British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe

AHRC logo

Romantic Poetry and the Grammar of Weather

In our latest Romantic Climates blog post, Dr Thomas H. Ford (Melbourne) reflects on the statement ‘it is raining’.


In the second edition of the Works of Percy Shelley published in 1839, Mary Shelley included a number of previously unpublished poetic fragments that she had transcribed from a notebook of drafts, notes and drawings originally compiled by Shelley between the spring of 1819 and the spring of 1820. Amongst the fragments she included can be found the following enigmatic short verse:

The fitful alternations of the rain
Which the chill wind, languid as if with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here & there
Drives through the grey & beamless atmosphere

Mary Shelley’s motives for publishing these fragments may be surmised from an editorial note to the first edition of the Works, in which she stated:

In addition to such poems as have an intelligible aim and shape, many a stray idea and transitory emotion found imperfect and abrupt expression, and then again lost themselves in silence… I find many such in his manuscript books, that scarcely bear record; while some of them, broken and vague as they are, will appear valuable to those who love Shelley’s mind, and desire to trace its workings.

Taking Mary Shelley’s comment as an interpretative guide, we might read this short poem as a representation of the workings of Shelley’s mind, perhaps even of the workings of the Romantic imagination more broadly conceived. This poetic fragment may well lack an intelligible aim and shape, as Mary Shelley suggested – indeed, it is not even a full sentence, lacking a main verb – and yet it is possible to see in these fitful alternations a description of the fleeting movements of thoughts that lie just on the far side of comprehension, too ambiguous and unstable to be resolved into the fixities of representability. This would then be a poem, at least in part, about the weather within, recording the shifting and unsettled state of a mind whose spasmodic and irregular switching or flipping between two modes, moods or modifications prevents it attaining any certain or communicable self-knowledge.

Such a reading could draw support from the fact that atmosphere for Shelley, as more widely for the Romantic poetry that followed Wordsworth, was a specifically poetic medium of historical experience. Romantic weather involved what Shelley elsewhere referred to as ‘the atmosphere of human thought’: it interfused the physical aeriform environment with the poetic spirit and the sense of history. As such, it was fraught with obscure intimations of loss and communicative failure. Read as an act of poetic self-description, this short fragment records a mind bearing the pain of a heavy moisture it is unable to discharge; a mind in which thought has grown nebulous and indistinct. Its emphasis rests on the fleeting transit of ungraspable emotions, and on vague elements of unilluminated feeling. Describing the failure of the poetic imagination to attain an achieved poetic form, it is a fragment that is in some sense about hazy fragmentation. If it allows us to trace the workings of Shelley’s mind, as Mary Shelley had hoped, it does so by presenting that mind as not really working at all, but as instead dispersing in a cloud of cognitive incapacity: restless, fretful, inclement, afflicted by a paradoxically languid drive.

In formal logic, ‘alternation’ is now a technical term for the inclusive sense of ‘or’, in which both sides of a disjunction may be taken to coexist (the type of inclusive disjunction that Jean-François Lyotard, following Alexandre Kojève, named ‘parathesis’). ‘Fitful alternations’ seem similarly to suspend the logic of the excluded middle, as if it were somehow raining and not raining at the same time in this poem. Except there is no time in this poem, which, lacking a verb, even suspends the logic of predication and the temporal ordering that predicates describe. These alternations never resolve into an event. They instead describe a condition unlocatable in time, a fraught atmosphere of permanent transience. They refuse any spatial localisation as well. Shelley marks a spatial distinction – here / there – only to include both sides of it. The off-rhyme of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘there’ even blurs the phonic dissimilarities between here and there, bending ‘here’, ‘there’, and ‘-sphere’ into an undifferentiated sound vaguely resonant with ‘air’. And identities, like locations and phonemes, also grow hazy and indistinct. The chill wind is said to drive the alternations of the rain through the atmosphere. But the wind and rain are surely themselves part of this atmosphere they traverse, so that agent, object and context effectively merge into one. Indeed, in the manuscript transcribed by Mary Shelley, the word ‘drives’ is actually struck through, placed under erasure. The drive to externality, to poetic self-expression, seems not just self-conflicted but even self-cancelling. The more one looks at this fragment, the harder it is to pick out any definite form or identifiable action, any certain agency, any specificity of time or place. It all fades away into the unbounded murk of a grey and beamless atmosphere, unclosed by any syntactic period or full-stop – an atmosphere of indeterminate extent in which nothing, strangely literally, seems to take place.

Following Mary Shelley, again, one might even read these lines as an act of poetic self-description in a yet more material sense: as an account of their own physical appearance on the manuscript page, and so, by metonymy, as an allegory of the material obscurity and dark passages of inscriptive textuality. In another editorial note, Mary Shelley stated:

Did any one see the papers from which I drew that volume, the wonder would be how eyes or patience were capable of extracting from so confused a mass, interlined and broken into fragments, so that the sense could only be deciphered and joined by guesses which might seem rather intuitive than founded on reasoning.

These handwritten texts constitute a confused and mobile aggregate of heterogeneous materials, in which words, for example, as well as being over-written, jumbled, and struck through, are also often interspersed and covered over with drawings and doodles – Shelley’s ‘kinetic rituals’, as Nancy Moore Goslee suggested, ‘to keep the ink and his thought flowing’. Considered as graphic material, Shelley’s manuscript texts certainly resemble the indefinable state of these fitful alternations of the rain. They are blurred, interlined, uncertain, fragmentary, obscure, suspended, indeterminate and transmedial: resistant to the categories of reason, and legible at best only speculatively. Whether read as an account of the atmosphere of poetic language, as a mood of the poet’s own mind, or as inscriptive material self-reflection, this poem remains stray, transitory, imperfect and abrupt, finally losing itself in silence, just as Mary Shelley had suggested.

What this poem most signally fails to do, and what it keeps most silent about, is its ostensible subject-matter, the weather itself. ‘The fitful alternations of the rain’ do not say ‘it is raining’. And yet, equally, this fragment does not say ‘it is not raining’. What it says instead involves not saying either of these two things. And so it cannot help us to perceive the weather, or to come to know something about the state of the atmosphere: to reconstruct, for example, what was happening outside as Shelley wrote this poem. It communicates nothing meteorological. Nor can it inform an ethics of care that might be extended to include the weather: it ventures no pathetic fallacy, no idea of an answerable nature that is somehow sympathetic or responsive to our communicative concerns. Any emotional state ascribed to the atmosphere in this poem is co-ordinated by the words ‘as if’, placing it in the subjunctive mood of the acknowledged counter-factual. The poem’s connection to the atmospheric environment that it would appear to represent is then one that has been negated or suspended throughout: the poem withholds or withdraws from such acts of environmental representation as that entailed in the statement ‘it is raining’.

That statement – it is raining – was surprisingly central to twentieth-century phenomenological accounts of the nature of experience. The problem concerned understanding what ‘it’ meant in this sentence. What was this ‘it’ that rained? The answer that tended to be given was the ‘it’ that rains is environmental. Analysing the grammar of weather was then seen as a way of illuminating the structure of an environment, and so of providing a phenomenology of environmental being. Husserl, for instance, cited this sentence in his Logical Investigations as an example of what he called fluctuating or unsteady expressions (schwankende Ausdrücke). He contrasts these with the ‘objective expressions’ of theory, geometry, science, mathematics and so on, which can be understood ‘without necessarily directing one’s attention to the person uttering it, or to the circumstances of the utterance’. The meaning of fluctuating expressions, however, is radically context-dependent. Words such as ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘you’ point to the situation in which they are uttered. Husserl stated that the function of the word ‘here’, for example, is ‘to name the spatial environment of the speaker’. The sentence ‘it is raining’ exemplifies a further sub-category of these essentially contextual expressions, in which the reference to this subjective environment is left tacit and unspoken, despite the meaning of the sentence still hinging on that contextual reference. ‘It is raining’,’ Husserl wrote, ‘does not have the general meaning that rain is falling, but that it is doing so now, outside. What the expression lacks is not merely unspoken, it is not even expressly thought: it certainly belongs, however, to what our speech means’. ‘It is raining’ for Husserl was then a signal example of how our language can be environmental, in that its meaning is contingent on its empirical inscription or utterance in a certain contextual spatial and temporal location, even when reference to that environment is silent, implicit and even unconscious. ‘It is raining’, in other words, circumscribes a singular although unspoken environment centred around the speaker. In so doing, it pointed for Husserl to the projective nature of subjectivity, and to the way in which that subject has always pre-organised his or her field of potential experience into an ambient world, thereby marking the irreducibility from language of reference to the material embodiment of all cognition.

As Husserl noted, ‘it is raining’ is an anonymous formula, an example of what he called ‘the impersonalia of ordinary speech’. In his lecture course of 1929-30, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Heidegger took up the impersonality of this sentence to describe the structure of environmental existence as a fundamentally non-subjective atmosphere or attunement (Stimmung). These are modes of being, Heidegger suggested, ‘that constantly, essentially, and thoroughly attune human beings, without human beings always recognizing them as such’. Such existential atmospheres cannot be properly understood as emotional states, or as properties of a subject or object, because they lie prior to the emergence of any subjective framing of experience, any objective specificity. They instead encompass both subject and object and govern the manner of their subsequent discrimination, thereby shaping how a subject will come to relate to him- or herself, and to his or her world: ‘it seems as though an attunement is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which attunes us through and through. It does not seem so, it is so’. And inasmuch as environmental moods set the tone of our being and precede any distinction of subject from object, they participate in the characteristically impersonal grammar of weather expressions:

It is boring for one. What is this ‘it’? The ‘it’ that we mean whenever we say that it is thundering and lightening, that it is raining. It – this is the title for whatever is indeterminate, unfamiliar. Yet we are familiar with this, after all…This is what is decisive: that here we become an undifferentiated no one.

‘It is raining’ says that something is happening, but that it is an agentless happening, something happening to no one in particular, brought about by nothing in particular: a listless mood that drifts through unorganised and non-subjective realms of undifferentiated experience belonging to no-one. Heidegger’s erasure here of the implied subject was the primary point of difference between his interpretation of this sentence and that given by Husserl, in which the ‘it’ of an environment could only be understood through reference to an embodied subject.

Later, in his ‘Letter on humanism’, Heidegger would rework this impersonal formulation – it is raining, it is, there is, Es gibt – much more positively as the impersonal, agentless gift of the given. We have existence as an environment that is beyond and behind all the things that might exist within it, just as we have rain: as an unbidden plenitude. Against these ‘connotations of abundance and generosity’, Lévinas stressed in his Time and the Other that horror was in fact the ground-note or basic Stimmung of environmental being.

Let us imagine all things, being and persons, returning to nothingness. What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something, but the fact that there is [il y a]. The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric density, a plenitude of the void, or the murmur of silence. There is, after this destruction of things and beings, the impersonal ‘field of forces’ of existing. There is something that is neither subject nor substantive. The fact of existing imposes itself when there is no longer anything. And it is anonymous: there is neither anyone nor anything that takes this existence upon itself. It is impersonal like ‘it is raining’.

In this ‘atmosphere of presence’, from which all existing things have been abstracted, environmental being is again seen to be anonymous and impersonal. ‘It’ here does not stand in for some unexpressed noun or series of noun-predicates, as it did with Husserl, but rather designates a properly impersonal dynamic, a ‘density of the void’, existence as such, in which there is no longer any inside or outside. The horror of environmental being, for Lévinas, was that the negation of any particular given form, the destruction of any existing entity, whether object or subject, never actually succeeded in removing this background atmosphere of presence, and so never quite fully succeeded in eliminating the presence of that entity either. That is where the horror of the environment lies: whatever you might want to dispose of, erase or negate just keeps on returning, returning as ‘it’, precipitated as rain. Lévinas illustrated this process, which he called ‘the return of presence in negation’, with the figure of the corpse, which presents the material persistence of the body after death. Considered in environmental terms, death is never the end: the corpse remains. There is no nothingness, and so no way out from an environment, neither for your trash, nor for you. With Lévinas, the inescapability of environmental being – which for Husserl indicated the ineradicable environmental co-ordinates of any linguistic act, and for Heidegger the ontological priority of the moods of existence – took on a traumatic, menacing dimension.

In a draft essay from the early 1980s, Louis Althusser gave these phenomenological interpretations of ‘it is raining’ an aleatory turn, taking this sentence as his starting-point for a theory of the legibility of history understood as radically non-teleological. Althusser’s philosophy of rain was a late attempt to address what had been a central problem for him throughout his writings: the problem of reconciling historical necessity (determination ‘in the final instance’) with the contingency of history – its capacity for unpredictable swerves, abrupt epistemological breaks and singular new beginnings. From the sentence ‘it is raining’ Althusser derived a theoretical model in which historical events and institutions could be understood as contingent conjunctures of otherwise independent elements, conjunctions that had taken on a quasi-durable form:

Nothing in the elements of the encounter prefigures, before the actual encounter, the contours and determinations of the being that will emerge from it… Quite the contrary: no determination of the elements can be assigned except by working backwards from the result to its becoming, in its retroaction.

For Althusser, the ‘it’ of ‘it is raining’ named this unsurpassable conjunctural condition of historical understanding, the facticity or ‘always already’ nature of what it must decipher. ‘It is’ then indicated ‘the priority of the occurrence…over all its forms’, and ‘the primacy of absence over presence’.

Further philosophical discussions of ‘it is raining’ could be added to this survey. But these brief outlines should already suffice to indicate how persistently twentieth-century phenomenology identified in the grammar of our weather language the parameters of environmental being. These interpretations of the sentence ‘it is raining’ all shared the sense that atmosphere is structured like a language. They were committed to the principle that we can come to understand aspects of environmental experience by thinking about how we use words like ‘it’. ‘It is raining’ is a neutral form that weakens distinctions between subject and object; grammatically, it is a middle voice neither active nor passive; its temporality is uncertain, occupying an indeterminate present. And drawing on those grammatical ambiguities, philosophers derived theories of environmental being that appeared to contradict each other. For Husserl, ‘it is raining’ pointed ultimately to the way the environment always environs a subject. For Heidegger and Lévinas, by contrast, it pointed to the impersonality that precedes the emergence of any subjectivity, and which determines whatever subjective forms may then emerge within it. Althusser discovered in the formal structure of the sentence ‘it is raining’ a conception of history as the contingent concatenation of heterogeneous forms, the determinations of which are legible only speculatively and retrospectively. ‘It is raining’ would then appear to be impersonal despite or while also describing a situation centred on a speaker. That situation is unique, singular and embodied, yet also vague and indefinable. It is available only retrospectively even as it defines the here-and-now. It is like a historical conjuncture in that it is unstable and contingent: if it is raining, it always might well not have.

We could take this bundle of unstable and even contradictory semantic properties as together outlining the grammar of weather, supplying the paradoxical shape and feeling of what an atmospheric environment is. But then there are also the paradoxes language enters into when it becomes poetic, involving the distinct ways that literature uses words, even words as apparently simple as ‘it’. As Paul Valéry observed in The Art of Poetry, ‘it’ works differently in poetry: ‘One is taught: “Say it is raining if you mean it is raining”. But a poet’s object is not and never can be to tell us that it is raining. We do not need a poet to persuade us to take our umbrella’. In poetic language it is ‘the nonusage – the not saying “it is raining” – that is [the poet’s] business’. The practice of ‘nonusage’ described here by Valéry was performatively undertaken in the closing lines of Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: ‘Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining’. Literature is not a weather report, even – perhaps especially – when it looks most like one.

If the environment has the structure of a language, as twentieth-century philosophers implied, then certain literary uses of language (nonusages, in Valéry’s term) would seem to involve the cancellation or at least suspension of that environmental grammar. In her essay ‘Unspeakable Weather, or the Rain Romantic Constatives Know’, Anne-Lise François identified one mode of such a suspension in Wordsworth’s weather poetry. The ‘Romantic constative’ is in her words ‘a type of sentence that makes available what remains impersonal or unclaimed – of no concern – in subjective experience, a mode of statement that, finished at the instant of its posing, releases such experience from construction, whether this means the expectation of narrative development or the consolations of psychic identity’. The impersonal yet subjective moods and modes of experience that François described share critical semantic properties with the weather statements investigated by phenomenology. But Romantic poetry made this atmospheric experience available – it communicated it, made it expressive – by suspending the operative force of the semantic structures that would later prove so important for twentieth-century philosophical investigations of environmental experience. These suspended constructions include, in addition to the ones listed by François (the constructions of narrative sequence and of expressive individuality), those of the environmental grammar which is encoded in some of our most basic acts of speaking about what surrounds us, and of saying what it is where we are. Something like environmental experience (unclaimed, impersonal, yet still subjective) is released from the condition of its intelligibility in these environmental terms – terms influentially taken in the twentieth century to figure the phenomenological condition of all meaningfulness as such.

Neither saying it is raining nor not saying it is raining, the fitful alternations of Shelley’s rain withhold or abstract from the grammar of environment. In such lyric utterances in which the ‘pathos of heightened subjectivity’ becomes ‘indistinguishable from intensified impersonality’, François locates evidence of a ‘fraught ecological commitment to knowledge of the world not predicated on an assimilating or anthropomorphizing consciousness’. Romanticism’s atmospheres formed a critical chapter in the history of Western environmental consciousness because in these years the word ‘atmosphere’ acquired paradoxical semantic elements that would later be taken up in the word ‘environment’. But the true paradox of Romanticism’s literary atmospherics – suspended, undecidable, parathetic and vague as they are – is that they also bore witness to the possibility of experiencing the natural world as it might exist outside those structures of meaning, and so to a nature beyond, before, or without the grammar of environmental being, however we might choose to interpret ‘it’.


Thomas H. Ford is a Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. His book on Atmospheric Romanticism is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

This entry was posted in Romantic Climates.

© Copyright Leeds 2017