Weather and Literature

Thick Cirrus with Sun Dog, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Shelley catches the poetry of clouds and even The Bard talks about the weather.

Weather affects human affairs in all ways, both for good and ill, as convenience and inconvenience, in beauty and ugliness, causing life and causing death. It is not surprising, therefore, that weather references should be sprinkled through great literature.

Two examples have surfaced recently. A friend gave me a copy of "The Cloud" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1872). It took me back in memory to 1971. I was on sabbatical in England studying the history of clouds. My path crossed that of Dr. Frank Ludlam, broad-based English cloud physicist. He had become so entranced by this poem that he wrote a scientific paper about it, pointing out Shelley's perceptiveness of the weather processes.

Take the first verse:

I wield the flail of the lashing hail
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

Shelley must have been impressed by a severe thunderstorm cell that dumped a load of hail leaving the plains white with a coating of ice. Then came the rain squall that melted the hail, followed by lightning and thunder. Shelley, "laughing", suggests the sunshine that follows the passing cloud.

In the third verse we have:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain with never a strain
The pavilion of Heaven is Gale,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
While I gently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb
I arise and unbuild again.

Shelley recognizes the two necessities in the formation of cloud droplet: water vapor and condensation nuclei (dust from the Earth, particularly not evident at the time the poem was written).

The Sky was the environment in which the cloud could grow. "I change, but I cannot die" suggests that Shelly recognized the movement of water from one phase to another -- changing form but not itself changing or being used up.

For the last four lines, I turn to readers of this column. What do you think Shelley meant? To save you looking it up, cenotaph is a monument or empty tomb.

Even The Bard (Shakespeare) talks about the weather

Continuing on the subject of the weather factor as seen in great literature: my request for reader response to Shelley's "The Cloud" brought the following from Barbara Jelinek, a McMinnville High School English teacher.

The poet Shelley was intrigued by wind, rain and sky and used the transformation of an "earthbound" drop of water to a larger significant mass in the sky as a metaphor for human change from despair to hope. In another poem, "Ode to the West Wind", he looks at the wind-tossed trees, waves, clouds and begs the wind to change him from a dull, pained poet to an eloquent one:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
Scatter -- my words among mankind!
If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?

Change, rebirth, resurrection of the self is what it is all about. The cycle of change in existence persists, and Earth, Wind, Sky are our important symbols. Barbara Jelinek

Shakespeare writings are infused with references to the weather. At one time, a number of years ago, the question of how many times, and where, caught my fancy and I did a bit of research. The results were of sufficient interest that I was invited to be the program for the local Ladies of Shakespeare Club.

Thanks to Marianne Mitchell, an outstanding example is found in the tragedy of "King Lear." A severe storm is the setting of dramatic discourse, Act III Scene II.

(Enter Lear and Fool)

Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou all-shaking thunder
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Rumble thy bellyful! Split, fire! spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters

(Enter Kent): Since I was man,
Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never
Remember to have heard; man's nature cannot carry
The affliction nor the fear --

This is nature at its most fierce, used as metaphor for similarly stormy human relationships. Because weather so influences human affairs, it becomes a perfect foil for authors who write of human affairs.


Words on the Weather Articles:

London Fog | Weather's Ups and Downs | Yin/Yang of Weather | Clouds from Prison

Under-the-Weather Man | Weather and Literature | For Spacious Skies | El Niño | Summer Solstice

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