This semester I am teaching a survey course in British literature, and right about the time we were reading Shelley, a friend rang up looking for a couple of passengers to accompany him on a weekend flight to Courmayeur in the Val d’Aosta. Given that “Mont Blanc” was on the syllabus, I chalked it up to research and packed my overnight bag.
Courmayeur lies at the southern foot of Mont Blanc. To get there in a small plane, you must land at the Aeroporto di Aosta, after flying through several valleys, at the same height—or below—the mountains, circling backing through a pass north of the town of Aosta towards a very steep runway. It may be one of the most exhilarating flights I have ever been on. The airport is small and welcoming, all knotty pine and hunting lodge warmth. From Aosta to Courmayeur, it is about a 30 minute drive.
Courmayeur is like many of the impossibly quaint villages in the Italian Alps and Dolomites, that, if you are an American of a certain age, you can’t help but associate with Heidi and Julie Andrews, even though they had nothing to do with Italy. I don’t have much experience with the Swiss Alps, but the Italian villages cradled in steep Alpine valleys are an enchanting blend of northern propriety and southern charm. Tidy window boxes of flowers bob under every A-line roof, and the rustic polenta is the very definition of comfort food.
October is an odd time in the mountains, the summer trekking months long gone and winter ski season yet to arrive. The autumn quietness felt melancholy. It was an overcast but warm day, and everyone was talking about the too-warm weather. The town had been in the news in late September because a giant section of the glacier on the Mont Blanc massif was in danger of collapsing, sending nine million cubic feet of ice down the mountain towards Courmayer. Dwellings above the valley were evacuated, and the road between Courmayer and the small village of Planpincieux was closed.
Looking up at Mont Blanc from the main piazza in Courmayer, the mountain seemed more grey than white, though still full of majestic sublimity. It was unsettling, both for the reasons Shelley expresses and for others that he could not have imagined. The first lines of Shelly’s famous poem echoed in my head: “The everlasting universe of things/Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves . . .” Unbelievably, the glaciers around Mont Blanc are not as everlasting as once thought. Scientists predict that under continued warming, the Alps could be mostly ice-free by 2100.
Shelley’s poem is about how the power and transcendence of nature can be intuited by the poetic imagination, how human thought gains splendor from contemplating nature’s power that persists past any human life:
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:--the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much life and death.
I wish I could have taken my students there. Reading about the sublime is another matter entirely from standing in awe of it. I fear that for them and their children, Mont Blanc may become something one can only read about in a book.
The next day, Nature reasserted her power; the weather turned, making it impossible to fly home. We arrived in Rome around midnight, by train.