The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

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.

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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 roof” that sometimes breaks to reveal the stars. To the cloud the stars are like a “swarm of golden bees.” When the breeze blows stronger the cloud breaks up, and through it the sky appears, “Like stripsfallen through me on high,” until the reflection of the moon and stars can be seen in rivers, lakes, and seas.

In stanza 5 the cloud has become cirrostratus, a high cloud that produces a halo, “a burning zone,” around the sun and a “garland of pearl” around the moon when they shine behind it. Then the cloud changes yet again and becomes stratocumulus, a low gray cloud that hangs “like a roof” and is “Sunbeam-proof.” The second half of the stanza describes a cumulonimbus rain cloud that marches through the “triumphal arch” of the rainbow as it delivers its contents onto the “moist Earth.”

The final stanza is a summation. The cloud explains its relationship to the elements in intimate terms: It is the “daughter of Earth and Water” and is nursed by the sky. In the life cycle of the cloud its endlessly circulating particles pass through the “pores of the ocean and shores” (the latter are the rivers). The cloud constantly changes its form, and yet it does not die. After rain has come and the sky is once more clear, the cloud laughs at its own “cenotaph,” which is a monument erected in honor of someone who is buried elsewhere, and like a child emerging from the womb it arises and once more “unbuilds” the “blue dome of air.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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 cloud laughs in the midst of the thunderstorm; in stanza 4 it laughs again at the sight of the stars as they “whirl and flee,” and in the final stanza the cloud silently laughs at the presence of the clear blue sky, which appears to be a memorial to the cloud’s own demise. The cloud laughs because it knows this is an illusion. This image occurs elsewhere in Shelley’s work. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), for example, published in the same volume as “The Cloud,” the spirit of the earth is a winged child and, like the cloud in stanza 2, sleeping in the storm, is shown asleep, its lips moving, “amid the changing light of their own smiles,” a close parallel to the laughing cloud.

The other notable quality of the images is that they make poetry from scientific processes. Shelley took a close interest in scientific matters, and his descriptions of the various forms and changes in this protean cloud are scientifically accurate. This accuracy applies also to other observations in the poem, such as the image of “sunbeams with their convex gleams.” This phrase refers to the phenomenon of atmospheric refraction, in which the earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight around the earth in a convex arc, as seen from the cloud’s point of view (the same phenomenon would be concave if viewed from the earth).

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Themes