like life size crystals, hence becomes the focus of Ruskin’s attention, and the locus of his growing imagination.

11In 1836, the subject receives its first poetic treatment in a piece originally part of a long epic called Iteriad and later published as Mont Blanc (II, 34): the experience recorded in the journal of the previous year is translated into colourful language and imagery. In the poem, the discovery of the mountain comes as a revelation, a supernatural vision that springs on the poet who presents himself as a romantic visionary: "For I have dreamed of fairy-land, Of dance of sprites and elfin-land". (L.9-10) The style is hardly original but it is interesting to see how the natural observations are used and transformed into poetry: the crystal mentioned as an actual find in the journal appears here as a shelter—"and I have dreamed of crystal bower/Lit with red light at evening hour", whose reflective property triggers a whole chain of mineral metaphors: "Of ruby mine of coral cave—Of caverns green with ocean wave". The next passage focuses on a description of the sun setting over Mont Blanc—a spectacle that Ruskin was to immortalize in his daguerreotypes of 1854—and the mountain appears personified as a medieval knight "lone, lovely inaccessible". The end of the poem translates the action of the clouds around the mount into quasi erotic, sensual interplay:

Some cloudy streaks like amethyst
Hung round its side, its crags they kissed,
Or gathering into billows high,
Like fretted ocean in the sky,
Rolled round his unperturbed head,
So magically islanded. (1.42-47)

12As compared to Ruskin’s mountain drawings of the same period, which still show the strong influence of his drawing-master, Copley Fielding, it seems that poetry allows Ruskin to give free rein to his imagination and express the emotions he feels when contemplating the mountain. The final line, with its metaphor of the mountain as an island surrounded by the sea, a place untouched by evil and change as well as man’s hand, points in two directions: first, it foreshadows the older man’s retrospective narrative of his first experience of the Alps in Praeterita as a kind of Garden of Eden (I, 101). Second, it also underlines the belief he often expressed in Modern Painters that the mountain was a reflection of God’s presence on earth.

13Thus it seems that Ruskin’s view of the mountain in the early years of his development crystallizes his various tastes for fossils and stones, snow and glaciers as well as his moral and religious beliefs, all of which appear mediated through drawing and writing. The mountain is a place fit for a young romantic imagination in the making. On a more psychological and personal level, it is not so much a real place as a poetic/subjective space that Ruskin has to conquer and make his own. In terms of growth, it means getting rid of the more rigid religious standards which his mother has set for him, and departing from the poetic models his father has imposed on him.

  • 1 In his authoritative biography, Tim Hilton thus writes: “That Modern Painters was begun among the A (...)

14A Walk in Chamouni, written in 1843, which was published in A Friendship’s Offering (1844) is one of the few poems where we see Ruskin give an original visual and poetic account of his perception of the mountain. At a time when he is just about to publish the first volume of Modern Painters,1 it is also one of his last successful attempts at writing poetry in verse, before abandoning the form altogether, and finding his poetic voice in prose writing. The poem is rather long (nine stanzas of ten lines) and the point here is not to give a detailed analysis of it but to show how text and image, poem and drawing, give a new, more dynamic account of the mountain’s impression on Ruskin’s mind, which in turn will influence his representation of it.

15To start with, it is worth keeping in mind that the poem, as first printed, appeared facing the drawing called Glacier des bois composed by Ruskin in 1843 and engraved by J.C. Armytage. In terms of style, the plate does imitate Turner’s vignetted book illustrations of Rogers’ Italy but the drawing possesses a character of its own and conveys the sense of power one feels when looking at the mountain: the composition is extremely detailed and yet manages to go beyond the particular (see for example the detail in the foliage in the foreground (right) as opposed to the hazier masses of mountain in the background (left)). The overall impression in the drawing is that of movement, and a blend of natural elements (from afar, the sea of clouds resembles a tidal wave check). The sun is the focal point of the composition and works as a kind of visual echo of the painter’s eye. It attracts our attention and draws the viewer into the scene to let him/her experience the landscape.

16In the poem, this is conveyed in the very title which focuses the attention on movement: as opposed to the other mountain poems simply called "Mont Blanc", or "Chamonix", "A Walk in Chamonix" (II, 295) concentrates on the imprint the mountain leaves on the traveller as much as on the trace man leaves on the landscape. In the opening lines, the poet presents himself as an intruder who breaks the harmony of nature:

Together on the valley, white and sweet,
The dew and silence of the morning lay:
Only the tread of my disturbing feet
Did break, with printed shade and patient beat,
The crisped stillness of the meadow way; (1.1-5)

17The idea that the poet’s feet should break the silence works on a literal level but also on a metaphorical level (the feet referring then to metrical feet) as writing is turned into an equivalent to walking: indeed the expression “printed shade and patient beat” underlines the parallel to be found between walking and writing, but also in drawing, as each activity requires bearing one’s print (whether foot or ink print) on a blank page or vacant space.

18In these lines, which are among the most harmonious written by Ruskin in all of his poetry, one sees how the experience of not just being in the mountain, but climbing the mountain, allows artistic creation as well as spiritual meditation: the rest of the poem is full of biblical allusions mixed with fine observations of natural facts, such as the parallel between mosses and the frost-work of silver. The trees, a recurrent motif in Modern Painters, are described as "interwoven signs/Of dateless age and deathless infancy" (1.14). The sense of timelessness and immortality as opposed to man’s temporal presence on earth also draws Ruskin to imbue the mountain with spiritual meaning and feeling. Finally, being immersed in the landscape rather than merely admiring it from a vantage-point allows him to be part of the scene which he is describing.

19At a time when he is reaching maturity, the author’s religious upbringing and thorough knowledge of the Bible still transpire in many of these later poems but the tension between this inherited knowledge and his idiosyncratic way of looking at the world leads him to infuse even his most religious poems with visual and sensory observations that foreshadow the style of Modern Painters. In Mont Blanc Revisited (II, 311), written in 1845, the sunset is thus described with vivid imagery and reveals that the mountain has now turned into a Τurnerian painting: “O mount beloved, mine eyes again/Behold the twilight’s sanguine stain/Along thy peaks expire”. (1.1-4) In the same way, in the poem called The Glacier, an irregular sonnet which is one of the last poems Ruskin ever wrote, we see how the vision of the mountain would give rise to the vision of art expressed in Modern Painters.

20The opening frames a picture of the mountain as reflecting peace, the mirror of a quiet mind:

The mountains have a peace which none disturb;
The stars and clouds a course which none restrain,
The wild sea-waves rejoice without a curb,
And rest without a passion; but the chain
Of Death, upon this ghastly cliff and chasm,
Is broken evermore, to bind again,
Nor lulls nor looses. Hark! A voice of pain
Suddenly silenced; a quick-passing spasm,
That startles rest, but grants not liberty, –
A shudder, or a struggle, or a cry, –
And then sepulchral stillness. Look on us,
God! Who hast given these hills their place of pride,
If Death’s captivity be sleepless thus,
For those who sink to it unsanctified.

21Behind this seemingly peaceful scene, the rest of the poem evokes in dynamic terms the tragedy at play in the "cliffs and chasms", and ends on an image of death ("sepulchral stillness"), and human wreck: while apparently dealing with the dangers of the mountain, the poem actually echoes a pictorial representation of human tragedy – not a real avalanche, but a painted shipwreck, as if the last enigmatic sentence of the poem (with the key/index word "sink") actually pointed to another scene. In fact, I would argue that it is a poetic response to Turner’s Slaveship, which Ruskin saw in 1840 and acquired in 1843. Visually, the superimposition of Turner’s painting and Ruskin’s Glacier des Bois shows that both pictures share the same composition and the same vanishing-point. Water and snow, two elements that often merge in the description of the mountain (as illustrated by the expression Sea of Ice / Mer de Glace) are there very similarly depicted and, in both cases, the overall movement is that of a swirl. If we now turn to Ruskin’s famous description of the Slaveship in Modern Painters, we cannot but notice that similar terms are used both to write about the glacier and to qualify the painted scene:

It is a sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high nor local, but a low broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendour which bums like gold, and bathes like blood (...).
Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shallow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the
sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea. (III, 571-573)

  • 2 I owe this last remark to Catherine Lanone.

22Free from the restrictions of the sonnet form, the writing is here truly inspired and rhythmical, colourful and poetic; it is perhaps not true in the sense of representing the picture rightly but, as Ruskin declared in a letter to Walter Brown (Hilton 79), it is a poetic vision of the painting: just when he thinks the mountain has failed to inspire him in poetry, it has given rise to his most evocative picture in words; just when he deplores the slavery induced by the verse form, it is here transcended through words written about... slavery.2

  • 3 Incidentally, it is also in that chapter that Ruskin returns to his definition of poetry, written i (...)
  • 4 This is a quote from Praeterita (III, 422): "Whatever might be my common faults or weaknesses, they (...)

23In Praeterita, there is a famous episode in which Ruskin relates his visit to the Grande Chartreuse and is dismayed by a monk’s brisk reply to his inquiries about the landscape around: "we do not come here to look at the mountain" (III, 423) but perhaps, in a way, the statement holds true for Ruskin too.3 During the time he spent within sight of Mont Blanc,4 Ruskin did not just look at the mountain but he used his observation of it to build an appreciation of nature, art and religion. It is there that he found his inspiration and gave it its original shape.

  • 5 The parallel between Ruskin and Bergson, which is an interesting inquiry, has received very little (...)

24As he grew older and wrote more about geology (Deucalion) or art (The Stones of Venice), the mountain nourished his best intuitions and allowed him to explore the dark alleys of perception, truth, beauty, and imagination. More precisely, in terms of perception, the mountain remained with him an illustration of what Henri Bergson (who read and appreciated Ruskin’s writings) later termed in Matter and Memory, "un souvenir image".5

25Finally, in later years, he came to regard the mountain, and especially Mont Blanc, as a retreat, a land ready to harbour his shattered mind, a place in which to be again at home with the world, a place that offered space and time for introspection, a playground for his creative imagination. An alliance between the visual and the textual, the dash and the letter, the mountain was to him a dip and a fold, the recess and the prominence, the ever shifting mirror of an "eye/ I" wishing to find a "you" to address, perhaps the "u" he so liked in the spelling of Chamouni.

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BERGSON, Henri. Œuvres. Paris: PUF, 1959.

DELATTRE, Floris. "Ruskin et Bergson: From Aesthetic Intuition to Metaphysical Intuition", The Zaharoff Lecture for 1947. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947.

GAMBLE, Cynthia. "John Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc and the Alps", Alpine Journal, 104, no.348.185-196, 1999.

MUSÉE DE GRENOBLE. Le Sentiment de la montagne. Paris: Hachette, 1998.

HILTON, Tim. John Ruskin, The Early Years, New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

JENKINS, Alice. Space and the "March of Mind": Literature and the Physical Sciences in Britain, 1815-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

RUSKIN, John. Praeterita. New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, 2005.

RUSKIN, John. The Complete Works of John Ruskin. Library Edition, E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn ed. 39 vols., London and New York, 1903-1912. (All references are to volume and page number).

RUSKIN, John. The Diaries of John Ruskin. Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-59.

RUSKIN, John. The Poems of John Ruskin. W.G. Collingwood ed. London: G. Allen, 1891.

The manuscript diaries consulted for this article are to be found in the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University.

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1 In his authoritative biography, Tim Hilton thus writes: “That Modern Painters was begun among the Alps has its significance. As from a vantage point, there spread out before him the whole length of Europe, its cities and long rivers, its seas, and the island kingdom in the North.” (Hilton, 69-70)

2 I owe this last remark to Catherine Lanone.

3 Incidentally, it is also in that chapter that Ruskin returns to his definition of poetry, written in hisl855 diary, and makes a considerable revision of his original idea. Whereas he previously defined poetry as "The arrangement, by imagination, of noble motive for noble emotion", he now remarks that "It leaves out rhythm", a main defect in his own “pedestrian” poetry (I borrow the term "pedestrian" from Paul Volsik, whose remark prompted me to see this striking coincidence).

4 This is a quote from Praeterita (III, 422): "Whatever might be my common faults or weaknesses, they were rebuked among the hills; and the only days I can look back to as, according to the powers given me, rightly or wisely in entireness spent, have been in sight of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, or the Jungfrau".

5 The parallel between Ruskin and Bergson, which is an interesting inquiry, has received very little attention so far, and would be worth developing but it is outside the scope of the present article.

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Bibliographical reference

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « In Sight of Mont Blanc: an Approach to Ruskin’s Perception of the Mountain », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 37-44.

Electronic reference

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « In Sight of Mont Blanc: an Approach to Ruskin’s Perception of the Mountain », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 24 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

Université de Toulouse 3

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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