Imagining the Storm

The Storm by Daniel Defoe cover pageThe Lord hath his way in the Whirlwind, and in the Storm, and the Clouds are the dust of his Feet. (Nahum. 1:3)

Re-reading Defoe’s The Storm and looking out at the sometimes scudding, sometimes lowering clouds over the past month, it has been impossible not to connect the present UK weather with Defoe’s memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703. Published in 1704, it is a remarkable combination of eyewitness reports from all over England, folkloric, classical, scientific, and biblical explanations of storms, and Defoe’s own attempt to account for this ‘Dreadful TEMPEST’.[1]

The epigraph, quoted above, is perhaps an unsurprising gloss on a natural disaster for most people living in the early eighteenth century (even the most rational natural or experimental philosopher synthesised to some degree or other their scientific explanations with the divine order of things). And for anyone familiar with Defoe’s novels, it should come as little surprise that storms are the expression of God’s intervention in human life: think about the storms at sea in Robinson Crusoe or Roxana: atmospheric disturbances are a figure for the intimations from heaven. Clouds perform a similar function, they are ‘the dust of his Feet’, manifestations of divine warning and harbingers of God’s approach.

Clouds are also a reflection – albeit an unreliable one – of the wind’s movement. In a remarkable extended conceit that imagines the storm as an army marching to war, Defoe declares ‘I confess, I have never studied the Motion of the Clouds so nicely, as to calculate how much time the Army of Terror might take up in its furious March’ (60). The difficulty to provide a rational explanation for the movement of winds and the function of clouds is underlined when Defoe quotes natural philosopher Ralph Bohun:

‘The Winds,’ says the Learned Mr. Bohun, ‘are generated in the Intermediate Space between the Earth and the Clouds, either by Rarefaction or Repletion, and sometimes haply by pressure of Clouds, Elastical Virtue of the Air, &c. from the Earth or Seas, as by Submarine or Subterraneal Eruption or Descension or Resilition from the middle Region.’

All this, though no Man is more capable of the Enquiry than this Gentleman, yet to the Demonstration of the thing, amounts to no more than what we had before, and still leaves it as Abstruse and Cloudy to our Understanding as ever. (8-9)

Despite the clunky pun at Bohun’s expense, Defoe forcefully emphasises the gap left by the failure of human understanding about the weather, quoting John (3:8): ‘The Wind blows where it listeth, and thou hearest the Sound thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh’ (10).

Storm clouds (7462161170)Into this gap pours our fancy and our humours, both so easily swayed by the clouds within and without. The parallel between figurative and literal clouds are an image for that traditional association, already strong by the eighteenth century, between English weather and a national disposition to melancholy. Inserted strangely alongside the factual accounts of the storm is a pastoral poem in the style of Virgil fitted to the subject of the hurricane, ostensibly sent in by an ‘ingenious Author’ (41). Damon asks his friend, ‘the melancholy Shepherd’ Melibæus, ‘what Cloud dares overcast  your brow … ?’ (42). The author – whom I strongly suspect to be Defoe himself – exploits the gap between the pastoral form and the ‘havoc’ (43) of the weather to emphasise the serious affliction and corresponding duty facing the English nation.

As nature writer Richard Mabey sets out in Turned out Nice Again: On Living With the Weather (2013), there is an indissoluble link between our subjective experience of the weather and those macro-events that we call climate. Defoe’s account of the great storm, looking back over accounts of weather from classical discussions, events from the seventeenth-century, as well as the more immediate reports of his correspondents, moves between several different levels of time: human history; typological time, in which events are suffused with Biblical resonance; the recent and immediate period of English history; and the subjective and affective moment. The difficulty facing Defoe is how to negotiate and balance all these levels in order to, as he says, ‘bring the Story into a Compass tolerable to the Reader’ (270). The remarkable thing is to see how effectively The Storm succeeds.

[1] Daniel Defoe, The Storm: Or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (London, 1704), page references to this edition.


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