It’s said the British never stop remarking on their weather. How will they cope in decades to come, when life is all weather, all the time? The country ran a brief test a few weeks ago: in mid- to late February the sun blazed, spring surprised itself, and the temperature in London, where I live, reached over 20°C (68°F). Boon or portent? Meteorological holiday or climate-change hell? Beautiful or sublime? Britons could not agree. It’s now mid-March, and I was awoken at five this morning by rattling windows and the rising shriek of a storm called Gareth (not the direst of names). Abruptly, spring is canceled, and London’s squares are littered with the corpses of premature blossoms.
As the wind died in the morning, I wandered around to Finsbury Circus, on the north side of which the London Institution once stood. It was here, on February 4 and February 11, 1884, that the essayist and art critic John Ruskin (who was born two hundred years ago last month) delivered “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”: a pair of apocalyptic lectures on modern weather. Ruskin was days away from his sixty-sixth birthday when he rose to address a skeptical audience on the subject of “a series of cloud phenomena, which, so far as I can weight existing evidence, are peculiar to our own times.” His powers as writer and orator were not yet depleted; such masterpieces as Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice were behind him, but the autobiographical Praeterita, his last great work, remained to be written. Still, Ruskin’s psychic weather was on the turn. In 1878 he suffered the first of several breakdowns, and was unwell enough, later that year, to miss the infamous libel case that James McNeill Whistler brought against him after Ruskin accused the artist in print of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Was Ruskin mad in the spring of 1884? He had recently progressed, in his ideas, from Romantic anti-modernity to outright rage against scientific knowledge, and when he finally resigned his post as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, it was partly in protest against the university’s teaching of anatomy and pathology. “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” with its vision of late-Victorian life being blasted from above, is a work of what we might call higher paranoia, and its morbidities are perhaps entirely personal to Ruskin. But the text is many things besides: a piece of prescient environmental polemic, an allegory for the depredations of war in Europe, a dark hymn to preternatural weather, and an experiment in formally undermining all the stout virtues of nineteenth-century prose.
The piece begins with a tribute to “the traditions of air”: the fine weather of years gone by, and the purity and integrity of the clouds that came with it. Ruskin had been a close observer of clouds all his life. They were among the glories of nature, thus among the great challenges for painters and poets and writers of poetic prose. The cinema of weather flickered through Ruskin’s youth much as it had done for Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, or Byron: there were good days and bad, and one knew the difference.
In those old days, when weather was fine, it was luxuriously fine; when it was bad—it was often abominably bad, but it had its fit of temper and was done with it—it didn’t sulk for three months without letting you see the sun, nor send you one cyclone inside out, every Saturday afternoon, and another outside in, every Monday morning.
But in 1884? It’s in the trees, it’s coming! He had first noticed it on a walk out of Oxford thirteen years earlier: a dark and dirty cloud—“storm-cloud, or more accurately plague-cloud”—accompanied by an unsettling wind. The cloud is “a dry black veil,” the wind “a wind of darkness.” When the clouds arrive, the sky is blackened instantly, and the wind starts up from any direction, even from all points at once, “attaching its own bitterness and malice to the worst characteristics of the proper winds of each quarter.” This wind blows tremulously. At Brantwood, Ruskin’s home in the Lake District, he has observed the leaves outside his window, or in the woods when he has dared go for a walk, shaking as if in anger, fear, distress.
In case his audience should dispute the existence of this new, sinister type of weather, Ruskin adduces as evidence several decades of his own diary. Many who heard him on February 4 did indeed have doubts, and these were reported in the press the following day. The second lecture, which was meant to repeat the first, unraveled into a long series of quotations from the diaries. When the plague-wind blows, he reports, Ruskin is apt to find his garden full of weeds gone to seed, and his roses “putrefied into brown sponges, feeling like dead snails.” Here he is in a journal entry for June 22, 1876: “Thunderstorm; pitch dark, with no blackness,—but deep, high, filthiness of lurid, yet not sublimely lurid, smoke-cloud; dense manufacturing mist; fearful squalls of shivering wind, making Mr. Severn’s sail quiver like a man in a fever fit—all about four, afternoon—but only two or three claps of thunder, and feeble, though near, flashes. I never saw such a dirty, weak, foul storm.” At home and abroad, Ruskin has slowly amassed his proof; the region of dread affected by the storm-cloud stretched from the north of England as far south as Sicily.
We’ll come to the geopolitical import of that statement in a moment; but first, what has the weather done to Ruskin’s prose? In the second lecture he admits that the first (which is actually far more coherent) was “thrown into form” both “hastily and incautiously.” In “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” one of the great prose stylists of the age performs, whether he means to or not, the violent ruin or dissolution of his own style. For sure, it’s partly a matter of maturity; like many writers, Ruskin became more eloquent as he grew less elegant. The balanced periods, studied assonance, and elevated imagery of the early volumes of Modern Painters give way to looser, dash-strewn sentences (especially in the repurposed diary entries) and a wayward approach to metaphor.
Of course, the storm-cloud itself is a metaphor—or is it? It was Ruskin who had warned his post-Romantic contemporaries about the dangers of attaching too much figural baggage or signifying power to simple mute facts of nature. And he gave this poetic temptation a name: the pathetic fallacy. In the third volume of Modern Painters, published in 1856, Ruskin identified a weak or dissolving tendency in modern poetry. He cites an example from Charles Kingsley’s “The Sands of Dee”: “They rowed her in across the rolling foam, / The cruel crawling foam.” But ocean foam is not cruel, Ruskin comments, and neither does it crawl. “The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.” It is a peculiarly modern condition, this positing of intent or emotion in inanimate things. It suggests a mind that is indistinct and wavering, whereas a healthy imagination is one in which “the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.”
The author of “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” is dissolving, melting, disintegrating—he scarcely knows any longer where the bad weather ends and his own ragged, doleful mood begins. In this sense, the lectures join the mainstream of English literature, which is filled with extravagantly symbolic and transformative storms. “The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,” says Miranda in The Tempest, appalled by the meteorological inventions of Prospero’s magic. Ruskin’s storm presages the one Virginia Woolf reports in her 1924 essay “Thunder at Wembley,” where an overconfident imperial exhibition on the outskirts of London is suddenly threatened: “The sky is livid, lurid, sulphurine. It is in violent commotion … The Empire is perishing; the bands are playing; the Exhibition is in ruins. For that is what comes of letting in the sky.”
For that is what comes of letting in the sky—how would you ever hope to flee its lowering presence? Ruskin is adamant, early in the first lecture and in his introduction—the piece was soon after published as pamphlet, then book—that he is reporting inescapable meteorological fact, and has employed “a chemist’s analysis, and a geometer’s precision.” At times he seems to tell us that the storm-cloud is a product of the industrial age—recall his “dense manufacturing mist”—and at times that it’s so agitated and agitating that there must be more to it, the cloud cannot be composed of smoke alone. Ruskin’s (pseudo-)scientific assurance keeps drifting into realms at once spectral and historical, touching on recent European conflicts and politics. At one point he asks his audience to consider the real possibility that the cloud is made up of souls of the dead from the Franco-Prussian War, which are still hovering over Europe, unsure where to settle.
“A storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings,” writes Walter Benjamin of the angel of history, melancholy witness to the blight of progress. It sounds like a description of Ruskin looking up anxiously from his diaries. His sentences tremble, threaten to evanesce. Something wicked this way comes. Yes, it is the author’s encroaching madness, which would overtake him eventually and render him silent for the last decade of his life. But it is also a vision of European, perhaps global, catastrophe—which, of course, technological modernity was about to deliver in the form of two world wars. Ruskin has already left the nineteenth century behind and is paying fretful attention to dark forms massing at the horizon of the twentieth. (Hard not to wonder, sitting in London today, what this European-minded conservative would have made of the cloud of unknowing that is Brexit.) In this late, visionary piece of writing—which, with its absurd perplex of qualifications and self-quotation, is also an experiment in not writing—Ruskin tore open the pavilion of Victorian self-possession, and pointed furiously at a sky from which all the nightmares would soon come.
Brian Dillon’s books include Essayism, In the Dark Room, and Objects in This Mirror: Essays. He is working on a book about sentences.