Monday, June 23, 2014

Storm Season with Stevenson and Twain

Last week summer storm season came rumbling and rolling into Chicago. Almost every day was damp and gray and on Saturday we had two storms--a short one in the afternoon and a fury of a downpour in the evening. It all reminded me of two of the most vivid storm descriptions in literature that I've ever read--one a passage from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and the other a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I'll share them in a moment, but first I'd like to note that Twain and Stevenson have more in common than thunderstorms. They were contemporaries. They admired each other's work, corresponded, and even met during one of Stevenson's trips to America. Apparently RLS, on first getting Huckleberry Finn, read it twice through; and Twain's family "bathed in" Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

The two authors met in New York in September of 1887, where they sat on a park bench and chatted away the hours. Later Twain recalled part of their conversation:
Robert Louis Stevenson and I, sitting in Union Square and Washington Square a great many years ago, tried to find a name for, the submerged fame, that fame that permeates the great crowd of people you never see and never mingle with; people with whom you have no speech, but who read your books and become admirers of your work and have an affection for you. You may never find it out in the world, but there it is, and it is the faithfulness of the friendship, of the homage of those men, never criticizing, that began when they were children. They have nothing but compliments they never see the criticisms, they never hear any disparagement of you, and you will remain in the home of their hearts' affection forever and ever. And Louis Stevenson and I decided that of all fame, that was the best, the very best. (from
A beautiful little reflection from two deservedly famous writers.
Now for the first of my summer storms for you:
Pretty soon in darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten.... Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely, and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest--fst! It was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of treetops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down-stairs--where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know. (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 9)
This has got to be the most lyrical and true-to-life description of a storm in prose that I've ever read. No doubt it was a passage Stevenson loved when he was reading (and re-reading) the book!
Stevenson's own contribution to "storm literature" is in poem form, and the setting is transferred from the ole Mississippi to the South Pacific island of Samoa (where RLS spent his last years). But the images created are no less vivid. Read it out loud--his genius use of alliteration summons the very sounds and pictures of a storm.
Tropic Rain
(From Songs of Travel)
As the single pang of the blow, when the metal is mingled well,
Rings and lives and resounds in all the bounds of the bell:
So the thunder above spoke with a single tongue,
So in the heart of the mountain the sound of it rumbled and clung.
Sudden the thunder was drowned--quenched was the levin light...
And the angel spirit of rain laughed out loud in the night.
Loud as the maddened river raves in the cloven glen,
Angel of rain! You laughed and leaped on the roofs of men;
And the sleepers sprang in their beds, and joyed and feared as you fell.
You struck and my cabin quailed; the roof of it roared like a bell,
You spoke, and at once the mountain shouted and shook with brooks.
You ceased, and the day returned, rosy, with virgin looks.
And methought that beauty and terror are only one, not two;
And the world has room for love, and death, and thunder, and dew;
And all the sinews of hell slumber in summer air;
And the face of God is a rock, but the face of the rock is fair.
Beneficent streams of tears flow at the finger of pain;
And out of the cloud that smites, beneficent rivers of rain.
His line there on "beauty and terror are only one, not two"...strikes me as very Chestertonian. But we'll leave that literary comparison for another day!