Before "The Mountain" even begins, its title tips readers off to the extended metaphor that will shape the poem: the speaker takes on the perspective of an ancient, isolated mountain, likening the aging process to turning into a helpless block of stone.
As the first stanza then begins, the poem establishes the speaker's disorientation and fear:
- It's "evening," meaning it's dark out, and the speaker can sense that there's "something" behind them. Right away, then, the poem is filled with uneasy suspense. Given that the speaker is presented as a mountain, it's possible that this something is in fact the sun going down.
- In the next line, this "something" outright startles the speaker, who "start[s] for a second" and then flinches, indicating fear, pain, and/or surprise. "Blench"—the term chosen to describe the speaker's sudden reaction—also means to grow pale and further suggests that the speaker is afraid.
- After flinching, the speaker "staggeringly halt[s] and burn[s]." The word "staggeringly" indicates that the speaker's movements are awkward or uneven. But this term is typically used to describe something astounding or surprising, so it also strengthens the impression that the speaker is alarmed—perhaps at whatever presence the speaker senses behind them, or perhaps at their own immobility.
- Meanwhile, "burn" indicates that the speaker grows hot, likely out of fear or embarrassment.
These movements recall an earthquake or some other disturbance in the earth's crust (which is triggered by activity in the mantle, perhaps brought to mind by the word "burn"). This initial description also implies that the mountain of the poem's title is inactive—that it's no longer growing, but rather has been left to slowly erode with time. Its only movements are brief, awkward, and uninvited.
The first stanza then concludes with the simple statement, "I do not know my age," which will be repeated as a refrain throughout the poem. This stark line clues readers into the fact that all this mountain-related language is really a way of describing what it feels like to grow old—so old that the speaker begins to forget how long they've actually been alive! The literal darkness of evening here thus becomes symbolic of the aging speaker's confusion and lack of awareness about what's happening around them.
The sounds of the poem itself add to its detached, melancholy tone. Note, for example, its use of accentual trimeter: most lines here have three stressed beats, with varying numbers of unstressed syllables between them. Here's a look at the meter in lines 1-2, for instance:
At evening, something behind me.
I start for a second, I blench,
There are three strong beats per line, and this relatively repetitive cadence might reflect the monotony of the speaker's daily life. The fact that all the lines here are clearly end-stopped, meanwhile, creates a plodding pace. The poem's relatively sluggish cadence and clear pauses might reflect the slow movements of the speaker's aging body.