MOUNTAIN GLOOM AND MOUNTAIN GLORY - MARJORIE HOPE NICOLSON
Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes.
FOLLOWING ON FROM LAST WEEK’S MOUNTAIN’S OF THE MIND, THIS TIME I AM HIGHLIGHTING A FASCINATING ACADEMIC STUDY OF THE HUMAN ATTITUDE TO MOUNTAINS THROUGH LITERATURE.
What exactly started to happen in the seventeenth century that meant that in just over 100 years humans would have moved on from thinking that mountains were “ugly protuberances” and started seeking out the sublime? Marjorie Hope Nicholson studies what caused this movement from Mountain Gloom to Mountain Glory.
Apart from being an extremely readable academic work I have this book to thank for a greater appreciation of mountains, for two reasons. Firstly it actually switched me onto the romantic poets, where previously I had not been interested and secondly, it opened my eyes to the fact that our love of the wilderness is a relatively recent thing and not something to be taken for granted. Something I had not considered when I first read this.
TUMOURS, WENS AND BLISTERS
How was it that in a relatively short space of time, travellers went from utter and genuine horror at mountains to feelings of ecstasy at “dizzy heights” - a sort of wilful horror-seeking, as enjoyment, in their midst. How did poets move on from describing mountains as “Tumours”, “Wens” and “Blisters” to using positive mountain analogies in describing the glory of God.
Principally focussed on this shift in opinion through literature the book explores the Theological and Scientific side as well as the Poetic. It has been a huge influence to me in wanting to read older works, particularly John Ray (Wisdom of God), Thomas Burnet (Sacred Theory of Earth), which consider the birth of our planet and look to explain the presence of mountains, things that ostensibly were in the way for centuries.
I AM NOT TOTALLY WEIRD.
Whilst I am also able to enjoy wilderness and natural landscapes without constantly questioning my motives (I am not totally weird) this book gave me a greater understanding of how I, as a human, might have arrived at this appreciation. It becomes clear to me that mountaineering is a natural evolution of this sentiment in society, if not for every individual. The kind of overwhelming emotions that romantic poets searched for in the mountains are perhaps a precursor to the kind of fear-thrill that an extreme sports athlete would seek out now. It is no coincidence that the golden age of mountaineering followed on from the open-minds of romanticism*.
As the book points out, not all the poets who waxed lyrical about mountains had first hand experience. Many perhaps simply imagined them in a hope of capturing the zeitgeist but last words to Shelley who understands perfectly the impermanence of man as opposed to that of the mountains and whom I started to enjoy because of Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory.
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell...
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:--the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
*Increased transport links and organised tourism also helped.. but more of that in a later post.