In the writing of the Anglo-Saxons it is always winter; it is cold there, in a culture where the natural world is commonly considered to be an enemy. Winter, and darkness, were the prevailing conditions in a land of frost and snow falling. Storms of rain and hail pass through the night and touch “the dank earth, wondrously cold.”1 Endurance is all. Here “The land was frozen with cold icicles; the water’s torrent shrank in the rivers and ice bridged the dark ocean road.”2 The Anglo-Saxon translations of the Bible import an insular weather, and in Genesis “with the dawn comes an east wind and frost intensely cold.”3 Adam is awakened from his dream of bliss to find himself, fallen, in England. “How shall we now survive or exist in this land if wind comes here from west or east, south or north? Dark cloud will loom up, a hailstorm will come pelting from the sky and frost will set in.”4 It becomes the weather of the world, primal weather, the storm of life. Thus Cynewulf, in Elene , having inscribed his name in ancient runes, compares the transitory wealth of the world to the roaring wind as it “roves in the clouds, and travels raging”5 until suddenly becoming still; this is a poet who watched the skies of Mercia and Northumbria.
King Alfred knew the coldness of the wind as it blew through the partitions of doors and the cracks in windows, through walls and wall-panels and the thin covering of tents; the candles were blown out by the sudden draughts, and so the king devised a lantern made of wood and translucent ox-horn in order to protect these frail sources of light. The solitary and abandoned wife in the Anglo-Saxon fragment “Wulf and Eadwacer” had no such comfort when “it was rainy weather and I sat weeping.”
What kind of literature will emerge from such inclemency? One of the most haunting images in all English writing derives from this experience of cold and rain falling. It is taken from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, at that part when the venerable historian reports the discussions of King Edwin of Northumbria and his councillors, in 627, on the wisdom of accepting the Christian faith.
Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.6
So it is the fate of humankind, to linger for a moment in the warm hall before tumbling into the cold and darkness. We may imagine the fire and smoke of a central hearth, with seats of stone or benches of wood in a circle around it; this is the image of felicity, to be contrasted with the mist and darkness of the outside world. It is the sombre weather of the imagination, this “wintertide” of “rine and sniwe and styrme,” with the persistence of the words for snow and storm through time a true emblem of imaginative continuity. The vision reappears in The Eve of St. Agnes by Keats when
meantime the frost-wind blows Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet Against the window-panes . . .
For Hippolyte Taine this “troubled notion of the shadowy beyond” is national in its intensity and fearfulness; it may be compared with the unexplored vastness of the ocean and the obscurity of the wild places of the island. It releases the eloquence of melancholy and the restless intimations of ghosts and spirits which are indigenous within the literature; it awakens that vague appetite for, or aspiration towards, the supernatural in English poetry and drama. It is the fear in Macbeth. It is the dreadful night of nineteenth-century fiction. Images of light and darkness cast a deep shadow out of Anglo-Saxon literature into all subsequent English writing. The sparrow flies everywhere.
The significant episodes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight occur in the dead of winter, as if that season disclosed the true nature of the English imagination. But there are other climatic possibilities, especially “When the colde cler water fro the cloudez schadde.” Constable and Coleridge were preoccupied with the form and nature of clouds, particularly those of the nimbus or cumulo-nimbus bearing rain. The Anglo-Saxon word “ wolcen” means both cloud and sky as if they were synonyms.
English fiction is itself drenched in rain, from the first sentence of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to the last chapter of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” is the opening of Jane Eyre, with “a rain so penetrating” on a dark November day. Here “with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast,” Jane dreams of desolate shores with “the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray.” An Anglo-Saxon vision has come upon her. In the last chapter of The Mill on the Floss Maggie Tulliver sits in her old room as “the rain was beating heavily against the window, driven with fitful force by the rushing, loud-moaning wind.” The prospect of rain, and the horror of cold weather, play a large part in the management of Jane Austen’s novels, also:
“A walk before breakfast does me good.”
“Not a walk in the rain, I should imagine.”
“No, but it did not absolutely rain when I set out.”
As one accomplished historian of English literature, Peter Conrad, has remarked, “All Jane Austen’s novels are weather-wise.”7
As early as 1712 Addison suggested that a guest sensitive to climate should be used “as a weather-glass.” A Worcester gentleman, Thomas Appletree, kept a weather diary for the year 1703 in which he formulated a close connection between inner and outer weather. A clouded October day was a “temper of weather that exactly corresponds to my saturnine and quiet melancholy genius”; rain and mist “strikes unison to my constitution” and the rain-bearing clouds of a November day entrance him with the sensation of “returning to my womb.” It is an English preoccupation which bears all the tokens of atavistic remembrance.
When there is no rain, the mist or fog provides the climatic echo-chamber of the imagination; mist upon the moors or open heathland, fog over Manchester and the Potteries, the smokes of London, are all equally suggestive. Tacitus, in the first century, reflected upon the “frequent mists” of England which were as much an aspect of its reputation as that of a dreaming isle or an island filled with ghosts; mist lingered in the nineteenth century, and was particularly fruitful in the work of urban novelists. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is instinct with fog; his is a decaying landscape of crumbling dwellings, where the fog or “London particular” lowered a dark veil of secrecy and obscurity over the streets of the city. The weather becomes a primitive force, taking the human imagination back to the earliest stages of existence when “it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus” walking within the capital; then, in the countryside of Lincolnshire, “low-lying ground, for half a mile in breadth, is a stagnant river, with melancholy trees for islands in it, and a surface punctured all over, all day long, with falling rain.” Once more it is a primeval landscape, the landscape of origin, one which arouses a native inspiration.
There is a poetry of mist, as the paintings of Turner may suggest. The twentieth-century art historian Kenneth Clark has described how by “one of those atavistic complications which are often at the root of genius” Turner loved the sea and the sea’s mist, entranced by “the opalescent mists and lights which are found in this country alone and which have coloured so effectively the English vision.”8 Charles Lamb testified that the fog of London was the medium through which he perfected his own vision. Just as Tacitus emphasised the mists, so painters as diverse as Monet and Whistler have extolled the fog of London as a truly native beauty. For Whistler the fog clothed the ancient river, the Thames, “with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky”; for Monet “in London, above all what I love is the fog. . . . It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.” So the artists travel to England in order to savour its unique atmosphere.
Among the favored words of Tennyson are “damp,” “swollen,” “sodden,” “drenched,” “dewy” and, as Margaret Drabble has put it, the plangent movement of his verse “is the long, liquid, even line of the contours of the landscape.” 9 Gerard Manley Hopkins evoked primeval darkness:
What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet
It is remarkable over how long a period the alliterative line has survived and remarkable, too, how it can express the oldest longings.
Certain modern painters never lost this preoccupation with the native climate and landscape. In the twentieth century Graham Sutherland became, in his word, “obsessed” with the ancient landscape of “narrow lanes, rounded hills, woodlands and gorse, cromlechs and ancient stones” 10; for him they provoked a sense of longing, or belonging. Paul Nash wrote of certain English landscapes glimmering within the visible world that “they are unseen merely because they are not perceived.” He has written of a field near the prehistoric stone monuments of Avebury where
two rough monoliths stood up sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones which led to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a giant shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of the convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation. 11
It is the equation of England itself; on his seeing the stones the asthma of Paul Nash was temporarily healed, and he could breathe easily in the ancient landscape.
John Piper, entranced by the work of Blake and of Turner, was moved to depict “the whole pattern and structure of thousands of English sites” and noted that “each rock lying in the grass had a positive personality, for the first time I saw the bones and structure, and the lie of mountains.” He writes, too, of “getting soaked in their cloud cover and enclosed in their private rock-world in fog.”12 There is a curious consonance here of climate and territory which seems to have maintained itself over many generations; it is not susceptible to rational analysis, perhaps, at least not in terms which are readily understood. Nevertheless, it is there.