This is a lovely sonnet from Keats, not only because of its language and the poetic linkages between the real and the imagined, but because it feels strongly grounded in real experience. Keats must have climbed Ben Nevis, I think in order to have written this. (Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Scotland, so it is far from being a Sunday afternoon walk in the park to get to the top).
Despite the title, I doubt that Keats wrote the whole poem in finished form while he was sitting at the top of the mountain, although I may be wrong. He probably jotted down the basic ideas and images he wanted to use and finished it off later, perhaps sitting in the bar of his hotel with a dram of whisky to warm up his bones and stimulate his creative powers.
Anyway, here is Keats on what it was like for him to be at the top of Ben Nevis.
Sonnet. Written Upon The Top Of Ben Nevis
Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud
Vapourous doth hide them, — just so much I wist
Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,
And there is sullen mist, — even so much
Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread
Before the earth, beneath me, — even such,
Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,–
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them, — that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag, not only on this height,
But in the world of thought and mental might!
So, sitting at the top of the mountain, the poet feels close to his Muse, the source of his inspiration, despite the fact that the summit is shrouded in mist. The Muse will surely speak in a loud voice in this place. In fact the first half of the sonnet uses the mist as an extended metaphor for human ignorance of hell, looking down below, and heaven, looking up. The mist both inspires and obscures and while being an actual, realistic feature of the mountaintop landscape, it also comes to symbolise man’s ignorance of his world, his faith and himself. All he is really sure of are the actual stones on which he has walked – ie the present moment. The poet pictures himself as a “poor witless elf” just putting one foot in front of the other, on the mountain as in life, with no clear vision of where he is going, where he has been or what it all means.
So moments like this can reveal larger truths about experience and the human condition.
This is a worthy contender if there is a competition for best poems written or conceived at the top of mountains.
The Poetry Dude