Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today on the blog, Tess Somervell explores the resonance of Luke Howard’s writings on clouds.
A contender for the best English Heritage blue plaque in London is that commemorating the chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard (1772-1864), at 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham. Howard is listed simply as ‘Namer of Clouds’.
In December 1802, Howard gave a lecture to the Askesian Society called the ‘Essay on Clouds’, published the following year as an essay ‘On the Modification of Clouds’. Previously most meteorologists had held that clouds were too transient and variable to classify. But Howard argued that clouds shifted between a limited number of fundamental forms or ‘modifications’, for which he proposed the Latin nomenclature that we still use today: cumulus, cirrus, stratus, nimbus, and their various combinations.
Howard’s theory of cloud formation immediately caught the imaginations of Romantic poets and artists: its influence can be seen in Percy Shelley’s 1820 poem ‘The Cloud’ and in the landscape paintings of John Constable. Howard’s cloud terminology has become so familiar that most people who are familiar with the cloud names aren’t aware that they are Romantic inventions. Over the last century, as well as providing titles for paintings, sculptures, and musical and literary compositions, Howard’s cloud names have been repurposed in product branding: you can buy Cumulus and Nimbus running shoes, or a Cirrus Ironing Board.
Howard’s essay on clouds, then, is a Romantic text that has been reimagined in varied ways. But from the first, readers were intrigued as much by the figure of Howard himself as by his work. In 1815, Goethe read a German translation of ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ and was stirred by Howard’s method of giving form and order to formless, boundless nature. He wrote a poem ‘In Honour of Howard’ which, before describing the cloud types themselves, begins with lines celebrating the namer of clouds: ‘Howard gives us with his clearer mind / The gain of lessons new to all mankind… As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall, / Let the world think of thee who taught it all.’ (trans. George Soane and Sir John Bowring). Goethe wanted to know more about the man behind the science. He wrote to the British Foreign Office, requesting ‘even the barest outline of Howard’s life… Thus I could see how such a mind took form, and how it was led to view nature in a natural way, give itself over to her, recognize her laws…’ (trans. Douglas Miller) He was delighted when this request was met with a letter from Howard himself, containing a brief autobiography, which Goethe then translated into German and had published.
In recent decades, artists and writers have continued to reimagine Howard as a figure and a personality. Many are just as if not more romanticising in their depiction of Howard as is Goethe’s poem. In his excellent book, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Richard Hamblyn (also Howard’s biographer) lists several works of art that have taken Howard the man, rather than the clouds-as-understood-by-Howard, for their theme. These include Lavinia Greenlaw’s poem ‘What We Can See of the Sky Has Fallen’ (from A World Where News Travelled Slowly) and Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds’ (from The Bees). It is telling that both Greenlaw’s and Duffy’s poems draw more from Howard’s memoir letter to Goethe (and also, in Greenlaw’s case, an account of him written by his granddaughter), than from the essay on clouds. In his letter, Howard recalls watching the weather from his bedroom at school, especially the strange weather of 1783 and a dramatic meteor: ‘We were roused from our beds by the intense light it afforded’. Greenlaw echoes but reworks this as ‘A childhood of freak weather – roused from your bed / To see the night lit by a meteor’. Duffy’s account is even more Romantic: ‘Smitten / he stared up evermore; saw / a meteor’s fiery spurt’.
One of the most recent reimaginings of Howard is ‘Namer of Clouds’, the title song of the debut album by folk singer-songwriter Kitty Macfarlane. The song begins with that same image of Howard as a child: ‘A small boy stands / Face pressed to the glass…’ The first half of ‘Namer of Clouds’ celebrates, as did Goethe, Howard’s ability to name and give meaning to an elusive sky. However, in the second half, a note of disturbance enters. ‘How did we become so bold,’ Macfarlane asks, to ‘seize the heavens, claim control’? These lines reverberate to the song’s close, so that the refrain ‘namer of clouds’ assumes an ambivalence. Is naming an act of inspired imagination, as for Goethe, an expression of love, as for Duffy, or is it, as Macfarlane suggests, a way of claiming ownership that may be arrogant, even violent?
It is amusing that Howard has been reimagined so often as a Romantic lone visionary, more closely resembling Wordsworth’s image of Newton as ‘a mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’ than Howard’s portrait of himself in the letter to Goethe: ‘a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends’. But romanticising Howard at least reminds us of the human creativity, and the emotional and cultural currents, that underlie seemingly objective scientific theories and terms, in the Romantic period and in any age. Imagining and reimagining the ‘Namer of Clouds’ is a way into thinking about the ethics of observing, analysing, and labelling the natural world.
– Duffy, Carol Ann. The Bees. Picador, 2011.
– Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Scientific Studies. Ed. and trans. Douglas Miller. Vol. 12 of Collected Works. Princeton University Press, 1996.
– Greenlaw, Lavinia. A World Where News Travelled Slowly. Faber and Faber, 1997.
– Hamblyn, Richard. Clouds: Nature and Culture. Reaktion Books, 2017.
– Macfarlane, Kitty. Namer of Clouds. Navigator Records, 2018.
– Scott, Douglas. Luke Howard (1772-1864): His Correspondence with Goethe and His Continental Journey of 1816. William Sessions Ltd, 1976.
Tess Somervell is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds. Her current project is titled ‘Georgic Climates: Writing the Weather in Eighteenth-Century Poetry’.