Published online by Cambridge University Press: 31 March 2022
This chapter reviews how literary and literal atmospheres have cut across each other in complex transactions of meaning and practice over the past 400 years. It traces how atmosphere was first literalised in early modern science, in a process that identified air as a new object of empirical knowledge while also awarding a new meaning of empirical objectivity to literalness. It then shows how this scientifically literal atmosphere was taken up in an expanded set of metaphoric and figurative uses from around 1800, in which such formulations as ‘political atmosphere’ and ‘poetic atmosphere’ breathed new life into traditional understandings of air that had moved fluidly between the spiritual and the empirical. The large-scale cultural re-metaphoricisation of air in this period formed the platform for the emergence of literary atmosphere as a specific practice of double troping, in which aerial figures were reflexively marked as at once figurative and literal. That marking proved integral to the emergence of both modernist poetry and the modern novel. But the discursive divisions and oppositions that underwrote it are brought under unprecedented pressure by climate change, which therefore requires new methods for the writing and reading of literary atmospheres.