Friday, April 16, 2010

The bright sun was extinguish'd

With flights grounded following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull and a cloud of volcanic ash covering the country, causing spectacular sunsets, it seems a good moment to recall Jonathan Bate's account of the impact another eruption had on Romantic poetry.  In 1815, the volcano of Tambora, in Indonesia, blasted dust into the stratosphere and cooled global temperatures.  'The effect lasted for three years, straining the growth-capacity of life across the planet. Beginning in 1816, crop failure led to food riots in nearly every country in Europe. Only in 1819 were there good harvests again'. (The Song of the Earth, 2000 p97).  It 'rained in Switzerland on 130 out of the 183 days from April to September 1816. The average temperature that July was an astonishing 4.9ยบ Fahrenheit below the mean for that month in the years 1807-24'.  And it was during that gloomy summer that Lord Byron composed his poem ‘Darkness’ on the shores of Lake Geneva: 

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;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day...

John Keats wrote his 'Ode to Autumn’ in September 1819.  Jonathan Bate argues that this poem celebrates the end of the failed harvests caused by the eruption of Tambora. In August Keats wrote to his sister Fanny:  "The delightful Weather we have had for two Months is the highest gratification I could receive--no chill'd red noses--no shivering--but fair atmosphere to think in..."  And here's the famous opening stanza of Keats' poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

1819 was Keats' great year, when he composed his other major odes, finished 'The Eve of St Agnes' and wrote 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci.'  He also fell in love with Fanny Brawne.  Wentworth Place, where Keats lived next door to the Brawnes, has been newly restored.  We paid it a visit last week and found its grey rooms, lit by the spring sunshine, less melancholy than might have been expected.  After such a long bleak winter it was a relief to enjoy the garden in "delightful Weather" that would have gladdened the poet.  This garden is a lovely spot to sit in and read, or play hide and seek, or admire the old mulberry tree that Keats himself would have seen as he looked out on the orchard. 

The old mulberry tree in the garden at Keats House,
photographed last week


Anonymous said...

there were really wonderful snakeshead fritillaries in the Keats garden, I had never seen so many so close up. Virginia Woolf wrote about the mulberry tree in her article about Keats House: it is tremendously moving to think of both great souls enjoying the tree. The attendant in Keats House said that the mulberry tree still gives lovely fruit.

Mrs Plinius.

Anonymous said...

I watched 'Bright Star', the Jane Campion film about John Keats and Fanny Brawne last night and would definitely recommend it. Although not filmed at Keats House (it was under restoration at the time), it is beautifully shot and the acting is distinctively unlike the standard 'costume drama' style. I think you would particularly like the scene Keats climbs the blossom trees and the bluebell scene.

Plinius said...

Thanks for the comments. I have seen the film and enjoyed it - like you I thought the acting seemed very 'real' and made the ending unbearably sad. I'm not sure the poetry came over very powerfully though - e.g. the final credits where we didn't need 'Ode to a Nightingale' read over distracting background music.

Anyone interested in the influence of volcanic eruptions on art should also read Simon Winchester's Guardian article in which he goes further than Jonathan Bate. 'Mary Shelley, it is said, became so fed up with the rain while visiting Byron in Geneva that she followed suit and wrote her exceptionally gloomy novel Frankenstein. Only JMW Turner rose more cheerfully to the occasion: the lurid colours of many of his paintings, it is said, owe much to the flaming Tambora sunsets that had half the world astonished, and Turner evidently inspired.

'Krakatoa's immediate aftermath was dominated initially by dramatic physical effects – a series of tsunamis that were measured as far away as Portland Bill and Biarritz, a bang of detonation that was clearly heard (like naval gunfire, said the local police officer) 3,000 miles away on Rodriguez Island, and a year's worth of awe-inspiring evening beauty – astonishing sunsets of purple and passionfruit and salmon that had artists all around the world trying desperately to capture what they managed to see in the fleeting moments before dark. A Londoner named William Ascroft left behind almost 500 watercolours that he painted, one every 10 minutes like a human film camera, from his Thames-side flat in Chelsea; Frederic Church, of America's so-called Hudson River School, captured the crepuscular skies over Lake Ontario in their full post-Krakatoan glory; and many now agree that Edvard Munch had the purple and orange skies over Oslo in mind when 10 years afterwards he painted, most hauntingly, The Scream.'