Goethe and the Clouds

   Franz Ossing; translation: Mary Lavin-Zimmer, GFZ

Today we take the daily weather reports for granted and easily forget that just at the beginning of the 19th century, during Goethe's lifetime, one would never so much as have thought of a weather forecast based on science. Not even the atmospheric variables permitting such a forecast were known. It was just empiricism such as the knowledge of peasants, shepherds and sailors that was available. Against this background the cloud classification of Luke HOWARD (1772 -1864) shows its real importance. With his work, "On the Modification of Clouds", this pharmacist and apothecery from London, in 1803, laid the cornerstone for a classification of clouds that, in its fundamental outlines, is still valid today. If we speak of Goethe's meteorological observations we have to speak of Luke Howard because it was he who coined Goethe's scientific view of meteorology and his poetic reflections of meteorologic phenomena.

The Way to the Poem "In Honour of Howard"
In an as simple as brilliant way Howard classified the clouds into four basic forms according to the seperate vertical levels of the atmosphere. Simple because these basic forms were subdivided phenomenologically; brilliant because behind his considerations there was a sure feeling that the vertical distribution follows certain physical laws.

Howard first names the main cloud types: cirrus (feather cloud), cumulus (heap cloud) and stratus (layer cloud) Furthermore, he identifies mixed type forms: cirro cumulus, cirro stratus, cumulo stratus, and later, added cumulo cirro stratus, also named nimbus, a rain cloud and a type of its own. It has to be remarked, however, that his classification disregards the mid-level clouds altocumulus and altostratus as well as the rain cloud nimbostratus which reaches from low to mid-atmospheric levels. This, however, does not belittle Howard's scientific achievements.

From Howard's observations we can conclude that he attributed the different cloud types to the different altitudes. The vertical structure of the atmosphere was still rather unknown during his time. It was perceived from mountain climbing that pressure and temperature decrease with height but the thermodynamic context of pressure, temperature and humidity - and, thus, the origin of cloud formation - was deciphered by scientists only later in the 19th century.

Goethe correctly recognized Howard's work as a breakthrough. It is well known that for Goethe empiricism was the key to understanding nature. This explains his enthusiasm for Howard's classification that, for the first time, gave an empirically founded systematization of the clouds. Consequently, he dedicated his poem "In Honour of Howard" (1821) to him:

"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

(The translation of Goethe's poems follows D.F.S. Scott, 1949)

Howard's System, Seen as Physics
Howard's vertical structural level of the clouds is based on meteorological facts. Together with the decrease of pressure with increasing height the atmosphere is typically characterized by a negative vertical gradient of temperature. Up to the lower stratosphere (which in our latitude is around 10 to 12 kilometres high) temperature decreases with height. Clouds consist of condensed water in the form of cloud droplets or water in cristalized form, i.e. ice. Clouds with a water/ice combination also exist.

Cloud formation takes place when the temperature drops below a certain value (the dew point temperature). The (invisible) water vapour then condenses onto tiny particles in the air, the condensation nuclei - a visible cloud is formed. Howard's classification of cirrus- (feather-) clouds, cumulus- (heap-) clouds and stratus- (layer-) clouds refers exactly to the fact that at temperatures lower than -35 °C every cloud consists completely of ice, at temperatures higher than 12 °C completely of liquid water (due to reasons of cloud physics, water in the free atmosphere does not freeze abruptly at 0 °C). His great achievement was to analyze this without founded knowledge of the atmophere's vertical structure during his time.

In spite of all progress in cloud physics and regardless of all the refinements that is included in the systematics of the World Meteorological Organization WMO, Howard's purely empirical observations are still valid today. Still nowadays the multitude of clouds can only be described descriptively; and over and over again it happens that the meteorologist on duty when doing his 3-hourly observation work detects cloud forms that can hardly be squeezed into the narrow pattern of meteorological service routines.

Goethe as a Meteorologist, Howard as a Poet
Goethe in, 1815 learnt to know the work of Howard when he, as the Director of the Institute for Arts and Science in the Duchy of Saxony-Weimar, was active in founding a meteorological station on the Ettersberg hill near Weimar. In 1822 he got in mail correspondence with Howard.

Comparing Luke Howard's scientific description of the main cloud types with Goethe's poetic description, the empirically precise scientist from England and the poet from Germany are coequal.

Example stratus: Howard names this layer cloud shortly and precisely as "a widely extended, continuous, horizontal sheet, increasing from below.

Stratus (Cap de Rosiers, Canada, 27.07.1991, 13:05 LST, photo: F. Ossing)

Goethe portrays the stratus cloud very poetically:

"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!

Example cumulus: Howard sketches this cloud clearly and briefly as "convex or conical heaps, increasing upward from a horizontal base". Once again, the real accomplishment lies in a short, but precise definition.

Cumulus (Sonneberg/Harz, Germany, 15.06.1974, 11:00 LST, photo: F. Ossing)

Goethe subtends this with his poetical accomplishment:

" ... 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

Example cirrus: Howard describes this feather cloud as "parallel, flexuous, or diverging fibres, extensible in any or in all directions", a short definition that still today can cope with the standards of the World Meteorological Organization.

Cirrus (Coesfeld, Germany, 22.12.1974, 10:50 LST, photo: F. Ossing)

To Goethe the cirrus appears in this way:
" … 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

And finally the example of the nimbus: here Howard's definition seems not to be secure, this rain cloud could be a thunderstorm (cumulonimbus), a raining cumulus cloud, or a layer cloud with precipitation: "Nimbus. The rain cloud. A cloud or system of clouds from which rain is falling. It is a horizontal sheet, above which the cirrus spreads, while the cumulus enters it laterally and from beneath."

"Nimbus": does L. Howard mean nimbostratus (Akkrum, Netherlands, 19.08.1981, 16:05 LST, photo: F. Ossing) ...

Goethe also sees the rain falling from the nimbus but definitely refers to a thunderstorm:

"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;

...or, like Goethe, the cumulonimbus (Potsdam, 17.08.2000, 14:50 LST, photo: F. Ossing) ?

Goethe, by the way, reproduces the atmospheric water cycle in his "In Honour of Howard": "As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall…". The atmospheric water vapour condenses to cloud droplets (here: stratus), in cumulus clouds these cloud droplets rise up to the freezing level and form snow crystals from which raindrops develop that fall to the ground. In particular in thunderstorms (cumulonimbus) the upper part of the cloud changes into cirrus (the "anvil" of a thundercloud). This water cycle is also mentioned in Howard's paper.

It may be remarked here that Goethe takes on clouds and other meteorological phenomena not only in this poem but also frequently in his complete works. As an example we recall here the vision of Dr. Faustus who in the clouds, "formlessly huge and towering it hangs in far icy eastern hills", fancies to recognize Helena (Faust II).

"... towering it hangs in far icy eastern hills ", shower cloud with icy upper part (Neustadt i.H., 27.08.78, 12:30 Uhr, photo: F. Ossing)

Meteorological Blur: Where is the Mid-level?
Already Schöne (1969, S. 29) alludes that Goethe uses the nomenclature of Howard as a construction kit. Wherever he finds that Howard's systemization has to be altered Goethe develops his own termini in which his understanding of the atmosphere condenses.

This is consequent in so far as Howard's cloud classification in fact inhibits some blurs.
Let us reconsider the above mentioned "nimbus" cloud. We have seen that rain may fall from a thunderstorm, a cumulus or from a nimbostratus. These three clouds belong to different atmospheric levels: the cumulus is part of the low clouds, nimbostratus is a mid-level cloud, and the cumulonimbus, a thunderstorm, vertically expands through all the three levels. Howard accordingly calls the rain cloud a "nimbus or cumulo-cirro-stratus".

This meteorological unsharpness corresponds to a linguistical unpreciseness.
Modern meteorology defines low, mid-level and high clouds based on cloud physical reasons: while - generally spoken - low clouds consist of cloud droplets, high clouds are a conglomeration of ice crystals. Mid-level clouds are a mixture of cloud droplets and ice.

Luke Howard could not have been aware of this physical background, his pioneer work was exactly that he created a cloud classification that is valid still today without this knowledge. On the other hand, however, this results in a distinction between mid-level and high clouds that is only diffuse. The mid-level altostratus as an individual cloud type is not found, and under the category "cirro-cumulus" there are subsumized altocumuli or even stratocumuli.

Altocumuls skyl (Bay du Vin, New Brunswick, Canada, 30.07.91, 20:05 LST, photo: F. Ossing)

This impreciseness is reflected in a picture of "sheep cloud" that Goethe labelled himself as "cirro-cumulus" (Goethe-Nationalmuseum Weimar, Inv.Nr. 1533). This picture definitely shows mid-level altocumuli with shading in the clouds body, and not cirrocumuli that do not show such a shading.

Altocumulus clouds, named erroneously as "Cirro-Cumulus" by Gothe (1817, pencil and Aquarell on paper, Goethe-Nationalmuseum Weimar, Inv.Nr. 1533)

What is left:
As a Privy Council and Minister of the Duchy of Saxony-Weimar Goethe had the arts and science under his direction. His weather theories, especially his "Versuch einer Witterungslehre" (Attempt on a Weather Theory, 1825) today seem strange to us, when he tries to explain the weather-driving forces of high and low pressure systems by the earth's body that breathes the air in and out. Goethe as a theoretically erroneous theorist is opposed by the weather practitioner Goethe. Under Goethe's supervision, starting with the Weimar weather station that was established in 1815, a weather observation network was installed as one of the first in Germany. The records taken here can be understood as one of the roots of scientific climatology and meteorology in Germany. Long before he learnt about Howard's paper, Goethe engaged himself with the weather, drew cloud sketches and measured temperature and pressure.

With the acknowledgement of Howard's classification, however, an intensification of Goethe's meteorological ideas takes place. It speaks in favour of Goethe's self mockery when he puts himself on in a soliloquy:

"Disciple of Howard, strangely
You look around and above you every morning
To see whether the mist falls or rises
And what clouds are showing
- exactly, when in the morning we take a glance out of the window to see if the weather forecast is right, "the mist falls or rises ", before we leave the house. It may be true that nowadays and in our latitude we no longer depend so much on weather conditions as did our ancestors 250 years ago. Yet weather is still an element of nature that touches us directly every day.


Goethe, J.W., "Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft", Reclam, Stuttgart 1977

Luke Howard, :"On the Modification of Clouds", Original in: Philosophical Magazine XVI, London 1803, Nachdruck in : Hellmann, G., Neudrucke von Schriften und Karten über Meteorologie und Erdmagnetismus, No. 3, Berlin 1894

Other Authors:

Hamblyn, R., "The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies", London, Picador, 2001, pp. 256

Schöne, A., "Über Goethes Wolkenlehre", in: Jahrbuch der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen für das Jahr 1968. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck u. Ruprecht 1969, S. 26-48

Schönwiese, C.-D., "'Ein Angehäuftes, flockig löst sich's auf' - Goethe und die Beobachtung der Wolken", in: Forschung Frankfurt. Wissenschaftsmagazin der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a.M., Nr. 2/1999, S. 12-18

Scott, D.F.S.: "Some English Correspondents of Goethe" Methuen, London, 1949, pp. 51-54

Different contributions in:

Wehry, W. / Ossing, F., "Wolken - Malerei - Klima in Geschichte und Gegenwart", Eigenverlag der Deutschen Meteorologischen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 1997, 192 S. (German only)

Cloud classification:
WMO (World Meteorological Organization), "International Cloud Atlas", Vol. II, Genf, 1987

A cloud catalog including more than 50 photos and description is found here:
Neumann, N./ Ossing, F./ Zick, C.: "Wolken-Ge-Bilde", ("Cloud Scapes") CD-ROM, Deutsche Meteorologische Gesellschaft 1997, Berlin

Comprehensive information (in German) on Goethes work:

Further reading on arts and science is here:
'Arts and Science' at GFZ.