A metaphoric meaning in the stillness before a storm was exploited in early modern English, but its expression was varied, that is, its figurative language was not confined to a strict form, but could be expanded, say, with adjectives or an intervening phrase. In the final decades of the 18th century, it takes on a more fixed form, and by the 1860s it had become a trope whose wording only varies by which article is chosen and where. So it has remained today: the calm before the storm.
A Google Books NGram shows the last phase of this development. In the beginning of the 19th c. an alternative with a different article is at times more frequent than the frozen form of today, but in the 1850s, the latter takes a sharp turn upward.
Until 1950, this is mirrored by a similar frequency curve in the British Newspaper Archives: 1840–1849, 45 instances; 1850–1859, 96; 1890–1899, 327. In the first half of the 20th century, there were over 1300 uses of the phrase, but after WWII, a rapid decline to under 300 for the rest of the century. In the current century, the archive records only 3. At least for British newspapers, the phrase has become a cliche best avoided.
In the 17th c., the metaphor was still fresh and more flexible in expression through most of the next century. In the 1601 play The Dumb Knight, it is a tempest rather than a storm:
Collaquintida: … but hush, no words ; there is calm before the tempest.
Alfonso: Tut, tell me of no storms ; but direct me to her bed-chamber, my noble firelock of a flesh pistol. — Lewis Machin, Gervase Markham, The Dumb Knight, ca.1601 (pub. 1608).
A popular volume of Anglican homilies contrasts a calm before and after a storm:
… and therefore, since storms and calms (especially with reference to the state of the soul) doe always follow one another; certainly of the two, it is much more eligible, to have the storm first, and the calm afterwards: since a calm before a storm is commonly a peace of a man's own making; but a calm, after a storm, a peace of God’s.— Robert South, Twelve sermons preached upon several occasions, vol. 2, 1694. EEBO. Republished, 1727, 1823.
Its difficult to imagine that the Rev. Mr. South was the only churchman who exploited the metaphor, which at the end of the 17th c. is still generating language.
The storm could be replaced by an acoustic image:
Valeria: Silent awhile he stood | As the dead calm before the thunder rolls. — William Whitehead, The Roman Father 5,1, 1750.
Mr. Dookalb’s courteous behaviour seemed but as the dreadful calm before the thunder rolls … — William Dodd, The Sisters, 1754.
The terms of the metaphor could be expanded:
… and I am not surprised that so long a calm, before the breaking out of the political storms, should have given rise to the supposition, that an universal monarchy, or, at least, a monarchy, … would prove advantage to mankind. — Jean François, Marquis de Chastellux, An Essay on Public Happiness, 1774.
Figurative language is not yet the trope the calm before the storm would become.
From Metaphor to Trope
In the strictest sense, the phrase rather than the metaphor does not occur in print — at least in those archives I was able to consult — until 1780, though even here, only indefinite articles are used:
Every Thing is quiet at present, — like a Calm before a Storm. — Derby Mercury, 4 Aug. 1780.
The phrase could still be expanded with adjectives or an additional noun, or appear in its “bare” form as in the Derby article:
A temporary peace was by these means produced; but it proved only a calm before a more violent storm. — William Russell, The History of Modern Europe, 5, 1786.
It was the dead calm before the tumult of the storm. — “Advertisement” dated May 1797 in: Pamphleteer 3,6, 1814.
But such a peace, which, like a calm before a storm, only lasted till the people’s indignation was roused. Speech before Parliament,1795.
Ortiz and de Leon, all, could testify to the strict obedience of the conquered tribesmen; but it was simply the calm before the coming storm. — Richard Farmer, Biblioteca Farmeriana, 1798.
One author cleverly mixes up the grammar. For this sentence to make sense, parse before as a subordinating conjunction, not a preposition:
She in all probability attributing my emotions to regret of her mighty displeasure with the most charitable intention in the world assumed a calm before the storm was half exhausted and to quiet my anxiety good naturedly began to hum a love-air. — Jeremiah Jingle, The Remarks of Jeremiah Jingle, 1807.
While this example may prove the rule, the grammatical options for augmenting the phrase are becoming fewer.
Not even a decade later, the “bare” form, or at least barely expanded, becomes much more frequent. The phrase is well on its way to the fixed expression of present-day English, though there is still variation in the articles. I would suggest that that difference carries more meaning than one would initially think. A/the calm before a storm evokes a comparison, however briefly, to calms and storms one has experienced, while the calm before the storm, divorced from any particular experience, moves into the timeless, gnomic universe of proverbs and truisms.
The silence which then prevailed, was the calm before the storm; it was the silence which precedes the approach of death, and was ominous of the fate of nations. — James M’Queen, The campaigns of 1812, 1813, and 1814, Glasgow,1815.
All continues perfectly quiet, as a calm before a storm …
— Richard Tully, Narrative of a ten years' residence at Tripoli, 1816 (post.)
Measures of a similar description produced indeed for a season order and peace—but such a peace which like the calm before the storm only lasted till it burst forth at once in popular indignation. — The Parliamentary History of England, 1818.
We were well aware, however, that this was only a deceitful calm before a storm; for they had been busy all this time building batteries both in front and to our right in the village I have already mentioned, although they were hidden from our view by the houses. — Joseph Donaldson, Recollections of an Eventful Life: Chiefly Passed in the Army, 1824.
Among ourselves, in the meanwhile, and throughout the different divisions contiguous to us, a silence, like that of a calm before a storm, prevailed. — George Robert Gleig, The Subaltern, 1825.
… but so far from profiting by this last calm before the storm to save himself, he sought to forget anticipated evil by making still greater sacrifices to the deity of pleasure, deceitful and cruel arbiter of his destiny. — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Last Man, 1826.
They confirm the tranquil state of that part of Colombia; but say— It is deceitful, the calm before the storm; we have launched our boat into the tempest, and must abide the result. — The Atlas (London), 20 August 1826.
Among these examples is the first use in the American newspapers archived by the Library of Congress:
But those intervals, either of partial or of total abstinence, were like the calm before a storm; and the prelude of a more daring movement in the road to hell. — Cherokee Phoenix and Indians' Advocate (New Echota GA), 8 July 1829.
And in a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton —who gave the world such catchphrases as“the great unwashed,” “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” “the pen is mightier than the sword,” as well as what many consider the worst opening line ever, “It was a dark and stormy night” — separated by a dash, the current form of the phrase:
To this irruption succeeded an interval of peace — the calm before the storm. — Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Leila: or, the Siege of Granada, 1838.
Tracing the expression the calm before the storm through the centuries shows how usage refined a metaphor into a fixed expression — a trope, or to judge by the British press, a cliche whose expiry date has passed. It was attractive to writers of fiction and history to build suspense: calm becomes fraught with hidden forces ready to burst forth in some major event the writer will soon narrate, and it imposes a convenient order on sequences of events that might otherwise appear chaotic, which, of course, is the whole point of narrative, historical or not.
If you find the expression beyond redemption, I suggest a revival of the calm before the thunder rolls. It has a real ring to it.