"Cloud Painter": What is the sky's role in the poem? Analyze this symbol's meaning. Use details and examples from the poem to develop a carefully reasoned analysis. At first, as you know, the sky is incidental-- a drape, a backdrop for the trees and steeples.Here an oak clutches a rock (already he works outdoors),a wall buckles but does not break,water pearls through a lock, a haywain trembles.The pleasures of landscape are endless. What we seearound us should be enough.Horizons are typically high and far away.Still, clouds let us drift and remember. He is, after all,a miller's son, used to tryingto read the future in the sky, seeing insteadships, hornes, instruments of flight.Is that his mother's wash flapping on the line?His schoolbook, smudged, illegible?In this period, the sky becomes significant.Cloud forms are technically correct--mares' tailssheep-in-the-meadow, thunderheads.You can almost tell which scenes have been interruptedby summer showers.How his young wife dies.His landscapes achieve belated success.His is invited to join the Academy. I forgetwhether he accepts or not.In any case, the literal forms give wayto something spectral, nameless. His palette shrinksti gray, blue, white--the colors of charity.Horizons sink and fade,trees draw back till they are little more than frames,then they too disappear.Finally the canvas itself begins to vibratewith waning light,as if the wind could paint.And we too, at last, stare into a spacewhich tells us nothing,except that the world can vanish along with our need for it.  

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Poet Jane Flanders uses the sky as a central metaphor that unites the strands she presents. She traces the development of one painter’s art and life along with the evolution of painting in his era, as the poem is suggested by John Constable. At the same time, she offers the...

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Poet Jane Flanders uses the sky as a central metaphor that unites the strands she presents. She traces the development of one painter’s art and life along with the evolution of painting in his era, as the poem is suggested by John Constable. At the same time, she offers the viewer’s reaction to art and implies how the viewer’s art and life parallel that of the painter. As the art viewer and the poem’s speaker seem to be the same person, the artist and painting apparently stands for the poet and poetry.

The early and later years of life frame the central part of the painter’s life and career. He finds success late in life but endures personal tragedy:

. . . [H]is young wife dies.

His landscapes achieve belated success.

His is invited to join the Academy.

The general evolution of subject and style begins with literal, optimistic, and keenly observant, and ends with abstract, resigned, and more concerned with the art work than the subject. The sky itself goes full circle, at first as a backdrop and at the end as beyond significance.

When he starts to paint, “the sky is incidental . . . a backdrop . . . ” In the middle stage, the artist achieves technical precision and focuses on the sky: “the sky becomes significant. / Cloud forms are technically correct . . .” After his wife’s death and the professional recognition, “the literal forms give way / to something spectral, nameless . . . ” In his old age, the artist himself recedes and allows the vision to take primacy:

Finally the canvas itself begins to vibrate

with waning light,

as if the wind could paint.

It is only in this last stanza that the speaker addresses the viewer, joining them as fellow audience members and implying their shared position in the “waning light,” at the end of life: “the world can vanish along with our need for it.” While the sky is still present—perhaps as an imagined heaven—the terrestrial world no longer matters.

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The sky, and the way the painter perceives and represents the sky, seems to symbolize how we, as people, change, along with our priorities and perceptions, as we age. In the beginning, the child doesn't really notice the sky itself; it is "incidental" when compared to all the other interesting things around, like "trees and steeples." The child is busy exploring the world around him that he can touch and explore, and "The pleasures of landscape are endless." He is much more interested in the elements of the world to which he is physically close.

As the painter ages, the clouds pull on his imagination to "drift and remember" the sky. He studies the clouds and imagines the objects they resemble. Soon, "the sky becomes significant," as he learns to paint clouds in the "technically correct" way. Then, "his young wife dies," and his earlier "literal forms give way / to something spectral, nameless." Now the painter does not try to paint realistically, but rather, he paints emotionally, in more somber shades of "gray, blue, white." He perceives the world quite differently now, now that he has grown up and experienced significant loss, and so he paints a very different sky than he once did. Ultimately, he will capture the sky's "waning light," perhaps as he, too, nears death (as each day does).

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The sky in the poem, "Cloud Painter," represents the illusion of control that we have over our lives. The first stanza reads:

At first, as you know, the sky is incidental--

a drape, a backdrop for the trees and steeples

This suggests that the painter appears to paint the sky, but in reality, the sky is the empty space left by the painting of the rest of the landscape. When paining clouds, the painter is creating the illusion of sky. The clouds represent our effort to control our world, but the sky is the stark reminder that we do not have the power to create anything other than our own perception. 

The poem then continues:

In this period, the sky becomes significant.

Cloud forms are technically correct--mares' tails
sheep-in-the-meadow, thunderheads.
You can almost tell which scenes have been interrupted
by summer showers.

How his young wife dies.
His landscapes achieve belated success.
His is invited to join the Academy. I forget
whether he accepts or not.

These two stanzas remind the reader that even the most technically correct painting, representing life planning, is only the illusion of control. Even with perfect clouds, sky is not created. It always there, ever-present despite attempts at changing it. The death of the painter's young wife justifies this interpretation. Life, like the sky, cannot be controlled. 

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