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Intelligent English talk about the weather

01 April 2016

David Martin is impressed by notes on a changing climate


Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies
Alexandra Harris
Thames and Hudson £24.95
Church Times Bookshop £22.45 


THIS IS a singularly beautiful book, rich in its observation of everything conveyed at different periods in England by wind, cloud, frost, snow, sun, rain, mud, mist, and fog. It invites readers to experience again what weather has meant: in the literary imagination, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf; in the visual arts, from Roman tesserae to the frozen Thames, and from Constable and Turner to rain in Howard Hodgkin; and in music, from “Sumer is icumen in” to frost in Purcell’s King Arthur and the deluge in Noye’s Fludde.

Alexandra Harris takes in the sciences, also, including the psychological moods engendered by weather. She brings out what is involved in the empirical scrutiny of seasonal changes, from Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne to the weather forecast. She also awakens memories of great fogs in London, pokes with a stab of recognition obscure recollections of rain and cloud and sensations of sun emanating from different kinds of stone, and evokes the “picnics in the sun” of the 1930s.

She probes the linguistic roots of terms for weather in Anglo-Saxon, and the way Thomson’s The Seasons transfers imaginative resources in classical authors to very different kinds of weather in England. She deploys Genesis in the Vulgate and Job in the AV. She sympathetically understands the intersection of the Church year, such as Candlemas and Rogationtide, with the procession of the seasons, and the way weather has been interpreted as judgement for sin, as in Paradise Lost. We move from the “shoures soote” of Chaucer to Queen Elizabeth the weather goddess and the “Protestant wind” that saved England, to close readings of Shakespeare — the wind in Lear — to felicitous comparisons of natural phenomena in Shelley, Keats, and Clare, mental mud and physical fog in Dickens, and the pitiless indifference of rain in Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas. As in her first book, Romantic Moderns, discussing the relation between international modernism and the recuperation of tradition by artists such as Piper and Ravilious, Alexandra Harris exemplifies the best that humane education has to offer.


The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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