“The wreathing clouds are fleeting fast” (MS VII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—The editors of the Library Edition point out the similarity of this line to the opening line of “Brussels”, “The racking clouds were fleeting fast” (Ruskin, Works, 380 n. 1).


“The throne where winter sits for ever / ... / Rises his cliffy diadem” (MS VII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—Mont Blanc, as the highest mountain in Europe, was commonly called “the Monarch”, an epithet that Ruskin uses directly in the prose essay, “Chamouni”, and that he implies by using regal imagery here, in the associated poem.
The editors of the Library Edition point out the frequency of diadem as a rhyme word, e.g., in [“A Letter from Abroad”], and (rhymed twice again with gem) in “Salsette and Elephanta” (Ruskin, Works, 2:380 n. 2; and see 2:432, 95, 100).
CliffyRuskin uses this word in both the verse and prose sections entitled “Chamouni”. Compare Scott, Waverley, in which the young Edward Waverley, “with his gun and his spaniel, which served as an apology to others, and with a book in his pocket, which perhaps served as an apology to himself”, pursuws his “ideal world” through an “ascending sweep” of land that “gradually narrowed into a rude and contracted path through the cliffy and woody pass called Mirkwood Dingle”, which “opened suddenly upon a deep, dark, and small lake, named, from the same cause, Mirkwood‐Mere” (Scott, Works, 1:30 [vol. 1, chap. 4]).


“Above a steepy crag we wound / ... / And we high oʼer those cliffs so sheer / Must climb the mountain barrier / Until unfolded to the eye / The fruitful fields of Chamouni” (MS VII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—Ruskin describes the ascent to the Montanvert, an elevated viewpoint overlooking the Mer de Glace.
The enormous glacier, a confluence of three glaciers descending from Mont Blanc, reached the edge of the valley in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, terminating in the so‐called Glacier du Bois and the source of the Arveron. To gain a view of the Mer de Glace, travelers followed a path from the village to the top of the Montanvert. From here, according to John Murray III in his 1838 guidebook to Switzerland, the spectator enjoyed a prospect “of two leagues up the valley” between the needles that was filled by the glacier. “The view of this enormous sea of ice is one of the most striking in these scenes of wonder, but its great extent, from the vast size of every object about it, is very deceptive. Directly across the Mer de Glace [facing northeast] are some of the those pinnacled mountains which form so striking a feature in the Chamouny scenery. The nearest is the Aiguille du Dru, and still further on the right, is the Aiguille du Moine. A thousand nameless pinnacles pierce the clouds between them, and seem to prop the loftiest of this stupendous mass which is the Aiguille Verte, that rises more than 13,000 feet above the level of the sea and nearly 7000 feet above the Montanvert”. Atop the Montanvert, travelers could rest in two shelters, which were built in the late eighteenth century (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 294; and see Hansen, Summits of Modern Man, 118–19, and Ruskinʼs prose essay, “Source of the Arveron”.
Murray remarks that the Montanvert was “generally the first, often the only excursion made from Chamouny”. The Ruskins made this excursion on 17 August, riding on mules led by official guides. Although steep and formidable, the ascent was safe for “ladies, or unpractised travellers”, according toMurray, since “the guide is generally in attendance in all places of difficulty”. One of the Ruskinsʼ guides was said in his youth to have accompanied Saussure himself (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 293; Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 131, 134).
Murrayʼs description of the trek up the Montanvert corresponds well to Ruskinʼs account of the climb on the “steepy crag” in his poem, winding among the trees above the Arve, with glimpses of the valley below: “To go to the Montanvert it is necessary to cross the Arve and the opposite meadows, by a path which leads across the valley to the foot of the Montanvert, where the path rises above the valley, through the forest of pines which skirts the base of the mountain, in some places very steep. . .el . After a scramble amidst rocks, and the roots of pines and larches, occasional openings among the trees afford peeps into the valley, and mark the great height so rapidly attained. Sometimes crues are crossed—the channels of avalanches in the winter, which sweep down every thing in their course. Here the guides generally perform the mystery of desiring silence, lest a whisper should disturb the slumbering snows above, and bring down destruction by displacing a rock”. Despite Murrayʼs skepticism about these mysteries, Mary Richardson claims that the family witnessed a small avalanche while gazing at the peaks from atop the Montanvert (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 293–94; Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 134).
SteepyWalter Scott employs this word, e.g., in The Lord of the Isles, “As up the steepy pass he strove” (canto 5, stz. 18), when Ronald rescues the minstrel‐boy (Edith in disguise); and in The Bridal of Triermain, “A steep ascent the wanderer found, / And then a turret stair: / Nor climbed he far its steepy round / Till fresher blew the air” (canto 3, stz. 34), as Sir Roland de Vaux passes through the trials of the enchanted castle (Scott, Works, 49:369; 50:103).


“ʼTis passing strange that such a place / . . . / Should, pent within those wilds so lone / For many ages pass unknown / Unknown save by a simple few / That lived within that world alone / A world of beauty of their own” (MS VII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—A widely held but erroneous belief credited the “discovery” of Chamonix by an outsider to a British traveler, William Windham senior (1717–61), who published a pamphlet in 1744 about his encounter with the valley during a Grand Tour. The story is relayed, for example, by Thomas Roscoe in the landscape annual for 1830 illustrated by Samuel Prout (The Tourist in Switzerland and Italy, 55–56). In 1832, the year prior to the Ruskinsʼ visit, the claim was repudiated in research published by Markham Sherwill (1797–1845), another British traveler, who had scaled the pinnacle of Mont Blanc. He found documents that revealed settlement of the valley by a Benedictine priory in the eleventh century and a long ensuing history of connections with ecclesiastical and state powers. In 1838, Murrayʼs guidebook disseminated Sherwillʼs findings. Nonetheless, Peter H. Hansen comments how a linear discovery myth springing from Windhamʼs pamphlet persists in connection with Chamonix even today (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 291–92; Hansen, Summits of Modern Man, 33).


“ʼA race like those of Chamouni / . . . have loved at dawn of day / To trace the chamois fearful way / . . . / Where he may find a chasmy grave” (MS VII; Poems [1891]; Works [1903])—In Voyages dans les Alpes, Horace‐Bénédict de Saussure celebrates the heroism of Chamonix peasants. According to his account of a chamois hunter from Sixt, which was widely retold, the young man admitted to a fatalism that he would be killed like his forefathers in pursuing his prey amid the treacherous—a prediction that, Saussure later learned, came true. Saussure wonders at taking such risk for such meager prey, but he admires the masculine struggle, which he compares to the strivings even of a scientific man like himself (Saussure, Voyages dans les Alpes, 2:150–52 [chap. 24, “Mœurs des habitans de Chamouni”]). See the poem, “Not such the night whose stormy might” [“Evening at Chamouni”], in which Ruskin conveys similar heroic sentiments; and see also Hansen, Summits of Modern Man, 85–86).
ChasmyRuskin uses this word in both the verse and prose sections entitled “Chamouni”. As one of only two occurrences of this word listed prior to the mid‐nineteenth century, the instances William Wordsworthʼs Descriptive Sketches, Taken during a Pedestrian Tour among the Alps (1793), describing the Swiss shepherd in spring: “The pastoral Swiss begins the cliffs to scale / To silence leaving the deserted vale; / . . . / They [the herds] cross the chasmy torrentʼs foam‐lit bed / Rockʼd on the dizzy larchʼs narrow tread” (Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 1:97). Wordsworthʼs description of the Swiss chamois hunter, however, which immediately precedes this passage, suggests no borrowings by Ruskin.


“The noon verged gradually . . . to thick thundery clouds . . . as we entered a solitary mountain recess, a cliffy defile, leading from the valley of Maglan, to that of Salenches” (MS XI; Works [1903])—On 14 August 1833, the Ruskins set out from Geneva for the valley of Chamonix, arriving in the village on 15 August in rainy weather (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 123–28). Along the way, they crossed from the canton of Geneva into the domain of the Kingdom of Sardinia, following a road that, as described by John Murray III in his 1838 guidebook to Switzerland, “is carried through the defile on the borders of the river [the Arve], and beneath precipices, that mark the first grand entrance into an alpine ravine. The valley is very narrow, nearly all the way to Maglan, and, in some places, the road is straitened in between the river and the bases of precipices, which actually overhang the traveller. From some of these, a little out of the road, the steep talus of rocks and stones which have fallen from above, spread out to the river, and the road rises over the ridges. The banks the river are well wooded, and the scenery is as beautiful as it is wild. . . . About a league and half beyond Maglan, the road passes close to one of the highest waterfalls in Savoy, that of Nant dʼ Arpenaz” (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 285–86).
Besides confirming Ruskinʼs impression of entering a “cliffy defile”, Murrayʼs description of the waterfall is worth transcribing, since Ruskin contributed a brief commentary on the geology of the Nant dʼ Arpenaz to the Magazine of Natural History, “Twisted Strata”, dated March 1834. Murray continues: “the stream is small, and before it reaches half its first descent it is broken into spray. After storms, however, its volume falls on the rock, on which it breaks; after reaching the slope or talus, formed by the soil and stones it has brought down, it rusthes across the road beneath a bridge, and flows into the Arve. The rock of brown limestone, from which it descends is remarkable for its tortuous stratification, forming a vast curve, and the face of the rock is so denuded that its structure is pefectly seen” (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 286; and see the engravings included with the published essay, “Twisted Strata”, dated March 1834).
Murrayʼs account carries on to describe, as does Ruskinʼs, how the needles of the Mont Blanc massif suddenly come into view: “Between the fall of Arpenaz and [the village of] St. Martin, the valley increases in width, and rich fields spread . . . ; the peaks of the Varens [appear], which rise nearly 8000 feet above the level of the sea, and immediately over the village of St. Martin, which now opens to the view. . . . [In the village,] a bridge crosses the Arve, and leads to the town of Sallenches. . . . On this bridge one of the noblest views on the Alps is presented of Mont Blanc: its actual distance to the peak is more than 12 miles in a direct line, yet so sharp, and bright, and clear in every part of its stupendous mass, that the eye, unused to such magnitude with distinctness, is utterly deceived, and would rather lead to the belief that it was not one third of the distance. On looking up the valley over the broad winter‐bed of the Arve however, objects recede, and give the accustomed impressions of distance; above this rises the mountain of the Forclaz, its sides clothed with pines, and its summit with pasturage. Over these, are seen the Aiguille de Goutè, the Dome de Goutè, and the head of the loftiest mountain in Europe, propped by ridges of aiguilles, and the intervals of these filled with glaciers. This one view, the first usually enjoyed by travellers from England to Chamouny, is so impressive as to be generally acknowledged a sufficient reward for the journey“ (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 286–87).


“Voilà les aiguilles,” quoth our char‐à‐banc driver” (MS XI; Works [1903])—Murray explains: “Few travellers take their own carriages from Geneva to Chamouny. A light char with a pair of horses, to take four persons, may be hired for twenty francs, to go to Sallenches or to St. Martin, where another, and lighter vehicle, can be taken to convey two or three persons to Chamouny" (Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 284).


Col de Balme” (MS XI; Works [1903])—Mountain pass northeast of the valley of Chamonix, connecting the village of Argentière on the Chamonix side to the canton of Valais in Switzerland.
On 18 August, a party of the Ruskins walked to the path leading to the Col de Balme. Since it was a Sunday, they could not engage a guide, who would have been fined for leading an excursion prior to church service. Accordingly, Mary Richardson writes, they engaged a guideʼs little boy, who had helped lead them on the previous dayʼs trek up the Montanvert. The child “made his appearance, dressed in his Sunday clothes which all seemed made to allow for his growing. The poor child seemed buried under them especially the hat which might have done for his father”. They set out on the the previous dayʼs easy path to the source of the Arveyron, but found a steeper path, which interested the Ruskins but tired the boy. Excusing the boy to return to the village, the party pushed onward, until they found where the path divides, leading two ways through the mountain pass to Martigny. One direction led to the Col de Balme, and the other to the Tête Noire pass. They took the latter fork, which according to Murray offered superior scenery. Mary comments that the scenery soon “got very wild, and hills began to look bare but grand, and on looking behind we had a splendid view of the Aiguille d’Argentière seen in all its beauty” (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 135–37; Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 299).


“[Y]ou are in solitude, a strange unearthly solitude, but you feel as if the air were full of Spirits” (MS XI; Works [1903])—Although Ruskinʼs poem, “Not such the night whose stormy might”, proves that he was familiar with the story of the ascent to the peak of Mont Blanc by Jacques Balmat and others—a story that, indeed, was inescapable for any visitor to Chamonix—this knowledge was overborne by poetic tropes that deemed the mountainʼs needles “entirely inaccessible” to humankind and inhabited solely by “spirits”. Other British Protestant tourists were drawn to similar characterizations of Mont Blanc as an earthly preserve of spiritual purity. The Congregational clergyman, Thomas Raffles (1788–1863), on first getting a clear view of the mountain when visiting Chamonix in 1817, was “dazzled in gazing on the vast and spotless object that absorbed us. It glittered in the sun‐beams like transparent glass, and pure and chaste as were the light clouds that lingered round it, they were dark, compared with its superior brightness; while the obscurity in which they wrapt the inferior mountains, gave to that which we beheld an appearance of still greater elevation, and rendered it like a crystal mountain in a sea of clouds. The southern needle of Mont Blanc, too, was fully dismantled, and shewed its beautiful point to the enraptured eye. It seemed as if the parting clouds had afforded us a glimpse of a new world—and imagination peopled it with beings pure as its spotless soil”.
Raffles, too, was of course aware that the summit had been conquered, but he treated the fac as a kind of violation: “All the scenes I had before admired”, he continues, “appeared dark and grovelling, compared with the bright regions which I then beheld—regions of the purest white—untrodden solitudes of snow, meet only for the visits of celestial beings—the connecting link between earth and heaven. On such a spot, one could imagine angels would alight when sent on messages of mercy to mankind,
I thought of the men who had reached its summit, and could scarcely realize the idea of such a hazardous and daring enterprise—there was nothing in the appearance of the scene at all terrestrial, and I felt as if to ascend Mont Blanc, would be to betray a temerity somewhat similar to Babelʼs builders, whose ambition aimed at nothing less than heaven” (Raffles, Letters, 184–85).