21 July, 2006

Signs of Approaching Foul Weather

The hollow winds begin to blow;
The clouds look black, the glass is low;
The soot falls down, the spaniels sleep;
And spiders from their cobwebs peep.
Last night the sun went pale to bed;
The Moon in halos hid her head.
The boding shepherd heaves a sigh,
For, see, a rainbow spans the sky.
The walls are damp, the ditches smell,
Clos'd is the pink-ey'd pimpernell.
Hark! how the chairs and tables crack,
Old Betty's joints are on the rack:
Her corns with shooting pains torment her,
And to her bed untimely sent her.
Loud quack the ducks, the sea fowl cry,
The distant hills are looking nigh.
How restless are the snorting swine!
The busy flys disturb the kine.
Low o'er the grass the swallow wings,
The cricket too, how sharp he sings!
Puss on the hearth, with velvet paws,
Sits wiping o'er her whisker'd jaws.
The smoke from chimneys right ascends;
Then spreading, back to earth it bends,
The wind unsteady veers around,
Or settling in the South is found.
Through the clear stream the fishes rise,
And nimbly catch the incautious flies.
The glow worms num'rous, clear, and bright,
Illum'd the dewy hill last night.
At dusk the squalid toad was seen,
Like quadruped, stalk o'er the green.
The whirling wind the dust obeys,
And in the rapid eddy plays.
The frog has changed his yellow vest.
And in a russet coat is drest.
The sky is green, the air is still,
The mellow blackbird's noise is shrill.
The dog, so alter'd is his taste,
Quits mutton-bones, on grass to feast.
Behold the Rooks, how odd their flight,
They imitate the gliding kite,
And seem precipitate to fall,
As if they felt the piercing ball.
The tender colts on back do lie,
Nor heed the traveller passing by.
In fiery red the sun doth rise,
Then wades through clouds to mount the skies.
'Twill surely rain, we see't with sorrow,
No working in the fields to-morrow.

I found this poem scrawled in a leisurely copperplate on a sheet of Victorian notepaper, facing a page of meteorological observations. I bought the paper on the internet over a year ago, but I only got around to transcribing the verse in the last few days; it wasn't the greatest palaeographic task, although it did offer a few small challenges. I thought I had a genuine and unread piece of period folk doggerel on my hands, until a googling put my illusions in shatters. The poem turns out to have been written by Erasmus Darwin (who turned up in this old post of mine), and to have been already transcribed on the internet no fewer than three times, albeit from different sources. So much for the unique.

The verse seems to have been popular in Victorian 'everyday books'—printed collections of folk wisdom and information about the historical significance of each day of the year. Darwin's verse appears on the January 13 entry of William Hone's 1826 book, and on the March 13 entry of Robert Chambers' 1869 Book of Days, attributed to Edward Jenner (the website has 'Amer' as a misprint).

On a literary level, Darwin's verse is banal: merely a montage of rural images, rendered in a clunky doggerel peppered with awkward phrasings. It is an amphibious piece, bristling with half-hearted literary pretensions, yet hardly concealing its real nature as a collection of folk sayings. Its status as a repository of early modern wisdom literature explains its popularity. There is a limited and sceptical discussion of rural weather superstitions in Chambers' entry, and see also here; on this site, however, are many parallels to Darwin's verse (I edit to reduce confusion):
The halo sometimes seen round the moon is called the 'bor' or the 'burr', and when it is near the moon the rain is far—'Near bur. Far rain.'

When oxen low and midges bite
We all do know ‘twill rain to-night.

When dogs eat grass there will be rain.

When cattle lie much rain is expected.

When the smoke rises straight up from the chimney, it will be fine, but when smoke donks it will rain.

A coming storm your shooting corns presage
And aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Carl Van Vechten's The Tiger in the House (1922), online here, explicitly compares Darwin's line about cats to passages from John Swan and Robert Herrick. As Vechten remarks, 'Cats in many quarters of the globe are held responsible for the weather; they are actually said to make it good or bad.' Darwin's verse is a composite of these sayings and epigrams. But being a composite, it loses the quality which defines the epigram: brevity, symmetry and balance. It is written in an iambic tetrameter, which lends itself to short lines with a heavy caesura, just like an epigrammatic couplet, such as this one by Goldsmith:
For he who fights / and runs away
May live to fight / another day.
The first line balances the second in sense, rhythm and rhyme, and the first and second halves (hemistichs) of each line also balance each other across the caesura: this gives the epigram its characteristic solidity, a self-completing whole. (In this case, as it happens, another couplet provides an additional layer of symmetry.) But in a longer verse like Darwin's, the metre flags and plods as a series of disjointed couplets, each balanced internally, but none overtly relating to the other:
The sky is green, / the air is still,
The mellow blackbird's / noise is shrill.
The dog, / so alter'd is his taste,
Quits mutton-bones, / on grass to feast.
There is a fluency neither of rhythm, nor of meaning—it is a paratactic, as opposed to a hypotactic style. Only twice (lines 12 and 42) is a couplet continuous in sense with the next, and each time divided by a strong pause. The images have no temporal relation with one another, except for an occasional reference to 'last night'. In fact, there seems no definite time-frame at all, as 'the sun doth rise' follows 'a rainbow spans the sky', as if the latter were at night; again, Betty's corns 'torment' her in the present tense, but 'sent' her to bed in the past tense, if only for the sake of a rhyme. It is a deadened style, evoking not the life of nature, but rather a series of views, without context, unable to progress or develop. What we are offered, in effect, is the same thing presented over and over again, using different metaphoric images, like a man struggling in vain to communicate.

That thing, overtly, is 'foul weather'. But in stitching together trite maxims into a poem, into a work of literary art, however clumsy, Darwin has opened his words to a new level of interpretation—one which works with symbol, metaphor, objective correlative. Darwin's foul weather, unlike that of the Lancashire proverbs, but like so many Victorian subjects, is a figure of death.

Taken as a whole, the poem's images are relentlessly morbid: hollow winds, black clouds, falling soot, the pale sun and the hidden moon, the sickly damp and the closed flower, arthritic 'Old Betty'—the word untimely going well with death—the swarm of flies, whiskered jaws, toad, dust, bones, rooks, the 'piercing ball' or bullet, the colts on their backs as if dead. According to the Bardo Thodol, smoke and glow-worms (fireflies, representing sparks) are two visions experienced at the moment of death. Here the glow-worms illuminate the dewy hill, perhaps one of those dark and distant hills that mercilessly 'look nigh' as the fowl kick up a fuss in the foreground. The smoke ascends and falls diffusely to the ground, like man returning to the earth. Like man, too, and like the manlike dust, the smoke is steered by the unsteady winds: compare the wrack of Odysseus' ship after his men release the three winds from his bag, or Ecclesiastes:
And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?
In fact, the behaviour of wind in this poem is pretty strange. Contrast:
1 / The hollow winds begin to blow
25 / The wind unsteady veers around
33 / The whirling wind the dust obeys
37 / The sky is green, the air is still
Line 37 seems contradictory, but it comes at the turn of the poem, well hidden, occupying lines 35-40. In this passage, everything is topsy-turvy: the frog changes colour, the sky is green (ever seen a green sky?), the air is suddenly still, the blackbird is mellow but his song shrill, and oddest of all, the dog stops chewing on his bones and begins eating grass—unnatural, and likely to lead to the mutt's malnourished demise. After the turn are two images in succession of animals feigning death. 'Signs of Foul Weather', then, describes the superstition and foreknowledge of approaching death; but not the fear of death. The rainbow and the rising red sun (triumphant over the night) are ancient symbols of regeneration and promise. The last note, however, is melancholic, with impending rain—the tears of the bereaved—and a solemn realisation that there will be 'no working in the fields to-morrow': nobody, that is, to work.

What we read into a passage, whether of prose or verse, cannot be dependent on an empty notion of authorial intention. It is dependent, rather, on axiom and instinct. The key principle of classical exegesis is to interrogate points of superficial ambiguity or conflict: here, the conflict between the epigram or proverb and longer verse, and the conflict between folk wisdom and 'high' literature. These tensions suggest that the objects left over from the old couplets have been invested, consciously or not, with a significance more appropriate to great poetry.


David E. Patton said...

O how I wish that I had such a keen eye to look at poetry as you do, but at-last I dont.I only write the stuff. I was wondering about the green sky it did stick out when I read the poem.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow, high praise from an experienced and published poet. Check out the poems I've written on the site--listed on the sidebar.

misteraitch said...

Have you read Jenny Uglow’s book The Lunar Men? It’s a fine group biography of Darwin’s circle. He may not, in retrospect, have been much of a poet, but poetry was just one of his several talents…

Conrad H. Roth said...

I started it a while ago, but never got round to finishing it. I agree, though, that it is an interesting book.

language said...

Now I want to write a book called Loud Quack the Ducks.