5 Great Poems About Mountains

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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.

“Ah, Tener­iffe!”
By Emi­ly Dick­in­son

Ah, Tener­iffe!
Retreat­ing Moun­tain!
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

Ah, Tener­iffe!
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.

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An Octo­pus

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
pseu­do-podia
made of glass that will bend–a much need­ed inven­tion–
com­pris­ing twen­ty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hun­dred
feet thick,
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.

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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
eye las­civ­i­ous
licks
over watch­ing
far snow-dap­pled Uin­tah moun­tains
Is that stream
Of pow­er. what my
hand curves over, fol­low­ing the line.
“hip” and “groin”
Where “I”
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:
left, right-right-
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.

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Green Moun­tain
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.