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The Invention of Clouds: Goethe’s Poems for the Skies and His Heartfelt Homage to the Young Scientist Who Classified Clouds

“Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.”

If I should ever cease to be amazed and enraptured by the magic of clouds, I should wish myself dead. And I am hardly alone — since the dawn of our species, the water cycle’s most visible expression in the skies has bewitched artists, poets, and scientists like as a beautiful natural metaphor for the philosophy that there in an inherent balance to life, that what we give will soon be replenished. More than two millennia before poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark joined forces on their breathtaking love letter to clouds, before Georgia O’Keeffe extolled the beauty of the Southwest skies, before scientists figured out why cloudy days help us think more clearly, the great ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote: “They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason.” Indeed, there is a singular quality of prayerfulness to clouds — a certain secular reverence undergirding their allure to both art and science.

No poetic titan was more enchanted by the prayerful art-science of clouds than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote:

To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe was Europe’s most celebrated intellectual icon and Luke Howard — the man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” a young amateur meteorologist who pioneered a classification system for humanity’s favorite atmospheric phenomena — was the only Englishman whom Goethe ever addressed as “Master.” The verses the elderly Goethe penned for the young Howard endure as the most beautiful homage ever paid by one extraordinary mind to another — sentiments rendered in words even more moving than Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse and JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost.

In The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (public library), English writer and historian Richard Hamblyn chronicles Howard’s journey from a humble young Quaker and insecure chemist to a reluctant scientific celebrity who warranted the ebullient admiration of Goethe and forever changed our relationship with the weather.

Painting by Wendy Mark from ’89 Clouds.’ Click image for more.

In 1803, Howard self-published and distributed to friends a 32-page pamphlet titled On the Modifications of Clouds, &c — a classification system equal parts poetic and practical. Dusting off his schoolboy Latin, he came up with names for the three main categories of clouds — cumulus, stratus, and cirrus — and their various sub-taxonomies and combinations.

With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination — half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.

Soon, Howard was catapulted into the status of a scientific celebrity — but his feelings about fame and success, like Steinbeck’s, were ambivalent: Mired in self-doubt, he was embarrassed by the praise he received but was gladdened to see his labor of love make a lasting imprint on culture. Hamblyn captures the root of this ambivalence:

Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.

Howard was at the mercy of all these pernicious forces — some of his peers criticized his use of Latin words instead of ordinary English language in naming the clouds, while others got busy pirating and plagiarizing his popular essay for profit. But his classification system stuck and took off — two centuries before Kevin Kelly coined his famous 1,000 true fans theory, Howard benefited from precisely this potency of a handful of dedicated supporters, who ensured that his morphology was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica and carried over into other European languages.

But no true fan was more crucial to the success and enduring legacy of Howard’s work than Goethe.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Around the time of Howard’s rise to fame, Goethe had grown increasingly interested in science in general and morphology, the study of forms, in particular — a rigorous fascination that produced, among many other things, his theory of the psychology of color and emotion. But meteorology, perhaps because it was a science of contemplation celebrating the inherent poetics of nature, enchanted the great German philosopher and poet more than any other scientific field.

When Howard came under criticism for using Latin rather than the spoken English of the era in his classification system, Goethe penned a passionate defense, insisting that Howard’s Latin cloud names “should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.” As Hamblyn points out, Goethe was “an arbiter of cultural and civilized value” and his word “was enough to settle any matter” — and so it did, ensuring Howard’s Latin terms were henceforth the names by which we call the clouds.

But then something even more extraordinary happened — Goethe sent Howard fan mail.

So effusive was the letter, so full of ardent admiration — it even claimed that the cloud classification system had inspired Goethe to write poetry about Howard — that the humble young meteorologist immediately assumed it was a hoax, a cruel joke by one of his critics or a prank by a facetious friend looking to check the scientific starlet’s ego. But it was all true — Goethe was a great admirer of Howard’s work, and had written and published poems inspired by it and even celebrating it directly. Hamblyn explains:

Goethe’s encounter with the classification of clouds … had given him enormous pleasure. For some time he had been speaking of little else, and all in all it seemed as if the old man of letters had been granted a new lease of life.

Eventually, Howard copied Goethe’s words into one of his notebooks — perhaps to assure himself that he hadn’t dreamt the glowing praise, or to immortalize its gladdening effects on the spirit:

How much the Classification of the clouds by Howard has pleased me, how much the disproving of the shapeless, the systematic succession of forms of the unlimited, could not but be desired by me, follows from my whole practice in science and art.

Painting by Wendy Mark from ’89 Clouds.’ Click image for more.

Hamblyn traces the origin of Goethe’s enchantment with the classification system some years earlier:

Howard’s theories of cloud formation thus enhanced the development of Goethe’s own view of the ‘wholeness’ of nature, the wholeness of its ’mind’, as it were, and in his essay ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’) he praised the achievements and evident humanity of the brilliant young English meteorologist. But this was only the beginning. Goethe’s admiration and his sense of indebtedness to Howard’s meteorological theories did not rest there, but led on to one of the most extraordinary personal homages ever paid by one scientific worker to another.

The great German poet set out to adapt Howard’s essay into a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds, together titled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honor of Howard) — a beautiful celebration of the eternal dialogue between art and science in the shared enterprise of illuminating nature’s mystery, and an immensely heartwarming homage from one great illuminator to another.


When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.


Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.


And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.


Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

Hamblyn considers what impelled Goethe to transmute Howard’s classification into his high art of poetry:

For Goethe the identification and naming of the clouds had done nothing less than transfigure mankind’s relationship with aerial nature. The clouds had been released into the scientific consciousness, from where they could reach further, into the realm of the pure intellectual spirit, as addressed in the last line of ‘Nimbus.’ The greatness of Howard’s classification, for Goethe, was that it accounted for the material forces of cloud formation while allowing for the immaterial forces of poetic response to be heard. And his poems, like the essay which preceded them, took the form of just such a response. Art could answer science, it could find within it not only a source of subject matter but a source of real inspiration. Goethe’s cloud poems, as reactions to an energizing scientific insight, were heartfelt, joyous and sincere.

In yet another testament to the power of creative culture’s unsung sidekicks, the four cloud poems Goethe wrote in 1817 would have remained little more than a private delight for the German luminary — were it not for a young translator at London’s Foreign Office who was so captivated by the poems that he took it upon himself to translate them into English and give them a wider audience. That young clerk, Johann Christian Hüttner, was the one who translated and transmitted Goethe’s admiration to Howard himself — a dedicated cross-pollinator of greatness.

But Hüttner’s vision extended beyond the mere translation of the verses — feeling that the poems would greatly benefit from a richer context for readers who may not have encountered Howard’s original essay, he convinced Goethe to write a few introductory remarks about Howard and his work. The poet was happy to oblige and penned the following verse in just a few days:

When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.

Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.

But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. — Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

It was an astonishing gesture of intellectual generosity and remains among history’s most touching intersections of notable lives. So intensely interested was Goethe in the mind behind the cloud classification system that, with Hüttner’s help, he soon convinced Howard to write a short memoir chronicling the development of his scientific ideas and the circumstances of his life that fertilized the soil for his invention. Howard sent back an earnest text of irrepressible humility, in which he wrote:

I am a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends, whose company I quit with reluctance to join other circles.

This made Goethe all the more enamored with the young meteorologist’s sincerity of spirit. Well into his seventies, he wrote in a letter to Hüttner:

For a long time nothing has given me so much pleasure as the autobiography of Mr. Howard, which I received yesterday and have been thinking of ever since. In truth nothing more pleasant could have happened to me than to see the tender religious soul of such an excellent man opened out to me in such a way that he has been able to lay bare for me the story of his destiny and development as well as his innermost convictions.

How Howard developed his sensitive soul and how it sprouted his trailblazing scientific contribution is what Hamblyn explores in the remainder in the beautifully written, rigorously researched, wholly fascinating The Invention of Clouds. Complement it with the very differently but equally bewitching 89 Clouds and the science of how clouds actually stay up in the sky, then revisit Goethe’s taxonomy of color and emotion.

Published July 7, 2015




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