Glaciers occupy a privileged site between narrative and science. Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamonix“ (1816) used the landscape as a metaphor to analyze the relationship between the human mind and the universe.
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears,— still, snowy, and serene —
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps.
And of course, Mer de Glace, on the slope of the mountain, is where Victor Frankenstein reunited with his Creature: “…From the side where I now stood Montenvers was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty…. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependant mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recess….” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the world’s greatest poets, was also a great naturalist. More important, he was the very first to believe in an ice age. Jean de Charpentier (1786- 1855) in Essai sur les glaciers presented Goethe’s theories of glacial transport (Charpentier, 1841, p . v).
In 1837, Karl Friedrich Schimper, a German botanist and geologist, wrote a poem to commemorate Galileo’s birthday, Die Eiszeit: fur Freunde gedruckt am Geburtstage Galilei. The expression Eiszeit—“ice age”— appeared for the first time in this poem. One of its stanzas says:
Last vestige of the primal ice,
more ancient than the Alps!
Primal ice of yore, when the might of frost
buried mountain high even the South,
enveloped mountain and sea alike!
Karl Schimper was born in Mannheim, Germany, on February 15th, 1803. During the summer of 1835, he was studying mosses which were growing on erratic boulders in the alpine upland of Bavaria and came to the conclusion that ice must have been the means of transport for the boulders.
Based on the works of Schimper and de Charpentier, Louis Agassiz (1801–1873) presented his “Discours de Neuchatel,” at the annual meeting of the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences on July 24, 1837. In this seminal work, he proposed that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age.
Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Tobias Krüger, Discovering the Ice Ages: International Reception and Consequences for a Historical Understanding of Climate, BRILL, 2013.