Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Goethe and the Cloud Messenger

Study of Cirrus Clouds by John Constable

Many years ago (2008!) I penned a short post in which I included a verse from a poem (in translation) by Goethe in honor of Luke Howard and the Englishman's classification of clouds. Among Goethe's many duties in the duchy was that of overseer of the meteorological station at the university in Jena. He became a systematic observer of cloud formations, and it was through this interest that he learned of Howard and his writings on clouds, or, according to the Marginalian, "humanity’s favorite atmospheric phenomena." We know that Goethe was interested in many eminent English, French, Italian, and American men of science (yes, most were men), but Howard might have appealed to him because he did not come from academia. Indeed, Howard was a Quaker, which meant that in England in the early part of the 19th century he was not permitted to attend the university, which was the case of many early inventors. Howard is the person who gave us the Latin names that became the basis for the classification of cloud formation: status, cumulus, cirrus. It turns out that, when Howard was criticized for his use of Latin rather than English terms, Goethe stepped in and wrote in Howard's favor that his nomeneclature “should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.” The image below, from the Cloud Appreciation Society website, shows "Altocumulus above patches of Altostratus spotted over Goethe’s home town of Weimar."

I found myself returning to the subject of clouds after recently reading the novel A Passage North by the Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam. In this novel, the present-day narrator, sighing for the presence of a woman he loves, relates the story in the  Meghaduta by the Sanskrit writer Kalidasa of the neglectful deity banished from his Himalayan residence for a year by his master, the god of wealth, Kubera, for an offense and is thereby separated from his beloved. Espying a passing cloud, the banished yaksha requests of this cloud that it bear a message to his distant lover. The message is to the effect that his love for her is unchanged and that she should hold on to that love until his return. 

The majority of the poem is the narrator's description of the route that the Cloud Messenger is to take to reach her. For anyone interested, I came across a thesis from the faculty of theology and religious studies at the Reijksuniversiteit in Holland that has that route as its subject: "Exploring the Geographical Data of the Meghadūta: Reconstructing the Route of the Cloud." A map is included. It is in the second verse of Goethe's poem honoring Luke Howard that the cloud messenger is mentioned. (See this translation.)

Just when you think you have come up with something new to write a blog post about, someone has  already written a thesis on it! In preparing this blog post, I even came across a piece in an Indian journal concerning the reception in Germany of Kalidasa's work, including the drama Sakuntala, first translated from Sanskrit by Sir Willliam Jones into Latin, and then into German by Georg Forster, "the Mainz Jacobin," according to Indian Review, who then forwarded his translation to Goethe. What a small world.

And to top all this off, consider this bit of information, also from Indian Review. The posthumous publication of Heinrich Heine's works in 1869 revealed that Heine had noticed the use Goethe made of the Sakuntala, namely, in the "Vorspiel auf dem Theater" in Faust. In the Sakuntala drama, after an actor appears on stage and speaks a prayer to Shiva for the performance, the stage director appears and informs the leading actress "that the drama Sakuntala is to be performed before a cultured audience, so that the actors must do their utmost." As the writer in Indian Review acknowledges of the differences in the two prologues: "two different kinds of society, each with different expectations of the theatre." World literature, indeed, on the subject of which a colleague of mine in the Goethe Society of North America, Willi Goetschel, has recently published an article on Heine and world literature.

For those who have more interest in clouds, in particular in the writings of Germans, the Freie Universität has a nice post on the "Language of Clouds."

No comments: