- War in the Air
No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,
As they were fifty years ago,
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,
Bending in blue dresses to touch something,
Today the mind is not part of the weather.
Today the air is clear of everything.—Wallace Stevens, "A Clear Day and No Memories"
When Wallace Stevens looks back over the first fifty years of the twentieth century and announces, "Today the mind is not part of the weather," he reiterates the modernist dismissal of Romantic poetics: nature no longer provides a sentient echo of human thought or feeling. When the mind was part of the weather, the poem suggests, the air was full of touching memories of "something": it was "live air." Now, in this newly purified element, not just memory but meaning falls away, and we are cast adrift:
Today the air is clear of everything. It has no knowledge except of nothingness And it flows over us without meanings, As if none of us had ever been here before And are not now. . . .1 [End Page 531]
The promise of clear air and no memories carries with it a daunting recognition of all the meaning, the lost history, that a mind-filled weather had once borne. But why, clearing the modern air "of everything" having to do with human subjectivity and distancing himself from the poetics of his Romantic precursors, does Stevens turn also from warfare and grief?
This essay aims to refill Stevens's empty sky with the traces of warfare and grief evident in Romantic poetry through metaphors of the weather. For ages war and weather have served as metaphors for each other. But for scientific, poetic, and geopolitical reasons this association took a specific turn in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in England. Reversing Walter Benjamin's famous comment about the Great War, when "nothing remained unchanged but the clouds," we might say that in the era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the clouds themselves changed.2 This change emphasized but also put pressure on metaphor's ability to communicate across established borders—literally, to bear or transfer change (from the Greek meta-ferein). That changeable weather was perhaps the crucial metaphor of the period is a familiar claim; we are used to reading the appearance of weather as a picturesque effect or an emblem of transcendence.3 More surprising, then, is the thought that metaphors of weather participated in a kind of history: they provided a primary means of imagining and bringing home the effects of distant war.4
For those on the home front in England, military conflict took place almost constantly, but at a great remove. The twenty-year war they lived through was a global war, fought on four continents and as many oceans [End Page 532] and seas, yet it remained, for the most part, unseen. To be experienced, its disruptions had to be borne to them—metaphorized. Media played a significant role, then as now; war was in the air via a densely metaphorical weather. Never quite articulated into clear knowledge of war, the language of weather offered instead a history of affect—even, perhaps, the climate we call modern wartime.5
One reason for the central role of weather as metaphor during the period was, in fact, its unrivaled appropriateness to the experience of global warfare. Contemporary developments in meteorology offered new ways to coordinate the working of weather with the movement of geopolitical forces, thus mediating a world at war. Crucially, scientists and poets together produced a georgics of the sky, fusing the work of war and that of weather to highlight questions of mediation, especially between bodies and events at great removes from each other. Georgic impulses in meteorology brought together representations of transcendent and terrestrial powers, global movements and local climate, devastating event and minor fluctuation. "A little rain, and an unseasonable cloud crossing the sky, sufficed for the overthrow of the world," wrote Victor Hugo of the battle of Waterloo.6 Yet even as it aspired to comprehend the aerial movement of global forces...