Williams’s insistence upon the freedom of the mind and hatred of conventional restraints is powerfully expressed in “The Clouds,” a four-part poem in which the central image is the march of the ever-changing clouds across the sky. As natural phenomena, the stuff on which the mind and imagination feed, they symbolize the shifting flux of experience in which one must find human significance if one is to be more than a turtle in a swamp.
Clouds also represent the “unshorn” minds of free spirits such as Francois Villon, Desiderius, Erasmus, and William Shakespeare, who “wrote so that/ no school man or churchman could sanction him without/ revealing his own imbecility.” These minds, like the skeptical Socrates, “Plato’s better self,” accepted the fact of human mortality and devoted themselves to the life of the mind and imagination—a life to which Williams gives precedence: “The intellect leads, leads still! Beyond the clouds.”
In a brief and lively “Scherzo” (part 3 of the poem), Williams remembers coming as a tourist upon a priest in St. Andrew’s in Amalfi, Italy, “riding/ the clouds of his belief,” as he performed a Mass, “jiggling upon his buttocks to the litany”:
I was amazed and stared in such mannerthat he, caught half off the earthin his ecstasy—though without losing a beat—turned and grinned at me from his cloud.
Although he recognizes the ritual to be an act of the imagination, to Williams, the priest’s cloud is not enough. In its regularity and neat order, reassuring though these may be to believers, it stands in contrast to “the disordered heavens, ragged, ripped by winds,” which the poet, who accepts a naturalistic outlook, must confront in his search for form and meaning. The “soul” is the precious burden of the life of the imagination that each individual has a share in carrying forward, humanistically, from generation to generation: “It is that which is the brotherhood:/ the old life, treasured.”