Interrogating the ‘Valley of Wonders’: Some Romantic-Period Debates about Chamonix-Mont Blanc

  • Cian Duffy


By the time that Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Chamonix as a Valley of wonders’, in the 11 September 1802 number of the Morning Post, the region was already well established as a key focal point in the European debate about the scientific, aesthetic, political and religious significance of sublime landscape.1 However, Chamonix’s prominence on the cultural map of Europe was also relatively recently acquired. ‘Incredible as it may seem’, Ebel’s popular Traveller’s Guide in Switzerland commented in 1820, ‘this valley so singularly interesting, in which is seen the highest mountain of the old world, was entirely unknown until the year 1741.’2 Ebel’s date for the discovery of Chamonix-Mont Blanc is that of the first British expedition to the region, by William Windham and Richard Pococke, the latter recently returned from his well publicized travels in the Middle East. By identifying Windham and Pococke as the discoverers of Chamonix, however, Ebel’s Guide does not simply point to their role as geographical explorers, but also — indeed moreover — to their role as the inaugurators of the debate about the region’s cultural topography. This essay charts the contours of that European debate about Chamonix-Mont Blanc, tracing in the published records of the most prominent eighteenth-century expeditions to the region, the emergence of tropes which would come to define English romantic-period engagements with the Alpine sublime, and which arguably continue to influence contemporary perceptions of the Alps.


Romantic Period Classic Ground Religious Significance Swiss Naturalist European Debate 
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  1. 8.
    M. H. Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1959), p. 372.Google Scholar
  2. 41.
    S. H. Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth-Century England (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), pp. 213Google Scholar

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© Cian Duffy 2007

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  • Cian Duffy

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