In a glowing review of Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland in The Guardian’s books supplement (October 3rd), AS Byatt recalls some lines from a poem by Rossetti that she learned as a child:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.
This feeling that the wind, though invisible if not intangible, was something quite real, and therefore in a different category from elves or fairies or mermaids, made the young Byatt oddly happy, she recalls, though she turned out to be someone for whom weather often posed problems, her asthma aggravated by Sheffield smog and her mood, in adulthood, depressed by lack of light, which we now call seasonal affective disorder, though why it is seasonal I don’t know as in Ireland at least there can seem to be as much, or as little, light in winter as in summer and it is lack of light rather than cold that is most lowering.
Early modern weather was, it seems, often dismal (Donne’s “the whole world’s sap is sunk” might have applied to many more days than just St Lucy’s in December). Things picked up a bit in the eighteenth century, though light also revealed smoke and dirt, and eighteenth and nineteenth century writers and painters (Coleridge, Ruskin, Constable, Turner) were prone to ecstasy about skies and storms. Byatt quotes Harris quoting the wonderful Gilbert White, the Hampshire parson-naturalist, on this occasion observing his pet tortoise’s aversion to rain:
No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed all in her best attire, shuffling away at the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner. If attended to, it becomes an excellent weather-glass.
Dr Johnson brusquely rejected Boswell’s suggestion that the weather can affect our moods or personalities, managing in the process himself ‑ and not for the first time ‑ to be both breezy and somewhat windy.
One of the consequences of course of our walking on two legs, and thus having no problem in surveying the sky as well as the grass or the path beneath us, is that we quickly got around to finding something up there intimately related to our essential being – gods or a God. Even as religious faith began to ebb after the Enlightenment, rapt observation often continued. In the winter of 1859-60, Ruskin counted the “streets” of high cirrus clouds, “not just seven or eight but 150 distinct streets. Sixty clouds in each row, he thought, on average. Nine thousand clouds in one rank, then, and about fifty thousand in the field of sight.”
Dogs of course do not stare at the sky, being more interested in the ground and the fascinating things –principally the squeezings and squirtings of their own kind – that they may find there. When they do look up all they see is us, and it is evident ‑ and of course greatly gratifying to our vanity ‑ that we seem to be all the God they need.
Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland is published by Thames and Hudson at £24.95. The image is JMW Turner’s Ullswater from Gobarrow Park.