Friday, May 10, 2013

Presentation 2: The Year Without Summer

 The Year Without Summer

Smoke and ash began to drift down the side of the Indonesian volcano, Mount Tambora. On April 10, 1815, the sounds of an explosion were heard miles away as the volcano erupted into smithereens. Pyroclastic flow spewed on the surrounding areas on the island- demolishing all agriculture and weighing down on civilization. The eruption of Mount Tambora proved to be the strongest and deadliest volcano of its time. Its eruption generated an abundance of weather anomalies that affected not only the land, but also posed as a strong cornerstone for romantic literature and art.
The total weather effects weren’t apparent until 1816. Clouds of darkness settled across the sky for an entire year as people took whatever shelter remained. Sulfuric ash was projected into the sky at an incredible rate from the eruption, causing a film of toxicity over the atmosphere. The sulfate gasses floating and circling over the sky obscured the sun, preventing its energy from reaching Earth. The lack of sun caused a severe climate change across the planet. Temperatures dropped an average of 3º-6ºF- enough for a dramatic shift in seasonal temperatures. Due to the overwhelmingly low temperatures after the eruption, crops failed subsequently. During this time a large part of the world’s population depended on agriculture; when the crops failed month after month, starvation ensued. In the United States people suffering lived off of hedgehogs and boiled nettles; in China peasants sucked on white clay. Cholera and Typhus spread from India to Italy due to famine and a lack of clean groundwater. Between the initial eruption, famine, and diseases, the recorded death toll reached up to 90,000 people. This would be known as “The Year Without Summer”.
While the world was in a state of emergency, Romantics were greatly inspired. Mary Shelley and her circle of friends took shelter in a lakeside villa near Geneva where they exchanged ghost stories. Accounts of Shelley’s experience were documented in letters to her half sister in England. One such letter states, “One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the blackness” (Letters 1:20). This would be the darkness that became the backdrop of Frankenstein. One interpretation of Frankenstein can be seen as the Monster becoming a symbol of the vast tumult that spread across the Earth from Tambora. In the novel, the Monster quickly becomes seen as an animal, as a plague, as a killer, as a nuisance- as a threat to all humanity. With his enormous size and cold exterior, the Monster could indeed parallel to the icy frost that blanketed Geneva during the time Shelley and her group of friends were staying there.
Another Romantic, Lord Byron, also found inspiration within the treachery. His apocalyptic poem Darkness was conceived in July of 1816, opening up with –

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light. (1-9)

From the first 9 verses it becomes evident that Byron is depicting the severe climate change 1816 came to bear. The spectacular devastation and doom becomes the forefront of Darkness. The poem continues on to describe the desolate nature after Tambora and how humans essentially become a mirror of a catastrophic disaster such as the world ending. Both Byron and Shelley manifest a theme of the supernatural in their writings. Darkness and Frankenstein encompass an intangible disaster that forces humanity into a panic and sudden hysteria- questioning the natural and the artificial.
Literature was not alone in this time of dark romanticism. Romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallard William Turner depicted magnificent sunsets brought about by the refraction of dust in the atmosphere. Sulfate gasses enveloped the Earth in a rust colored tint. The deterioration of pre-industrial communities was at nature’s mercy and continued to be buried under heavy snowfall during summer months; a dry frost coated the continents. Turner’s most famous painting associated with Tambora, Chichester Canal (1816), illustrates the sullen stillness of the world after the eruption. Amidst the grey tones of the clouds overhead, the tinges of yellow and sepia become a subtle contrast.


While the painting does incorporate signs of human life, the dreariness of the sky overhead reflects eerily calm over the still canal. The very subtle silhouette of the city against the horizon alludes to a feeling of desolation.

The eruption of Mount Tambora proved to be a catastrophic event, leading to human despair and a radical shift in communities across the planet. Humanity perished as tsunamis, frost, and sulfur coated the continents. However, within this disaster came the birth of great romantic literature and art. Such a supernatural even could only lend itself to inspire writers and painters to make work encompassing the intangible force of nature and it’s reek of havoc- consuming individuals not only physically back into the Earth, but also psychologically.


"Darkness." By Lord Byron (George Gordon) : The Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 May 2013.

"Year Without Summer: Effects Of Tambora Volcanic Eruption On Iberian Peninsula Studied For First Time." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 Feb. 2009. Web. 8 May 2013.

Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. “1816, The Year without a Summer.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 9 May 2013


1 comment:

  1. Great choice to present this last! A smart way to return to the 3- I's of Romanticism. thanx, Ned