Tuesday 15 May 2012

1816 Again?

Mid-May and, after the weekend's teasing taste of something sunnier, Mai, Lieber Mai has swept back in with heavy rain and Arctic winds, driving me back into my winter coat and scarf. Yes, mid-May - the season evoked in the Ode to a Nightingale with images of  'White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; And mid-May's eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.'
Could we be in for a repeat of the Year without a Summer? This was 1816, when Europe and North America suffered incessant rain, cold and crop failures. In the West of England, it rained on 142 out of 153 days, there was snow in the Lake District in July, London's average 'summer' temperature was 13 degrees C, and soaring food prices led to riots. The principal cause of all this seems to have been the eruption of Mount Tambura on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, and the airborne ash from this event produced unusually spectacular sunsets - which are said to have inspired some of Turner's most striking images. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the holidaying Shelleys and their friends, driven indoors by the relentless rain, competed to write the most frightening story, and the result was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As for Keats - newly qualified as an apothecary - he spent the summer with his brother Tom in Margate (also a favourite resort of Turner's).
There have been no volcanic eruptions to account for the cold wet summer we're having now, so I guess we'll just have to put it down to global warming.


  1. Apparently, the advocates of anthropogenic change were also hard at it in 1816, blaming the dreadful weather on everything from the Freemasons to Ben Franklin’s experiments with electricity. Increased sunspot activity led to fears of imminent solar death and an Italian professor stated that this would occur on precisely July 18th, causing mass panic in several European cities:

    A Bath girl woke her aunt and shouted at her that the world was ending, and the woman promptly plunged into a coma. In Liege, a huge cloud in the shape of a mountain hovered over the town, causing alarm among the "old women" who expected the end of the world on the eighteenth. In Ghent, a regiment of cavalry passing through the town during a thunderstorm blew their trumpets, causing "three-fourths of the inhabitants" to rush forth and throw themselves on their knees in the streets, thinking they had heard the seventh trumpet.

    A happier result of all this consternation was Byron’s terrific poem Darkness, written that July:

    I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
    The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
    Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
    Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
    Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air …

    The poem ends in a vision of universal catastrophe:

    The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
    And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
    Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea
    And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
    They slept on the abyss without a surge –
    The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
    The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
    The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
    And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
    Of aid from them – She was the Universe.

    If that’s not enough, the summerless year has inspired a pretty odd song – with engagingly clunky lyrics – by the ‘cello- driven’ New York band Rasputina:


  2. Wow! Thanks for that, Jonathan - clunky words as you say, but they make some rather wonderful sounds...