Lord Byron’s Darkest Summer

Nina Martyris in Lapham's Quarterly:

Byron1On the evening of April 5, 1815, Mount Tambora, in the Indonesian archipelago, lost its head. So furious was the volcanic eruption that the top third of the 4,300-meter mountain disappeared. More than 10,000 people were incinerated, while an additional 30,000 across the world perished from the crop failures, famine, and disease that resulted from extreme weather triggered by the explosion. Volcanic ash blotted out much of the sun for more than a year, seeding wild rumors that the sun was dying. In Europe and North America, there were snowfalls in June, dry fogs, streaky sunsets, and unseasonal storms. The average global temperature dropped by a whole degree. The climate changed overnight. Unexpectedly, however, this catastrophe spurred two remarkable works of apocalyptic literature in distant Europe. As we mark their bicentenary, these works can be viewed as forerunners to the literature of climate change. The more famous of the two is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, the mesmerizing and moving story of a hubristic scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a yellow-skinned and watery-eyed monster in his laboratory—and then loses control of it. It has become the classic cautionary tale against what Shelley’s vainglorious scientist upholds as “the unquestioned belief that the products of science and technology are an unqualified blessing for mankind.” The other is the lesser known but equally haunting poem “Darkness,” by the romantic poet George Gordon Byron. It imagines the horrific end days of human life on an earth that has become “a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.” These two works share a unique kinship: not only were they goaded into being by the gloomy Tambora weather, but they were conceived in the same month, July 1816, and in the same place—on the shores of a storm-lashed Lake Geneva, where Byron and the Shelleys had rented neighboring villas.

The story of how Frankenstein was born has passed into literary legend. The year 1816 was known by the clammy epithet of the Year Without a Summer; thunderstorms and what Mary described as “an almost perpetual rain” kept them indoors. The group of friends—which included Byron’s personal physician Dr. John Polidori and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s eighteen-year-old stepsister, who was madly in love with Byron and pregnant with his child—decided to pass the time by inventing ghost stories. Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, whose opening page, shivery with icy winds, manifests a deep longing for a place where “the sun is forever visible.”

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