Monday, November 7, 2016

Goethe's rainy days in 1816

Thomas Jefferson's temperature notes, 1810–1816
It was in the summer of rain of 1816 that Goethe mentioned in a letter to the classical scholar Heinrich Karl Eichstadt of his interest in Lord Byron, which was also the summer in which Byron and his friends were in residence on the shores off Lake Geneva, also rained in. As in previous years, Goethe planned a stay at a spa in the hopes of physical “Linderung,” e.g., from his rheumatoid “Übel,” which caused him on occasion to be bed ridden. Nevertheless, as he wrote to Zelter on June 8, the “cimmerian” summer was standing in his way. Since we know that Germany can be cold in summer, it must have been really cold. Like many learned people, he made notes in his diary about the weather, although perhaps not so consistently as did our third president.

The above account is from Wolfgang Berhringer's Tambora und das Jahr ohne Sommer. According to Behringer, Goethe planned to  to travel to Wiesbaden, then to Baden-Baden. Without being aware of it, he was planning to travel to the center of the European hunger crisis, caused by the massive amounts of material erupted into the atmosphere the year before and producing the worst harvest since the 1770s. He had not got far in his journey to Wiesbaden, however, when, on July 20, the wagon in which he was traveling broke an axle, and Meyer, his traveling companion, suffered a head injury. Since he was in  his own coach, he could not exchange it for another. He returned to Weimar, where he spent the night and had dinner with the physicist Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni. According to his diary they talked about meteors. Chladni was among the first to identify the phenomenon of meteors. (Wikipedia identifies Chladni as "physicist and musician." Was he hearing the "music of the spheres"?) Behringer assumes they also talked about the continuing unusual weather, which was then occupying the thoughts of scientists. Chladni would publish an article, in 1819, with his own theories: "Über die Ursachen der naßkalten Kälte des Jahres 1816."

On July 24, Goethe journeyed instead to the Tennstedt sulfur springs. It took eight hours to reach Tennstedt from Weimar, as he reported in a letter to Meyer, writing that he had never seen "soviel Noth und Qual auf einem Weg von acht Stunden." He ended up not being very happy with the conditions there: the spa was a barely tolerable place to be and he frequently mentions the terrible weather, not to mention that neither the guests nor the facilities could compare with Carlsbad or Baden-Baden. Even simple walks were impossible. On his return to Weimar he was sunk in what Behringer calls “winter blues.” Throughout December, e.g., he suffered from an evil “catarrh.” Not until the new year was he again on his feet.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was not until February 1817 that he read a report in Cotta’s Morgenblatt about the Tambora eruption. Yet he seems not to have made a connection between the cold summer temperatures, the constant rain, and the bad agricultural yields of 1816. At the same time, as minister he was responsible for the mines and for the natural sciences in general. Thus, it is not surprising that he would notice the weather, and not simply because of his desire to go to spas, or to engage in conversations with Döbereiner on the oxygen content of the atmosphere and on sun spots. He was also occupied with the local consequences of flooding because of the constant rain. His observation about “Gewitterwolken” on July 21 fit his interest in cloud theory; since December of 1815 he had been occupied with Luke Howard’s  essay on clouds. There was lots of weather collecting at the time, people knew that something irregular was going on, but they didn't have the physics, especially the idea of global circulation.

Byron’s Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva
So, the weather was just one of many things occupying Goethe in these crisis years. In fact, in April 1815, when Tambora started erupting, Napoleon was re-erupting, raising an army in Paris, but the Battle of Waterloo would soon follow. Afterward, the nations of Europe, struggling from the effects of so many years of continental warfare, were not in good shape to deal with the environmental crisis. There were the problems of reintegrating trade after the wars, getting people to work in peacetime, reorganizing international trade, high unemployment. And then, in 1816, the growing season was reduced, and there was snowfall in summer in central Europe. England did not have a subsistence crisis because of its maritime trade and its imports from America. Half a million barrels of flour arrived in the ports of Liverpool in 1818. In central Europe, with rudimentary transportation systems, it was difficult to get food.

Landscape and weather were the base of much poetry at the time: doing weather though the lens of the theory of the sublime.The English writers living in Geneva that summer could not go boating, so they sat inside and talked. They enjoy watching the thunderstorms over the lake: aesthetic spectacle. Byron’s “Darkness” emerge from this time, as did Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

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