Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Ruskin's plague cloud

It may be widely known, but I'd never heard until encountering a query about it that the poet, arist and critic John Ruskin was a keen meteorologist. In 1839, his Remarks on the present state of meteorological science (Transactions of the Meteorological Society) offered a still-pertinent description of the necessary cooperation to run a global meteorological network:

There is one point, it must now be observed, in which the science of meteorology differs from all others. A Galileo, or a Newton, by the unassisted workings of his solitary mind, may discover the secrets of the heavens, and form a new system of astronomy. A Davy in his lonely meditations on the crags of Cornwall, or in his solitary laboratory, might discover the most sublime mysteries of nature, and trace out the most intricate combinations of her elements. But the meteorologist is impotent if alone; his observations are useless ... It is perhaps for this reason that the cause of meteorology has hitherto been so slightly supported; no progress can be made by the most gigantic efforts of a solitary intellect, and the co-operation demanded was difficult to obtain, because it was necessary that the individuals should think, observe, and act simultaneously, though separated from each other by distances on the greatness of which depended the utility of the observations. The Meteorological Society, therefore, has been formed, not for a city, nor for a kingdom, but for the world.

Some fifty years later, Ruskin's meteorological, social and artistic ideas came together in a couple of strange, if not apocalyptic, lectures delivered at the London Institution on February 4th and 11th, 1884: The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (Project Gutenberg EText-No. 20204). In these he described novel weather he had seen over the previous decades:

So far as the existing evidence, I say, of former literature can be interpreted, the storm-cloud--or more accurately plague-cloud, for it is not always stormy--which I am about to describe to you, never was seen but by now living, or _lately_ living eyes. It is not yet twenty years that this--I may well call it, wonderful, cloud has been, in its essence, recognizable. There is no description of it, so far as I have read, by any ancient observer. Neither Homer nor Virgil, neither Aristophanes nor Horace, acknowledge any such clouds among those compelled by Jove. Chaucer has no word of them, nor Dante; Milton none, nor Thomson. In modern times, Scott, Wordsworth and Byron are alike unconscious of them; and the most observant and descriptive of scientific men, De Saussure, is utterly silent concerning them. Taking up the traditions of air from the year before Scott's death, I am able, by my own constant and close observation, to certify you that in the forty following years (1831 to 1871 approximately--for the phenomena in question came on gradually)--no such clouds as these are, and are now often for months without intermission, were ever seen in the skies of England, France, or Italy.

Ruskin reported a peculiar wind that brought dark, and outright scary, cloud.

"For the sky is covered with gray cloud;--not rain-cloud, but a dry black veil, which no ray of sunshine can pierce; partly diffused in mist, feeble mist, enough to make distant objects unintelligible, yet without any substance, or wreathing, or color of its own. And everywhere the leaves of the trees are shaking fitfully, as they do before a thunder-storm; only not violently, but enough to show the passing to and fro of a strange, bitter, blighting wind. Dismal enough, had it been the first morning of its kind that summer had sent. But during all this spring, in London, and at Oxford, through meager March, through changelessly sullen April, through despondent May, and darkened June, morning after morning has come gray-shrouded thus.

And it is a new thing to me, and a very dreadful one. I am fifty years old, and more; and since I was five, have gleaned the best hours of my life in the sun of spring and summer mornings; and I never saw such as these, till now.
It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men's souls--such of them as are not gone yet where they have to go, and may be flitting hither and thither, doubting, themselves, of the fittest place for them
1. It is a wind of darkness,--all the former conditions of tormenting winds, whether from the north or east were more or less capable of co-existing with sunlight, and often with steady and bright sunlight; but whenever, and wherever the plague-wind blows, be it but for ten minutes, the sky is darkened instantly.
2. It is a malignant _quality_ of wind, unconnected with any one quarter of the compass; it blows indifferently from all, attaching its own bitterness and malice to the worst characters of the proper winds of each quarter. It will blow either with drenching rain, or dry rage, from the south,--with ruinous blasts from the west,--with bitterest chills from the north,--and with venomous blight from the
I will tell you thus much: that had the weather when I was young been such as it is now, no book such as 'Modern Painters' ever would or _could_ have been written; for every argument, and every sentiment in that book, was founded on the personal experience of the beauty and blessing of nature, all spring and summer long; and on the then demonstrable fact that over a great portion of the world's surface the air and the earth were fitted to the education of the spirit of man as closely as a school-boy's primer is to his labor, and as gloriously as a lover's mistress is to his eyes.

That harmony is now broken, and broken the world round: fragments, indeed, of what existed still exist, and hours of what is past still return; but month by month the darkness gains upon the day, and the ashes of the Antipodes glare through the night.

Generally the press reported this solemnly and without much comment, as in the New York Times: Ruskin on Plague-Clouds. But in Nature on February 14 1884 there was a major hatchet-job - "Mr Ruskin's Bogies" - by the meteorologist William Clement Ley 1. Apart from taking Ruskin to task for his anti-scientific stance, he debunked the whole thing with observational evidence:

Professor Ruskin's utterances are perhaps to be taken least seriously when he is himself most serious, and probably he was never more in earnest than in his jeremiad on modern clouds, delivered at the London Institution on the 4th and 11th inst. Probably none of the readers of Nature have been terrified by the storm cloud of the nineteenth century, but should it be otherwise we hasten at once to their relief. Twenty years before the date fixed by Mr. Ruskin for the first appearance of his portentous " plague-cloud," the writer of the present article commenced a series of observations on the forms and structures of clouds, followed a few years later by such daily charts of wind and weather as could be constructed from the data, somewhat meagre, that were then accessible. As might be expected, cyclone and anticyclone were then as they are now. The dimensions and densities of the cloud layers have not altered, neither has our moral degeneracy nor the increased smoke of our manufacturing towns developed any new form of cloud. Neither (until the phenomenal sunrises and sunsets of the last three months 2) has Nature, in painting the clouds, employed upon her palette any fresh tints, whatever artists may have done. Further, we have not observed, nor met with any one, except Mr. Ruskin, who has observed, that the wind during the last thirteen years has adopted a "hissing" instead of a "wailing" tone, or that the pressure anemometer indicates that the motion of the air has become more tremulous than heretofore.

So what was Ruskin writing about? Critiques tend to polarise between the enviromental and the psychological: on the one hand co-opting Ruskin as an environmentalist and treating the lectures as an early account of industrial smog 3; on the other, reading it as an obsessed and depressed Ruskin projecting his anxieties on to the weather (for instance, Peter Morton's The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination,1860-1900 has an interesting analysis at the beginning of chapter 4 - Laying the Ghost of the Brute: The Fear of Degeneration - taking the view that Ruskin, having already had episodes of mental disorder, was in an existentially fragile state after reading about the heat-death of the universe). The moral intuition of Ruskin's "Storm-Cloud" (Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 22-SEP-05) discusses various examples of these stances, commenting that:

An examination of Ruskin's description of the six "essential signs" of the "plague-wind" accompanying the storm cloud lends scant credence to his argument that he was observing a new meteorological phenomenon .... Ruskin's "essential signs" ... have less to do with meteorological observation than with Old Testament-style prophetic judgment, being more concerned with impending spiritual apocalypse than with the weather.


But to say that industrial pollution did not create a new meteorological condition, which Ruskin claims to have observed, is not to say that he did not observe something. There is a factual basis for his observations. Rosenberg notes that "[t]he height of his weather obsession ... coincided, in England at least, with a period of high rainfall, extreme cold, and abnormally little sunshine." Rosenberg adds in a note: "Ruskin first observed the storm cloud in 1871; he last wrote of it in 1889. From 1869 through 1889 the temperature in London was below average for eighteen of the twenty-one years; rainfall was abnormally heavy from 1875 through 1882; reliable figures for sunshine are available only after 1879, but sixteen of the twenty autumns and winters from 1880 through 1889 were below average, and the total sunshine was below average for more than sixty per cent of the decade."

There is, in addition, strong reason why Ruskin might have been tipped over into giving the lectures in 1884; the skies and weather had been peculiar for months following the eruption of Krakatoa in August 1883; it's not hard to read "the ashes of the Antipodes glare through the night" as being a probable reference to this. Ruskin wasn't the only one to notice; see the Science and Society Picture Library for a selection of the sketches made by William Ashcroft of unusual skies in the years following Krakatoa. The "forensic astronomer" Donald Olson has argued that the sky in Edvard Munch's The Scream - although painted a decade later - was an observation of the dust-reddened sky from the eruption (see Krakatoa provided backdrop to Munch's scream). If you have journal access (which I don't), the paper The Spectacular English Sunsets of the 1880s (Zaniello, Thomas A., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 360, issue 1 Victorian Sci, pp. 247-267) looks worth checking out on the topic; a footnote in Michael Wheeler's Ruskin and environment: the storm-cloud of the nineteenth century mentions that it provides "a full discussion of the scientific basis of Ruskin's prophetic interpretation of a well-documented phenomenon".

A Dry Black Veil (Brian Dillon, Cabinet, Issue 35, 2009) gives a bit of further social context in the Victorian paranoia about dust (understandable, in such a polluted era). It concludes with a comment on Ruskin's lectures:

This grotesque and opaque effluvium, Victorian successor to the miasma that appalled John Evelyn, is for Ruskin a real meteorological phenomenon; his second lecture is for the most part a defense of the first against the disbelieving and even mocking reactions of the press. But we ought surely to read too in Ruskin’s anguished account of the way the cloud has overcome him in recent years an image of history that contends with Benjamin’s more celebrated motif of the “angel of history.” Like Benjamin, Ruskin sees the rubbish of the world accumulating about him; but where Benjamin’s angel looks dolefully at its feet, the Victorian prophet looks to the sky, because he knows that the atmospheric and historical catastrophe will emerge, like a swirl of dust, out of the air itself.

Samuel Barber's 1903 The cloud world, its features and significance (Internet Archive cloudworlditsfea00barbrich) identifies Ruskin's "plague cloud" as the "Cirro-Pallium":

Plague Cloud or Cirro-Pallium. — This is an occasional or amorphous form of a matted cirro-pallium; Ruskin's " plague-cloud," which he has moralised on and otherwise denominated the " Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century." When rain is approaching, it may be noticed that at certain periods, e.g. during a drought, the curves of cirrus sometimes lose their character and become bent, twisted, and, as some would put it, degraded ; thus giving rise to that ugly, matted, and confused confluence and crossing of lines which excited the abhorrence and vaticination of the great art-critic. It certainly has at times a scraggy and ominous look, and a " mangy" appearance like dirty, matted hair. A thin veil of almost transparent cloud, mixed with cirrus lines, spreading over a large portion of the sky, is often a concomitant of thundery weather.

- Ray

1. An authority on clouds, later author of the 1894 Cloudland: a study on the structure and characters of clouds (Internet Archive cloudlandastudy01leygoog).
2. As mentioned later, down to atmospheric dust from Krakatoa.
3. For instance, "In 1871, the social critic John Ruskin noted a new phenomenon that we now call smog" - The water garden: a practical guide to planning & planting, Peter Robinson, 1997; and "The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, an eccentric two-part discourse on smog" - Writers, readers, and occasions: selected essays on Victorian literature and life, Richard Daniel Altick, 1989.


  1. But the comment in Nature which includes...until the phenomenal sunrises and sunsets of the last three months.. was written in 1894, 11 years after Krakatoa. One must assume that there was some other eruption around that time to account for those sunsets.

    My favorite meteorological phenomena is winds. It is astonishing the effect of wind on the human. One of the more well known is the foehn which I experienced once in Munich. It makes people absolutely crazy!

    I think the idea that Ruskin wasn't playing with a full deck at this time is probably the best explanation.

  2. But the comment in Nature ...

    Ah, sorry, no: that's down to my not playing with a full deck at this instant. I've corrected it to 1884, as it should be.