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The Language of Clouds

Long before reliable weather reports were available, poets were interested in meteorology. Scholars from the Peter Szondi Institute studied the relationship between weather and literature.

Jan 15, 2019

Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian writer, painted cloud formations and made weather phenomena an important motif of his stories as well.

Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian writer, painted cloud formations and made weather phenomena an important motif of his stories as well.
Image Credit: gemeinfrei/ www.zeno.org/nid/20004312635

The barometer that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used to measure air pressure looked very different from present-day instruments. It was shaped like a pear and filled with water. If the weather was nice, the water level in the rounder part of the pear rose; in bad weather, it fell. Goethe was fascinated by this device, which made it possible to view phenomena that were still a complete mystery at the time.

The science of weather was in its infancy back then. The modern scientific research discipline of meteorology would not develop until decades later. Even an acclaimed polymath like Goethe did not understand much of the processes taking place in the sky, as shown by his own theory of what caused the water in the barometer to rise and fall: The Earth was breathing in and out, like a living being, he thought.

“For a long time, what happened in the sky was largely unpredictable, inexplicable, and uncontrollable to people,” says Michael Gamper, a professor of general and comparative literature at the Peter Szondi Institute at Freie Universität Berlin. Gamper and his colleague Urs Büttner, who has a doctorate in literature, studied how literature and meteorology influenced each other.

Around 1800, when the first systematic observations of weather began, bringing with them the start of the study of the Earth’s atmosphere, the subject was a fascinating one for poets as well. The research project entitled “Literary Meteorology. Knowledge, Practice, and Aesthetics of Weather, 1750–2013” was concluded this past fall, after four years. To mark the occasion, a workshop was held in late November to discuss various aspects of the relationship between weather and literature. “The 19th century was especially interesting to us, since artists like Goethe were still actively involved in producing knowledge,” Gamper says.

For example, Goethe was involved in building several weather stations in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. He was also fascinated by clouds. He was an enthusiastic reader of the writings of Luke Howard, a British pharmacist and chemist, who was the first to divide clouds into various types, in 1803, and gave them the names that are still used today: cumulus, cirrus, stratus. Goethe even went so far as to dedicate a poem to Howard, in 1821. Entitled “In Honor of Mr. Howard,” the poem praises the researcher’s achievements, but also stresses that the dynamism of clouds should be described in even more vivid terms. And that was a task only a poet could achieve.

Goethe kept a daily cloud journal, recording his observations of the sky. He was especially interested in the transitions and movements between cloud forms. “Goethe wanted to find a new language, something so smooth that it did justice to the fleeting, ephemeral cloud processes,” Gamper says. But the poet was not yet able to offer scientific explanations for the existence of rain, snow, or hail, although he did try, in his 1825 essay “Toward a Theory of Weather.” The theory of the “breathing” Earth it expounds might sound abstruse today, but given the state of knowledge at the time, it was by no means obscure then.

Meteorology was very slow to develop as a reliable science. First, individual weather stations were built. They were then grouped together in regional networks, recording standardized weather data for the first time. Starting in about 1850, telegraphy made it possible to share this information throughout Europe as well, and then combine it and analyze it at publicly funded central institutes. It was not until then that a gradual understanding of weather as a global phenomenon began to emerge. Still, 19th-century people were a long way from reliable weather forecasts.

Gaps in knowledge in the scientific field are interesting to scholars of literature

This coexistence of knowledge and lack of knowledge was also a subject for Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian writer. Stifter was intimately familiar with the state of knowledge in the natural sciences, and he was especially interested in unexpected weather events that suddenly befall people. For example, an unsuccessful weather forecast is the pivotal plot element in his 1852 novella Rock Crystal. In the story, which is set at Christmas, two children set off to visit their grandparents in a neighboring mountain valley. Surprised by a snowstorm on their way through the mountains, the children lose their way.

Stifter placed several hints at a change in the weather at the start of his story. They show that he studied the meteorological findings of his era closely. “He knew exactly what signs point to a snowstorm,” Gamper says: a milky veil of clouds, a reddish sky, mild, warmish air. His characters see the signs, but they misinterpret them. The entire story hinges on their lack of knowledge of weather phenomena. “Gaps in knowledge in the scientific field are especially interesting to scholars of literature,” Gamper says. “Meteorology is an excellent field to show this.”

This is also apparent from the further course of literary history. As meteorology became more accurate as a science and weather reports grew more reliable, direct literary references to meteorology dwindled away. Instead, authors turned to terms from the study of weather as linguistic material for developing their own poetics. Sometimes, a term used in meteorology might appear only in a title, without any reference to the actual weather phenomena. Examples include Rose Ausländer’s volume of poetry Treffpunkt der Winde (Meeting Point of the Winds) and Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s A History of Clouds. Literary scholars have coined a special term for this phenomenon: “meteopoetology.”

This text originally appeared in German on December 15, 2018, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Michael Gamper, Professor of Comparative Literature, Peter Szondi Institute, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838 61679, Email: michael.gamper@fu-berlin.de