New Times,
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Man’s weather obsession

31 March 1917: Man has for centuries prayed for fine weather. He has even tried to invent it. Clearly it is something to be talked about.

By New Statesman

People usually assume that the weather is a dull subject of conversation, writes the author of this article from 1917, but where the topic has previously been reserved for poor conversationalists, the author wishes to reconsider its reputation. Nothing boosts a newspaper’s sales like a heat wave, especially if it breaks a record: “One feels extraordinarily pleased: one wants to read the passage out to other people.” Even a period of bad weather – like the abominable winter the author writes from – provides an opportunity to recall and boast to children who are not yet born. Furthermore, some of our most celebrated writers dwell upon the subject. Clearly, there is always something to say about the weather.

It is usually taken for granted that the weather is the dullest of all subjects of conversation. We pretend, indeed, that it is a mere fillgap for bad talkers, who speak of it with formality and without conviction. We allow ourselves to feel none of the enthusiasm of the Irish countryman who, when his neighbour meets him with the greeting: “It’s a fine day,” replies: “It is, glory be to God.” And yet the weather is really not a dull but a sensational subject. We are sure there is nothing in the papers read more eagerly and by a greater number of people than a description of the current weather. Scarcely one of us can resist reading a paragraph on the weather, though it tells us little more than that yesterday was a wet day. Every summer in London when the spell of hot weather begins — or used to begin — the sensational papers send out their reporters to loaf about in the sun and to relate how the weather is affecting banana sellers, American soda-fountains, and bathers in the Serpentine. It always makes good reading.

The report usually goes on to tell one how hot one was on the corresponding day of the previous year and on various other hot days in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If it announces that one has just passed through the hottest day for fifteen years, one feels extraordinarily pleased: one wants to read the passage out to other people. Even if one has not enjoyed the hottest day itself, one enjoys having assisted at the making of a record. It gives one a curious sense of personal triumph. One feels an inch taller than one’s ancestors, and one has a pretty confidence that posterity will be hard put to it to score a higher mark.

Even the bad dream of bad weather which the world is at present experiencing may not seem entirely unpleasant in retrospect. The ice and the snow — the snow that falls suddenly out of a warm sky, makes the ground white in a five minutes’ blizzard, and then (the sun opening one eye) melts like a vision on the wet pavements — have, we trust, established a record that will be worth telling about to children yet unborn. We know people who have a gift for recalling discomfortable winters. They ask you if you remember the winter of “let me see — wasn’t it 1894? Yes, ’94. That was a terrible winter.” And the older people are the more they are given to remembering the worse kinds of weather.

While one is young there is scarcely such a thing as bad weather. A wet month at the seaside is, in a measure, depressing; but, provided it is sufficiently wet, the child will find something to enjoy in it. Flooded fields, with an isolated tree lost in the wilderness of the waters, are an exciting spectacle in childhood, and the very sound of rain pouring into a water-barrel is music that makes the day delightful. We knew a child who used to be content on a wet day to stand for hours listening to the rain falling on an umbrella. Even when we have reached a later age the rainbow that flames out in a shower of rain retreating over the sea is a thrilling enough sight.

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But most of us, as we grow older, grow barometrical. Our bones become sure prophets of wet weather, and our spirits sink like the mercury as the sign of a coming storm. We begin to regard the weather as mostly bad just as a child regards the weather as mostly good. Our conversation becomes more addicted to diseases and complaints. If we talk about the weather it is only to grumble.

To cease to enjoy talking about the weather is to have lost youth and poetry. The happiest and most poetic literature is that in which the sense of the weather most predominates. One of the greatest scenes in dramatic literature opens with a conversation about the weather. It is the scene in which Hamlet begins:

The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold;

and Horatio replies:

It is a nipping and an eager air.

No other English dramatist had so fine a weather sense as Shakespeare. His plays are full of storms and sunshine, of the wind and the rain. And how much of the poetry of the nineteenth century is praise of good weather! Wordsworth and Shelley and Browning can all talk about the weather without ever growing tired. Shelley’s Cloud is the most wonderful fantasy on the weather in any language. Every beauty of an early summer day is in The Skylark, and every marvel and magic of the autumn in the Ode to the West Wind.

As for Wordsworth, he may be said to have rediscovered the weather as a poetical subject. He has a sense of the kind of day it is in everything he writes. The weather gives him one of the most beautiful of his openings:

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration.

Browning’s dramatic sense again included what we have just called the “sense of the kind of day it is.” From Pippa’s song to Andrea del Sarto, from A Lovers Quarrel to Two in the Campagna, we are given an astonishing procession of sad and glad and lovely days. There are few more realistic descriptions of weather effects in literature than his:

Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask I’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.

[See also: How the weather shapes history]

We doubt if the novelists have as good a record in regard to the weather as the poets. William Black rather discredited the weather in our own day by using it with no feeling for economy; but all the same it would be a pity if the novelist neglected unduly so exciting and sensational a circumstance of our lives. We have very little sense of the weather in the eighteenth century novelists. Fielding and Smollett — if our memory serves us right — were strangely indifferent to it. Thinking over the question which of the great novelists had the surest sense of the weather, we came to the conclusion that it must be Turgenev. We took down his novels to refresh our memory, and we found that one after another opened with a description of weather. Thus A House of Gentlefolk begins:

A bright spring day was fading into evening. High overhead in the clear heavens small rosy clouds seemed hardly to move across the sky but to be sinking into its depths of blue.

Rudin, again, begins:

It was a quiet summer morning. The sun stood already pretty high in the clear sky, but the fields were still sparkling with dew; a fresh breeze blew fragrantly from the scarce awakened valleys, and in the forest, still damp and hushed, the birds were merrily carolling their morning song.

And the opening of On the Eve shows two young men lying on the grass in the shade of a lime-tree beside a river on “one of the hottest days of the summer of 1853.” One can in a measure infer from this habit of opening his novels with little notes on quiet and sunny weather the nature of Turgenev’s genius — his tenderness for beauty, his almost caressing love of a beautiful day. He has charmed the world exactly as the soft of day he describes charms it. Meredith’s novels also seem to the memory to be full of beautiful days. There are days in Richard Feverel, The Egoist and Harry Richmond that are perfect lyrics.

Mr Hardy, on the other hand, has to no comparable extent the sense of sunshine. His verse especially seems to have an outlook on rain. Nights that “are weird and wet” haunt his imagination. Among living novelists, no one writes with a more constant eye on the weather than Mr Conrad. Mr Conrad’s stories are weather stories beyond any others in English. In Typhoon a storm is one of the principal characters, and in his new story, The Shadow-Line, a black tropical calm plays almost as large a part. Who can forget the wonderful weather of the night of Lord Jim’s tragedy, or of the night on which the strange swimmer came aboard in The Secret Sharer?

We confess to a softness for any author who gives us plenty of fine weather. We do not care for imitation sunshine such as the stage is flooded with in sentimental plays. But we do rejoice in any book that gives us a sense of the sun and stars. We love to hear of a fine day, if it is only in a letter from a friend. The room brightens as we read it, and the world sings as it spins. Hence we cannot side with those people who find talk about the weather boring. If we get a letter with no mention of so important a subject, we feel as Keats did when he was given a rose that had no smell. Why, we have known a man who endured a summer comfortably in London by reading the reports of the weather at watering-places in the Daily Telegraph. We can enjoy the blue-and-gold of a day at the sea by proxy. But indeed there is no need to apologise for talking about the weather in these days.

Weather has been making history during the last three years, as it made it in the time of Napoleon. Who can measure the effects of the weather on the Battle of Champagne and the Battle of the Somme? Who knows what a terrible foe the weather may prove to be to either side in this year of threatened harvests? The long ice that kills the winter wheat, the long rains that turn battlefields into quagmires, are among the twenty things that decide the fate of nations.

Man has for centuries prayed for fine (or at least favourable) weather. He has even tried to invent it. Clearly it is something to be talked about. To ignore it is a mere affectation of the town-bred man.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

[See also: All it takes to transform me is the warmth of the first rays of the summer sun]

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