Lord Byron’s 1816 Alps revisited

On Aug. 29, 1816, leaving Mary Godwin behind in Coligny on the shores of Lake Geneva, where she had begun to write a short story that grew into a novel called “Frankenstein,” the disgraced wife-abuser and self-exiled star of English poetry, Lord Byron, and his friend John Cam Hobhouse set off on a tour of Switzerland by horse and carriage. Two months later, having reached the heart of the Bernese Ober-land, they “entered upon a range of scenes beyond all description or previous conception,” as Bryon wrote in his Alpine Journal. And on Sept. 22: “Arrived at the foot of the Mountain (the Yung-frau – i.e. the Maiden) Glaciers … heard an Avalanche fall – like thunder – saw Glacier – enormous – Storm came on – thunder – lightning – hail – all in perfection – and beautiful.” 

The majestic scenery, with its lightning flashes and kettle-drum thunder, embodied the idea of the Sublime, and Byron reveled in it.

Two days later, the travelers were looking up in awe at the Rosenlaui glacier, “said to be the largest & finest in Switzerland,” after which, halting their horses, they admired the Reichenbach Falls, which plunge some 200 feet to the valley below. The great cascade would later engage the attention of novelist A. Conan Doyle, who in 1892 visited Meiringen, the village in the valley below the Falls, and subsequently used the Falls as the setting for a death-struggle scene between Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy, Dr. Moriarty — a struggle from which, in response to public demand and financial pinch, both were subsequently brought back to life by their creator.  

Bringing a glacier back to its original grandeur is a different story.

Over the past 150 years, the Rosenlaui glacier has shrunk to about one-third of its size at the time Byron stopped to marvel at it. A recent report titled “Glacial Retreat in the Alps,” issued by NASA’s LCLUC land-covered/land-use change program, states: “The European Alps have lost approximately 50 percent of their total glacial volume between 1850 and 1975,” adding that if the atmosphere continues to heat up, the result would be “potentially disastrous to Switzerland’s tourism-dependent economy.” As it would be to ski resorts throughout Europe and North America, where glaciers are in full retreat. 

And then there are the Himalayan glaciers, which, according to another LCLUC report, “have been in a status of retreat at an increasing rate, which will eventually result in a water shortage for all Himalayan countries (e.g. China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan).”  

Worldwide, glacial melt will force populations to move as glacier-fed rivers dry up, creating conflict as they do so. Back in November of 2016, Scientific American published an article titled “Military Leaders Urge Trump to See Climate as a Security Threat.” Written by Erika Bolsted, the article sums up the findings of a bipartisan group of defense experts and former military leaders who sent a briefing book to Donald Trump’s transition team. Of the book, Bolsted wrote, prophetically: “It may well end up in the paper shredder.” 


Jon Swan is a poet, journalist and former senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Several years ago, after living in the Berkshires for 40 years, he and his wife moved to Yarmouth, Maine. His poems and several articles may be found at www.jonswanpoems.com.