Monday, March 29, 2021

Geology Through Literature - Han Christian Andersen's: What the Moon Saw

Geology Through Literature: 

Hans Christian Andersen's: What the Moon Saw (1839-1840)

For the second entry we continue on through Hans Christian Andersen's oeuvre to our next geological reference.

For other Geology Through Literature entries, please check them out compiled on my website.

What the Moon Saw (1839-1840)

Twelfth Evening
Mount Vesuvius
"I shall give you a picture of Pompeii," said the Moon. "I was outside the city, in the Street of the Tombs, as they call the place where happy youths, with wreaths of roses on their heads, once danced with the fair sisters of Lais. Now the silence of death reigns there.

"German soldiers in the service of Naples kept guard, and played cards and diced. A group of strangers from beyond the mountains walked into the city, conducted by a guard. They had come to see, in the full clear rays of my light, the city arisen from the grave. I showed them the ruts of the chariot wheels in the streets paved with great slabs of lava. I showed them the names upon the doors and the signs still hanging before the houses. In the narrow courts, they saw the fountain basins ornamented with shells, but the waters no longer spouted forth. No longer were songs heard from the richly painted chambers, where the bronze dogs kept watch before the doors. It was the City of the Dead. Vesuvius alone still thundered his eternal hymn, and each stanza of it men call a new eruption. We visited the Temple of Venus, built of pure white marble, with its high altar in front of its broad steps; the weeping willow has sprung up between the columns. The air here was transparent and blue, and in the background loomed Vesuvius, black as coal, its flames rising straight as the trunk of a pine tree. The glowing smoke cloud lay in the still calm of the night like the crown of the pine tree, but red as blood."

As is relatively well known, the city of Pompeii, located 14 miles to the southeast of Naples, was buried in ash after the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This eruptive cloud of  heated gasses, ash, and other pyroclastic debris asphyxiated the populace and buried it in ash, preserving the town, and the people, to this day. As noted in the text, even the ruts in the streets were preserved. 

The street Via dell'Abbondanza in Pompeii with the street car ruts visible. Image courtesy of Britannica.

The city itself was also built on top of lava flows, being located very close to the volcano. Vesuvius, although not historically active prior to 79 AD, is a very active volcano. The people of Pompeii and surrounding towns likes Herculaneum were unaware of the danger that they were in but just being in the vicinity of the mountain. That time has passed and now people are fully aware of the hazards in the area, many of those from the repeated eruptions of Vesuvius since 79 AD. 

The ruins of Pompeii were discovered in the late 16th century with excavation work on the city beginning in 1748 under the patronage of the king of Naples, Don Carlos, carried out by the military engineer Karl Weber. During this time, the excavations were haphazard and often by untrained treasure seekers. 

As noted in the excerpt, these excavations took place in the shadows of eruptions by Vesuvius, with eye witness accounts describing the very same pillar of fire erupting from the volcano itself during this time. Between the time the excavations started (1748) and the time the story was published (1840), there were 7 separate periods of volcanic activity, with several containing "pillars of flame". The most recent one to the publication in January of 1839 had this event described: 
Outflow on 31 Dec 1838. At dawn of 1 Jan 1839, dark eruption column, lava flow to W . Between 1 and 4 Jan, fracture of the cone to E and W, on 2 Jan high white cloud; then lava to E (Boscotrecase) and W (Canteroni); lava fountains up to 400 m, and black ash on Boscotrecase and Castellammare. After the eruption the crater was funnel-shaped with a diameter of 700 m and a depth of 285 m (Pilla, Baratta) (Courtesy of

And not only are there written descriptions, but visual recreations in the forms of paintings from the time. Below are  pictures of eruptive columns from the 1788 eruption and the 1822 eruption.

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Joseph Wright of Derby, painted ~1788. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Vesuvius in eruption, October 1822. George Poulett Scrope, Considerations on Volcanoes, 2nd ed. (1864), frontispiece. Image courtesy of the BBC.

So, it would appear that Andersen was very well informed with the geological activity going on during his time.


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