John Constable, Sky Study with Rainbow, 1827.
Not being able to work steadily this morning, because there was a rainbow half a mile broad, and violet-bright, on the shoulders of the Old Man of Coniston—(by calling it half a mile broad, I mean that half a mile’s breadth of mountain was covered by it,—and by calling it violet-bright, I mean that the violet zone of it came pure against the grey rocks; and note, by the way, that essentially all the colours of the rainbow are secondary;—yellow exists only as a line—red as a line—blue as a line; but the zone itself is of varied orange, green, and violet),—not being able, I say, for steady work, I opened an old diary of 1849….
—John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letter 42 – “Misericordia”
Ruskin races to catch up to the task of describing the rainbow, just as humans have always raced to catch the rainbow in metaphor, in science, in legend. But he can’t work, all morning long, because the rainbow has stopped his pen.
Robert Fludd, “Fiat Lux,” from Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia (1617-1621), [The Spiritual, Physical, and Mechanical History of Both Worlds, being the Greater and the Lesser].
“I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
—Moses, Book of Genesis, 9-17
After the flood, God needs a sign to remind humans that he will not destroy them anymore with flood. It remains to be seen what other instruments he has at his disposal.
Boreads Pursuing the Harpies, Detail from a Laconian cup, mid 6th century BC.
Calaïs and Zetes, two warriors, two sons of the North Wind, draw their swords. They leap to the sky in defense of Phineas, an old prophet persecuted by the monstrous Harpies. As Calaïs and Zetes chase the Harpies away, Rainbow, a young goddess, blocks their path. She promises Phineas will no longer suffer, but they must let the Harpies go. The rainbow was still strong enough to stop warriors in their tracks, and to protect the wild things of the world, even if they tended to harm human beings.
—Apollonios of Rhodes, Argonautica [paraphrase by author]
But also, after a vicious storm, a cool wind from the north drives off the rain, and in the newfound calm, a rainbow appears.
“Rainbow, with figure,” from Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1728.
10. Why the Colours of the Rainbow appear in falling drops of Rain, is also from hence evident. For, those drops, which refract the Rays, disposed to appear purple, in greatest quantity to the Spectators eye, refract the Rays of other sorts so much less, as to make them pass beside it; and such are the drops on the inside of the Primary Bow, and on the outside of the Secondary or Exteriour one.
—A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge, to the Royal Society, containing his New Theory about Light and Colors: sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, February 6. 1672
Water rounds into teardrops, and the heavenly beams curve along the shape like a dress around hips. Pure scientific reason discovers that light is not so pure; that every moment of enlightenment relies on the half-fluid, half-particle substance bending.
But that does not stop the poets — William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, John Keats — from drinking a toast to “Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics.” Philosophy has tried to “Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,” and the rainbow is the first victim of the scientific revolution.
Bartolomeu Velho, illustration of Ptolemy’s cosmos, from Cosmographia, 1568.
…the rainbow is a reflection.
Athanasius Kircher, color chart, from Ars magna lucis et umbrae [The Great Art of Lights and Shadows], 1646.
Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.
—Herman Melville, Billy Budd
Caspar David Friedrich, Mountain Landscape with a Rainbow, (1809-1810).
Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born. Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “Berenice”
If there are varieties of beauty that must be distinguished and savored, then pain, too, is an acquired taste. The palate that savours and discriminates between the stripes of gorgeousness can separate out the strains of suffering. As when two mirrors face each other and multiply, we get a glimpse of infinity, when pain and pleasure must face each other in the same body. And, as Melville reminds us, it’s a dangerous game to split hairs with infinity.
…we find between Homer and ourselves a gulf of three thousand years, or about one clear half of the total extent which we grant to the present duration of our planet. This in itself is so sublime a circumstance in the relations of Homer to our era, and the sense of power is so delightfully titillated to that man’s feeling, who, by means of Greek, and a very moderate skill in this fine language, is able to grasp the awful span, the vast arch of which one foot rest upon 1838, and the other almost upon the war of Troy–the mighty rainbow which, like the archangel in the Revelation, plants its western limb amongst the carnage and the magnificence of Waterloo, and the other amidst the vanishing gleams and the dusty clouds of Agamemnon’s rearguard.
—Thomas De Quincey, “A Brief Appraisal Of The Greek Literature In Its Foremost Pretentions”
Royal Air Force official photographer, Aerial photograph taken during RAF Bomber Command’s raid on the North German port of Lubeck on the night of 28/29 March 1942.
[…]and now, in the Zone, later in the day he became a crossroad, after a heavy rain he doesn’t recall, Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds into earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural….” (638)
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Time is a rainbow, bending from one civilization to another, one war to another, one book to another. De Quincey hangs the rainbow over a wasteland of carnage, like God’s curtain, tipped at the edges in the blood of millions. His rainbow is a book, the device that suspends the reader over the flux of history. Meanwhile, on the demolished Earth, Thomas Pynchon’s Slothrop walks through that wasteland, the “Zone.” Slothrop is stalked by an invisible rainbow: the arc of Nazi rockets, falling on the spots where he has orgasmed. Yet here, in this clearing, he finds his own way to being “delightfully titillated.” He doesn’t cry because of pain; he cries because at last, for once, he’s “just feeling natural.”
Highway Rainbow, Stoneville, NC, photograph courtesy of Greg Morrison.
The rain bow after all does not attract an attention proportionate to its singularity and beauty…It is wonderful that men do not take pains to behold it…It was designed to impress…We live as it were within the calyx of a flower.
—Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August 6, 1852