News Comment

Sunday 21 September 2014

The weather has long inspired our writers - they'll have their work cut out in future

Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30

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The weather is a constant theme in the poetry of Seamus Heaney
The weather is a constant theme in the poetry of Seamus Heaney

This Saturday marks the first anniversary of Seamus Heaney's passing. Coincidentally I picked up his anthology of poetry Wintering Out recently and enjoyed reading 'Gifts of Rain'. It made me reflect on how those in 'the arts' have often used weather conditions as a backdrop to their narratives and how it has allowed them to structure their work and highlight themes.

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Many famous iconic pieces that have done so spring to mind.

It is no coincidence that Shakespeare opens his tragedy Macbeth in a thunderstorm, which then sets the tone for an ominous play, full of unsettled and unbalanced emotions.

Jane Austen used the weather as a tool in Sense and Sensibility to allow two characters to meet. Her readers should have known that Mr Willoughby was trouble though. The clue was there in how they met - when Marianne Dashwood fell while running for cover "when suddenly the clouds" had united over her and her sisters' heads.

From the cold, wet and foggy streets of Dickensian London in Oliver Twist, symbolic of the underbelly of crime in the city, to the classic Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, the weather is a constant and pervading feature.

I wonder would this tragic love story be as compelling if not set amidst the misty, dark, desolate and bleak Yorkshire Moors?

Here in Ireland, in James Plunkett's Strumpet City, set during the 1913 Dublin Lockout, the character Mulhall (a supporter of Jim Larkin) "felt warm inside him, despite the rain. It was the battle glow".

Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes also drew on our own climate to underpin a dreary atmosphere and chronicle a fairly miserable childhood.

In the opening page he bluntly writes: "Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settled forever in Limerick".

Earlier this month, we commemorated the start of World War I. The definitive war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon often used the weather to reflect the terror of the trenches. Sassoon's 1916 poem 'The Death Bed', says: "Warm rain on drooping roses . . . not the harsh rain . . . but a trickling peace, gently and slowly washing life away."

The rain is a sombre reminder of the slow flowing blood through the dying soldier's veins. Wilfred Owens is similarly brutal in his offering, 'Exposure': "Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us." Even more harsh is his depiction of the corpses of the soldiers: "All their eyes are ice".

In song, there are the obvious tunes that pay homage to the weather, too many to mention in fact, with my favourite one being Stevie Wonder's 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life'. One of our most beloved songs, 'Danny Boy', uses the weather to articulate the nostalgia, sentimentality and the heartache of not being at home.

Here is the second verse: "But come ye back when summer's in the meadow, or when the valley's hushed and white with snow. 'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow, oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so."

Paintings of the Great Irish Famine also used the weather as a metaphor.

There are thick, black clouds above the heads of the starving, distressed people evicted from their homes in paintings by Erskine Nicol, Robert George Kelly and Daniel MacDonald. These harsh conditions mirror the suffering inflicted on those trying to keep alive during the Famine.

Not to be frivolous, but even the film industry has got in on the action. Disney's Frozen, is an animated fairytale about two sisters who are forced to live apart when the older one, Elsa, turns everything she touches to ice, including her own kingdom. Her 'Snow Queen' status is a reflection of her 'cold' and aloof personality.

In time, though, the townfolks' hearts soften, she returns home to live with her sister, summer returns and everyone lives happily ever after.

So, now, as we look to the future, and with climate change under way, it will be very interesting to see how the new variations in weather conditions may be represented by the arts.

In fact, it is quite likely that new, evolving weather patterns will inspire new pieces of art - be they literature, songs or films.

With the likelihood of severe weather events in the future, the weather may be brought forward from the background to become the central character in new pieces of art, because as sure as night follows day, there will always be weather.

Irish Independent

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