Contributor: Simon Bainbridge
Location: The Alps
Description: The summit of Mont Blanc was first reached in 1786, when the Chamonix-based doctor Michael-Gabriel Paccard and the crystal hunter Jacques Balmat attained the highest point in Western Europe. The following year, the Genevan man of science, Horace Bénédict de Saussure, fulfilled his obsessional desire to reach the loftiest of vantage points, which for him became the most elevated of outdoor laboratories; he spent four hours on the summit conducting various experiments. De Saussure, best known for his four volume Voyages dans les Alpes (1779-1796), speedily published an abbreviated narrative of his ‘Journey to the Summit of Mont Blanc’. De Saussure’s evocation of his mountain ascent was a major contribution to the developing genre of Alpine travel writing, which became a key form in materialising and transmitting Romantic ideas and sentiments across Europe.
De Saussure’s ‘Journey’ was quickly made available in translation to a British readership as an appendix to Thomas Martyn’s Sketch of a Tour Through Swisserland (1788), and gained extensive further circulation through coverage in a large number of British periodicals. Equally significant, if not even more influential, were the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially Letter XXIII of Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), which described the uplifting effects of elevation and offered a celebration of mountain communities. Another important source, Louis-François Ramond de Carbonnières’s ‘Notes and Observations’, illustrates the developing synergy between European and British Alpine writing. Ramond had written these ‘Notes and Observations’ for his French translation of William Coxe’s Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland. His ‘Notes’ were then incorporated back into English versions of Coxe’s works, including Travels in Switzerland.
De Saussure, Rousseau and Ramond, along with a number of other writers including Jean André du Luc and Marc Théodore Bourrit, played a crucial role in inspiring the development of the pursuit Samuel Taylor Coleridge christened ‘mountaineering’ in 1802 (1). This evolving culture of physical ascent shaped Romantic-period texts and identities, especially in Britain, where writers including William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Anne Radcliffe, Elizabeth Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and John Keats engaged in mountain climbing, many claiming for themselves the identity of the ‘mountaineer’. De Saussure, in particular, became the model for many mountain-going natural philosophers, such as the mineralogist Arthur Aikin who observed in his Journal of a Tour Through North Wales of 1797, that ‘the perusal of the Voyages dans les Alpes, suggested to me the idea of a tour into Wales upon something of a similar plan; and I have been not a little pleased in verifying among the Welsh hills some of the general observations laid down by Saussure as the result of his arduous journies among the snows of the Alps’ (2). As this suggests, Alpine Travel writing shaped the experiences of many of those exploring the British mountains. A notable feature of much of this literature was an emphasis on the changing quality of the atmosphere during ascent and the ‘thinness’ of the air breathed at high altitude in the Alps. In his famous account of elevation in La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau had drawn attention to the ‘purity of the air … upon the tops of mountains’ and its effects upon respiration (3). While climbers of Britain’s mountains did not reach altitudes where there would be a significant change in the quality of oxygen inhaled, the Alpine literature provided a way of understanding and justifying the breathlessness they frequently experienced when reaching a summit. In 1773, William Hutchinson described himself on the top of Skiddaw as suffering from a lack of oxygen more appropriate to the higher reaches of the Alps than to the 900-metre Lakeland peak. He wrote: ‘The air was remarkably sharp and thin, compared with that from which we passed in the valley; and respiration seemed to be performed with a kind of asthmatic oppression’ (4).
The heroic, manly and daring figure of the Chamois Hunter illustrates how Alpine travel writing transmitted Romantic ideas and sentiments across Europe. William Wordsworth acknowledged Ramond’s ‘Notes and Observations’ as the source for his own representation of a ‘chamois-chaser’ in Descriptive Sketches, published in 1793, while De Saussure offered what became a well-known celebration of this figure in Voyages dans les Alpes, comparing the hardy hunter to the gambler, the soldier and the navigator, all of whom he argued were prepared to face potentially life-threatening dangers for the sake of experiencing strong emotions. The Chamois Hunter became a key figure in British literature, featuring most famously in Byron’s Manfred (1817) but also in a number of lesser known works of the period, such as Charlotte Dacre’s poem ‘The Hunter of the Alps’ (1805) which draws on De Saussure’s description of the hunter’s physical agility and the hardships of his existence to celebrate the strange delights of savage life. For Coleridge, a pioneering mountaineer who made what is generally regarded as one of the earliest rock-climbs, the figure of the Chamois Hunter offered a means of understanding the growing addiction he felt to the risks of mountain adventures: He declared in 1803 that:
‘I think, that my soul must have pre-existed in the body of a Chamois-chaser; the simple image of the old object has been obliterated—but the feelings, & impulsive habits, & incipient actions, are in me, & the old scenery awakens them.’ (5)
This figure of the chamois hunter also became crucial to one of the most significant literary works of British Romanticism, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Wordsworth, of course, presents mountain climbing as one of the key activities of his autobiographical masterpiece, from his scrambling on Yewdale Crags, via his crossing of the Alps, to the culminating ascent of Mount Snowdon. But the poet also uses the idea of ascent to shape the conception and form of his autobiography, conceiving his epic as a mountain that the reader must climb if they are to experience the same revelations as the poet. At the triumphant conclusion of his epic, Wordsworth self-assertively claims the identity of chamois hunter, describing how he has ‘tracked the main essential power— / Imagination—up her way sublime’. (6). It is through a figure drawn from Alpine Travel writing, that of the daring Chamois Hunter tracking his prey up a mountain, that Wordsworth is able to confirm his heroic arrival at the summit of his own poetic Mont Blanc.
Subject: Mont Blanc
Media rights: Free for commercial use: no attribution required
Object type: natural feature: mountain
Digital collection record: laurentgraphiste from Pixabay
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-71), II, 848.
- Arthur Aikin, Journal of a Tour Through North Wales (London: J. Johnson, 1796), Preface, pp. vi-vii.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julia: or, The New Eloisa. A Series of Original Letters, collected and published by J. J. Rousseau. Translated from the French [by William Kenrick], 3 vols (Edinburgh: Alex Donaldson, 1773), I, 67-8.
- William Hutchinson, An Excursion to the Lakes, In Westmoreland and Cumberland, in August 1773 (London: J. Wilkie, 1774), p. 157.
- Coleridge, Collected Letters, II, 916.
- William Wordsworth, The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams and Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), XIII, 289-90.