Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In an earlier poem entitled “Mutability,” Shelley used clouds as a symbol of impermanence and likened them to human life, which is never the same from one day to the next. In Prometheus Unbound the cloud takes on a different meaning as a symbol of the material human form, which is illuminated by the transcendent light that shines from within it. “The Cloud” builds on both these meanings and adds a third. Certainly the cloud is transient, but impermanence is not the last word; everything in the poem goes through a cycle of dissolution and rebirth; nothing is forever lost. This is why the cloud is depicted as laughing: It knows this truth, and its laughter suggests that the essential reality of life, underlying all temporal phenomena, even its apparently dark or distressing elements, is bliss and joy. This bliss is propelled through the material world through the power of love—another belief that Shelley expressed frequently, especially in Prometheus Unbound.
The image of the cloud at sunset, resting with wings folded, “as still as a brooding dove,” is also significant. It is a clear allusion to Book I of Paradise Lost, by John Milton, in which the Holy Spirit is described at the creation as sitting “Dove-likebrooding on the vast Abyss.” The image suggests that the cloud is also a metaphor for the creative energy, which elsewhere in his writings Shelley saw embodied in an absolute One that effortlessly manifests...
(The entire section is 377 words.)
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