Mountains loom large in the cultural imagination. They rise up and erupt in our minds as much as they do on our landscapes.
There are many great poems about mountains as well. How could there not be? The sublime majesty of mountains has inspired history’s best minds, proving William Blake’s dictum “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”
In these poems, the poets are metaphorical mountaineers, grappling with the inconceivable power of mountains, attempting to achieve the summit of understanding.
By Emily Dickinson
Purples of Ages — pause for you —
Sunset — reviews her Sapphire Regiment –
Day — drops you her Red Adieu!
Still — Clad in your Mail of ices –
Thigh of Granite — and thew — of Steel –
Heedless — alike — of pomp — or parting
I’m kneeling — still –
Four of Dickinson’s poems concern mountains, the best of which, “Ah Teneriffe”, takes its inspiration from a mountain in the Canary Islands. The mountain is transfigured into a fearsome warrior clad in icy armor to whom the royalty of this world — the “Purples of Ages” — defers. All the poet can do is bow in the mountain’s presence.
By Marianne Moore
of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies ‘in grandeur and in mass’
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend–a much needed invention–
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
of unimagined delicacy.
‘Picking periwinkles from the cracks’
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward ‘spider fashion
on its arms’ misleading like lace;
its ‘ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.’
So begins Moore’s 193 line poem An Octopus, the longest of her career. Like Dickinson, personifies the mountain — in this case, the glacier on top of Mount Rainier, around which she once hiked. The metaphor isn’t stable, however: the eponymous octopus changes into a python, then a spider. By the middle of the poem, Rainier turns into the home of the ancient Greek gods, Mount Olympus.
An important point that Moore’s poem observes is that mountains are not discrete objects that can be separated from their landscapes. They are connected in infinitely complex ways to the animals who call it home, the trees growing its hills and the people who attempt to climb it.
Beneath my Hand and Eye the Distant Hills, Your Body
By Gary Snyder
What my hand follows on your body
Is the line. A stream of love
of heat, of light, what my
far snow-dappled Uintah mountains
Is that stream
Of power. what my
hand curves over, following the line.
“hip” and “groin”
follow by hand and eye
the swimming limit of your body.
As when vision idly dallies on the hills
Loving what it feeds on.
soft cinder cones and craters;
-Drum Hadley in the Pinacate
took ten minutes more to look again-
A leap of power unfurling:
My heart beat faster looking
at the snowy Uintah Mountains.
What “is” within not know
but feel it
sinking with a breath
pusht ruthless, surely, down.
Beneath this long caress of hand and eye
“we” learn the flowering burning,
outward, from “below”.
Snyder, one of the great modern American poets, grew up around mountains. Born and raised in Oregon, he climbed with the Mazamas, the local mountaineering group, and later spent two seasons as a fire lookout in the North Cascades. Nature and mountains are the fuel that drives his poetry.
In this poem of erotic yearning, the Unitah mountains are conflated with the body of the poet’s lover. The poem’s syntax becomes confused to the point that the reader is unsure where the mountain ends and the lover’s body begins.
By Li Bai
You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.
Li Bai, the legendary Chinese poet, uses mountains to great effect in many of his poems. One of his most famous, titled variously as “Green Mountain” or “In the Mountains”, perfectly captures the serene solitude that people find on mountain tops.
Night on the Mountain
By George Sterling
The fog has risen from the sea and crowned
The dark, untrodden summits of the coast,
Where roams a voice, in canyons uttermost,
From midnight waters vibrant and profound.
High on each granite altar dies the sound,
Deep as the trampling of an armored host,
Lone as the lamentation of a ghost,
Sad as the diapason of the drowned.
The mountain seems no more a soulless thing,
But rather as a shape of ancient fear,
In darkness and the winds of Chaos born
Amid the lordless heavens’ thundering–
A Presence crouched, enormous and austere,
Before whose feet the mighty waters mourn.
The flip side to Bai’s poem, Sterling’s Night on the Mountain captures the malevolence that mountains sometimes seem to possess. It’s difficult to find a heart “free of care” during a ferocious mountain storm.
If this list shows us anything, it’s that mountains encompass a rainbow-spectrum of meaning. They are beautiful and ugly, peaceful and malevolent, holy and unholy — sometimes all at once. The shape shifting nature of mountains will continue to inspire and provoke us with wonder, and will continue to scare us, as well.