Summary of "The Cloud" (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The poem “The Cloud” by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a lyric, written in anapestic meter, alternating in line lengths between tetrameter and trimeter. In “The Cloud,” Shelly invokes the idea of a cloud as an entity narrating her existence in various aspects. Told in 6 stanzas, Shelley has this cloud tell a unique perspective on what she is in each one.
In the first stanza, we come to understand the cloud in terms of her functions in the cycle of nature, in regards to the cycle of water and the cycle of plant life. The cloud brings water to nourish the plants and vegetation in the form of rain, which is created from the evaporated water of bodies of water. The cloud acts as shelter for the same vegetation from the sweltering heat of the Sun during its hottest hours. The moisture provided by the cloud also serves to awaken budding flowers so they may open to absorb the Sun’s rays. Finally, the cloud also serves reignite the life of plants after they have died, as hail threshes the plants (Lynch 832, note 1), and washes the grain back into the soil, starting the plant cycle over.
The second stanza describes the cloud as serene, and indifferent to what goes on beneath her, while simultaneously describing her as a vessel for disruption and unrest. As the cloud blasts trees with snow and wind, disturbing the mountaintops and rooted trees, she sleeps peacefully and unbothered. The cloud is harboring her counterpart, lightning, who, unlike the cloud, is erratic and restless. Lightning guides the cloud across the sky to find lightning’s opposite charge, where her discharges as bolts of lightning and claps of thunder, all the while the cloud sits placid and unaffected by lightning’s energy.
The third stanza portrays how the cloud accompanies the Sun from dawn to dusk. As the Sun rises, he joins the cloud to orbit across the skies, now that night is gone and the stars have disappeared. The Sun is compared to an eagle that rests on a mountain peak during an earthquake, joining the mountain for a short time in its movement. The Sun sets and leaves the sky with the pink-hue of sunset, and the cloud is left to wait until his return.
The fourth stanza depictures the movement of the Moon over the cloud. The Moon is described as being alit by the Sun’s rays, and she is seen gliding across the thin cloud scattered by the “midnight breezes” (Shelley 48). Gaps in the cloud line are attributed to minor disturbances by the moon. These gaps reveal the stars that are quickly hidden away by the shifting cloud. The Moon is then reflected in bodies of water as the cloud opens up to reveal her.
The fifth stanza describes the restrictions the cloud imposes on both the Sun and Moon, guarding the lands and seas. The cloud is pictured as a belt around both the Sun and Moon, limiting their ability to affect the earth. The Moon is veiled by the cloud, who is spread across the sky by winds, and objects below become less visible and the stars disappear from view. The cloud covers the sea and protects it from the Sun’s heat, supported at such a height by the mountains. The cloud is pushed through a rainbow, propelled by the forces of the wind. The rainbow is described as originating from the light of the Sun passing through, created by light’s reflection.
The sixth and final stanza narrates the origin of the cloud, and her continuously changing form through her unending cycle of death and rebirth. The cloud originates from bodies of water and the moisture found in within the earth and its inhabitants. She is composed through the Sun’s intervention, who’s heat evaporates the water and moisture. Although the cloud is emptied from the sky as rain, and the sky is bright from the Sun’s rays, the cloud is continuously recreated and undone in a never-ending cycle.
Lynch, Deirdre Shauna and Jack Stillinger. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Julia Reidhead. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "The Cloud." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Julia Reidhead. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. 832-4. Print.