Thursday, October 13, 2016

Goethe and the year without summer

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Himmel glüht (1818)
I have really been falling behind in my posting. There has been so much to do in connection with the book I have been writing, which has left little time for anything else. I am resolved now, however, to do better (thereby sounding like Emma Woodhouse, with her list of 101 important books to read). A few days ago I came across an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concerning the above topic. The year without a summer occurred a century ago, in 1816, and was an effect of the eruption of the Tamboro volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in April 1815. Among other things, the eruption launched enormous volumes of volcanic rock and gases more than 25 miles into the stratosphere and "volcanic aerosoles" that then began to circle the planet at the equator. Within five months of what has been called a "slow-moving sabotage of the global climate system at all latitudes," a meteorological enthusiast named Thomas Forster observed strange, spectacular sunsets over Tunbridge Wells near London. “Fair dry day,” he wrote in his weather diary—but “at sunset a fine red blush marked by diverging red and blue bars.”

The article in FAZ by Rose-Maria Gropp concerned some of the artists who observed this effect. These included Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner, whose paintings described a new color in the sky.

William Turner, Dido Builds Carthage (1815)
Naturally I was interested in Goethe's response to this climate event, as it adversely affected agriculture in Germany, leading to crop failures and mass starvation in 1816. Carl von Clausewitz, traveling through the Rhine region in the spring of 1816, wrote that he saw "decimated people, barely human, prowling the fields for half-rotten potatoes.” According to Wolfgang Behringer, it rained without stop in Thuringen that summer, making the streets impassable and preventing Goethe from traveling to Karlsbad. His diary of that summer records his observations. In the following posts I will discuss those entries and Goethe's response.

Readers of this blog who are members of the Goethe Society of North America know of my interest in the subject of Goethe and science generally. I have posted on that subject in past posts, but going forward I would like to devote more space to the subject, as it is a "relatively" under-researched area of Goethe scholarship. In particular, I would like to situate Goethe within the science of his time. If anyone has any suggestions on this topic, please get in touch.

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