by Alexandra Harris)
(I am having problems with my downloaded pictures again but this article was too good)
The waters are out in Lincolnshire. And Somerset and Oxfordshire and Kent. The river Severn laps at the edges of Worcester. The Itchen makes inroads into Winchester across the meadows Keats walked in calmer days. There are wet books in the Thames Valley this weekend, books hastily piled in top-floor rooms, books heavy with damp that will dry on wrinkled pages, tide-marked by 2014.
Some of these books began their lives in water: English literature has for centuries courted the rain. The Canterbury Tales, the first great epic of English daily life, starts out with the sweet showers of April which bathe the dry land. This first shower is an alluringly sensual one, piercing the earth, finding its way into every bodily "veyne" of plants and people alike. If Mediterranean writers found their hot dry climate conducive to love songs, the English were not going to miss out on the competing erotic potential of rain. For Edmund Spenser, too, launching The Faerie Queene from a standing start as Una and the Redcrosse Knight go gently "pricking on the plain", rain is the beginning of narrative. Weather breaks into the stillness: "The day with clouds was sudden overcast, / And angry Jove a hideous storm of rain / Did pour." The change has been made; the action begun. Moving to shelter, the protagonists find themselves in Faerieland, with adventure springing up around them. These rainy beginnings loosen language and storytelling into life. Rain, being rained on, and finding shelter will become central subjects and structuring principles of British writing.
But things get much wetter than benign April showers. Even A Midsummer Night's Dream, so often chosen by directors for staging on warm evenings in the park, promises no such thing as balmy entertainment. The play's imagery of midsummer is not headily hot but confusingly sodden. A personal quarrel between Titania and Oberon has leaked out to become an atmospheric disturbance, legible in the winds and the cold and the rheumatic dampness of the air. There was foul weather in 1594 and drowned summers in the two years following. Titania's images were apt when the play was first performed – "The fold stands empty in the drowned field … The nine men's morris is filled up with mud" – and are no less apt today. We have all seen work and games thwarted, rotting crops in puddled fields and rain stopping play.
Cosmic disorder in Shakespeare's comedies is a recognisably daily and practical affair; in the tragedies it is terrifying. Lear incites the weather to maximum violence: "Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow, / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched the steeples, drowned the cocks!"
KING LEAR by Shakespeare
'Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks!' … Frank Langella as King Lear. Photograph: Johan Persson
We see the Elizabethan map with winds around the edges, each depicted as a puff-cheeked face. Immediately the image surges to life and blows itself apart, the rotund cherubic faces shattered. The drowning of weather-cocks is the ultimate vision of inundation: steeples that reach for the sky plunged deep in water, weathervanes that watch over us now out-weathered, turning with the tide rather than the breeze. Not a drop of rain need fall on stage; the storm is at its worst in Lear's imagination. But real drowned churches lived in people's minds. Dunwich on the Suffolk coast was a busy port before the 14th-century storms that swept whole parishes into the sea. Broken steeples were moored where ships were meant to be, before disappearing altogether. It was said that the bells could still be heard, ringing on and on under the waves.
Weather, in the Christian narrative, is part of the punishment for our first disobedience. Genesis gives no hint of changeful weathers in Eden, and writers from the Anglo-Saxon poet of The Phoenix onwards have basked in fantasies of that first perfect climate. Milton imagined "vernal delights" all year round, replete with perfumed breezes, and the mist which first went up from the earth "and watered the whole face of the ground". Cast out into time, we are thrown into a weathery world. Milton imagined in horror the second round of creation that made our climate: the pushing of the Earth on to its tilted axis, the divine instructions given out to the winds to storm and bluster across its surface.
For most of the last millennium weather events have been understood as the purposeful language of heaven, sequels to the first dire flood. In the 16th and 17th centuries particularly, every storm was strenuously analysed for its message and the nation was exhorted to repentence. Those directly affected had not only to negotiate ruined homes and farms but moral labyrinths of guilt.
The Severn flooded in 1607, drowning livestock across Wales on one side, Somerset and Gloucestershire on the other. These "wonderfull overflowings of Waters", said the pamphlets hurriedly churned out by printers (with apocalyptic woodcuts and many capital letters), were worse than anything seen in recent times. "Our punishment is greater, because our treason against God is more horrible." There was little agreement about the precise treasons that had brought down such punishment, or what might be done to put them right.
Satrirists in the 18th-century watched with grim fascination as men who called themselves advanced and rational beings went wading about in mud. Jonathan Swift published "A Description of a City Shower" in the Tatler in the wet October of 1710. It is just what it says – a description of a London shower, with all the quotidian detail that implies. But Swift moves out from little cameos of ordinary rained-on human life (as "Brisk Susan whips her linen from the rope") to the great impersonal flood. The rain comes down on the whole city, dissolving polite boundaries, washing one thing into the next.
In one great surge the natural and manmade run into each other: rain and effluent, dust and offal. The filth of all London converges in an almighty torrent as rain comes down and the rivers rise up:
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield, or St 'Pulchre's shape their course,
And in huge confluent join'd at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn-bridge.
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, gnats, and blood,
Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.
It is a dire panorama of the city, from the slaughterhouses of Smithfield to St Sepulchre near Newgate prison. Nothing now separates the stucco houses of the wealthy from the offal in the market, nothing now can keep fresh water from foul.
It is a relief to turn to "Trivia" (1716) by Swift's friend John Gay. Where Swift intends us to be battered by his downpour, Gay offers his poem as a literary umbrella to be opened against the storm. Though Swift's deluge seems to presage the fall of civilisations, Gay thinks it worth fussing over suitable headwear. He determines that, in such small gestures, civility will survive.
The strategies he proposes for surviving London weather are strategies for life itself. It is a constant process of looking for shelter and staying alert to danger. Drop your guard for a moment and you may be left wiping from your forehead the dirt splashed at you by a passing carriage. There is seriousness, then, in Gay's apparently trivial discussion of clothes. The choosing of a coat becomes the arming of a hero or knight-errant on his way into the urban forest. This poet, who once served as a draper's apprentice, has a tailor's eye for fabric: "The Freize's spongy Nap is soak'd with Rain, / And Show'rs soon drench the Camlet's cockled Grain." These coats may look stylish when you set out from home, but will make a fool of you when sopping. Far better the ample Kersey wool "surtout" in which a walker may "brave unwet the Rain, unchill'd the Frost".
The "unwet" is Gay's theme, and the word is more evocative than "dry". The wet is out there, the rain is coming down, but Gay and his reader are protected. He refers to the "Paver's Art" because paving really is an art, creating solidity and order where once there was mud. He is drawn to different forms of shelter, noticing how the hat roofs over the wig, how the wall of buildings at the side of the street offers a refuge from the chaotic middle of the road. Shoes and pattens seem to him the very symbols of civilisation because they raise human beings up out of the mud.
Robinson Crusoe on his island in Defoe's novel of 1719 is similarly attentive to the problem of keeping out the rain. Rapidly training himself in that most primal and sophisticated of arts – the art of building shelters – Crusoe constructs first a double-layered tent and then, in time, a "fortification" as stout and impermeable as he can make it. It cannot be quite watertight, but he engineers a drainage system to let any excess water out. In his dizzying state of solitude, unsure which of his perceptions can be relied upon, he worships the firm walls, which promise certainty. The island weather, more extreme than in England, threatens to wash away the solid objects that are his touchstones: his clay pots, his table, his handmade gardening tools. He must defend them, and he must waterproof himself. So Crusoe becomes a designer of rain gear. He makes a fur hat "to shoot off the rain" and finally, after much trial and error, he makes a giant umbrella which "casts off the Rains like a Penthouse".
When Crusoe leaves his island he takes three things with him as souvenirs. One is the parrot, who has been his constant companion; the other two are his hat and umbrella. These portable shelters are Crusoe's emblems. They are the signs of human craftsmanship and ingenuity combined in the struggle against water.
In the landscape of English literary history, the 19th century is the dampest place. Water pools here, comes up through the floorboards and drips and drips. Victorian rainfall levels were no higher than average (stretches of the 1850s were problematically dry) but Victorian writers perceived their world as a watery one. "I am in love with moistness" muses the narrator of The Mill on the Floss. It was with a sense of wistful envy that Stevie Smith in the 1930s looked back on those "damp Victorian troubles".
Alfred Tennyson condensed into his early poems the vapourous air of his native Lincolnshire. Water and poetry merge as liquid sound in "The Dying Swan"; the landscape of mosses, weeds, "willow branches hoar and dank", is "flooded over with eddying song". The Lady of Shalott sees in her mirror the dazzling sun that shines from an unclouded sky as Lancelot appears, but the weather breaks with the breaking of the spell and the cracking of the mirror. Going out into the world, she goes into a storm: "The broad stream in his banks complaining / Heavily the low sky raining." The sun had been enchanted weather, held in the looking glass. The summer day ends with the Lady freezing in her boat on a rising river, under low clouds, in the rain.
Drop by drop the water falls, though it echoes differently through the vast humming mass of Bleak House, the novel Dickens began in the dark November of 1851 and finished the following year, during three months of near-continuous rain in the autumn and winter of 1852. The heavy drops fall, "drip drip, drip, upon the broad flagged pavement", when we first meet Lady Dedlock, looking out blankly over a leaden landscape. "The waters are out in Lincolnshire", and it rains for the first 11 chapters before pausing and raining again. The animals in barns and stables watch the rain and dream of sunshine. Drops fall with the rhythm of footsteps on the haunted terrace, on and on, "drip, drip, drip, by day and night". It is an alternative to the tick-tock of clocktime, but more monotonous. Against the ticking clocks of progress, Tennyson and Dickens set up these other measures of time, achieving nothing, and with no promised end-points. Even when rain stops, it is remembered in the rampant growth of the summer garden at Chesney Wold, comically profuse, with peaches basking by the hundred above the heaps of marrows. The disused nails in the garden wall gesture to the rusty dereliction of Tennyson's moated grange in "Mariana" where "The rusted nails fell from the knots / That held the pear to the gable-wall".
Damp in Dickens is a long-term and slow-motion affair, nudging and seeping, haunting the summer with its mustiness, returning in the autumn to its sentry-watch drip, drip, drip. George Eliot writes, by contrast, of water that comes suddenly and decisively. After all the patient moral struggles of The Mill on the Floss, the flood changes everything in the last few pages. Maggie Tulliver's thoughts are interrupted mid-flow by another kind of stream, running cold around her feet, necessitating a long dash on the page and a jolt from quiet mental struggle to urgent physical action. A lantern is raised in the darkness so that we see her there: "in the rain with the oar in her hand and her black hair streaming". As Maggie rows through the night towards Tom, she has a few moments to think and feel again, but her feelings are changed and simplified. The water has swept away "artificial vestures", leaving a central understanding that "we are all one with each other in primitive mortal needs". A few hundred words more, the stroke of oars in a rising current, indistinct shapes looming from the water, and she is gone. There were floods 60 years ago at St Oggs, we are told, and, though "nature repairs her ravages" and presides over calm intervals, we infer that floods will come again. Perhaps there is no judgment on Maggie in particular, but only the inevitable periodic rising of the stream.
Benjamin Britten's opera Noye's Fludde was first performed in 1958, in the church at Orford on the Suffolk coast, where in 1953 January floods had overwhelmed the small town. The libretto revived the words of a medieval mystery play which would have been performed as part of the Corpus Christi festival in the streets of Chester, acted out by the Guild of Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee. The watery story bridges easily across five centuries.
In Britten's musical version the deluge begins with raindrops pattering musically. String instruments start up the tune of "Eternal Father, strong to save", the opera's central survival song, a resetting of the stout Victorian hymn sung by sailors and coastguards: "Oh hear us when we cry to thee, / For those in peril on the sea." Plink and chink the raindrops fall, gathering momentum. The rainmakers are children, playing on "slung mugs" of different shapes and sizes suspended by their handles and struck like a dangling xylophone. It was a good 1950s sort of joke: not quite a storm in a tea cup, but tea cups creating the storm. So English rain and tea time are set to music. The audience, or "congregation", sing the hymn together in solemn ritual, posing their voices against the flood until the dove can be sent out.
There are no deaths in the opera. (Mrs Noah's drunken, gossiping friends presumably drown, but no one mentions that.) The emphasis is all on that which continues. The menagerie in the ark, with its assorted feathers, trunks and tails, is large and exuberant enough for the making of a new world. The audience has been saved from the flood as well of course. That is part of the point. The play itself has been a kind of ark from which we all emerge.
George Szirtes, in An English Apocalypse, imagined dramatic endings for the nation. "Death by Deluge" proposes as our end-point a tidal wave on an August day.
The North Sea had been rough
and rising and the bells of Dunwich rang
through all of Suffolk. One wipe of its cuff
down cliffs and in they went, leaving birds to hang
puzzled in the air, their nests gone.
Enormous tides ran from Southend to Cromer.
In the next lines we are high above England, higher than the aerial photographers and the homeless birds, watching the tide rush across Lincolnshire and The Wash, watching as it comes up the Thames valley, watching as it buries Dorset, and Land's End. The medieval loss of Dunwich (bells still ringing), is gathered up into this future catastrophe. Time is justifiably concertinaed, for human history is small when seen from the apocalypse. Szirtes's best touch comes right at the end of the end. The deluge, it transpires, has created something very English, more John Sell Cotman than John Martin: "All was water-colour, / the pure English medium, intended for sky, cloud, / and sea."
"Ours was just a period in the history of rain", writes Sean O'Brien, poet of northern damp, of green wetness in empty churchyards, of wide reflecting pavements and mushy flotsam in back alleys. He recognises that every period creates its own distinctive kinds of rain, whether it is oily yellow puddles under Victorian gaslight, or grey puddles in the weed-grown craters of postwar bombsites, or rain hitting hard against the glass and concrete surfaces of our modern world, which has done too much, perhaps, to block it out.
Travelling through England on delayed trains this week, I look out on our new era in the history of rain. There is beauty in it. A heron goes fishing in a field south of Banbury, watching over the lake that was grass last month, commandingly upright in a horizontal scene; gulls gather over inland seas, beating the bounds of their new and expanding world. There is struggle and fear in it. Artfully built shelters are flapping loose; water is seeping up as well as coming down. The train line I travelled yesterday is now flooded. Even that ingenious invention the umbrella begins to look like a lost cause.
• Alexandra Harris's book about weather and the arts will be published by Thames & Hudson next year.