The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In six stanzas of between twelve and eighteen lines each, the first-person narrator of “The Cloud,” who is the cloud itself, describes its various forms and functions throughout its life cycle. The first stanza captures the range of the cloud’s moods. Gentle, it brings rain to nourish the earth’s flowers and shade for the leaves of trees. The cloud can also be ferocious, however, bringing hail that whitens the ground, followed by thunderstorms.

Peaceful again in stanza 2, the cloud describes how it shrouds the snow on mountain peaks and sleeps during the storm. Then the cloud explains how it is controlled by atmospheric electricity (a belief that was common in Shelley’s time but has since been disproved). The poet pictures the cloud as possessing a positive electrical charge that interacts with earth’s negative charge to produce rain, either a fierce thunderstorm or more gentle showers. The attraction between the two kinds of electricity is depicted as love.

Stanza 3 describes a sunrise and a sunset from the cloud’s perspective. At daybreak, just as Venus (the “morning star”) becomes invisible, the sun’s rays leap onto the mass of clouds driven by the wind; at sunset the cloud rests, with “wings folded,” like a “brooding dove.” In stanza 4 the moon, “that orbed maiden,” rises at dusk and “Glides glimmering” over the cloud’s “fleece-like floor.” The type of cloud suggested here is altocumulus, a “thin...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Each stanza is composed of several quatrains that rhyme like a ballad stanza, abcb. There is also an internal rhyme in each stanza (“I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,” for example) in line 1 and in each subsequent uneven line number (line 3, line 5, and so on). The effect of this consistent rhyme scheme is to give the poem a sense of order and cohesion, since the meter, although it consists basically of iambic and anapestic feet, is constantly varied.

The imagery Shelley employs has the effect of humanizing nature. For example, flowers “thirst,” and leaves, lazy in the noon sun, “dream.” Buds “waken” after they have been at rest in the earth, like a child, “on their mother’s breast.” The earth does not merely rotate around the sun, it “dances”; the trees “groan” in the wind; thunder “struggles”; the sunrise has “meteor eyes”; it “leaps on the back” of the clouds; sunset “breathes”; the movement of the moon is the “beat of unseen feet”; stars “peep” and “peer”; heaven has a “blue smile,” and the earth is depicted as “laughing” after a storm. The effect created is of a universe alive with feeling and divine influences, reminiscent of some of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

Crowning all these images is the metaphor of the cloud itself as a laughing, winged child-god. The word “laugh” occurs three times in this context. In stanza 1 the...

(The entire section is 463 words.)