Romantic Poets Class…not the romance you think it is, this stuff is from the Romantic Period, there is a difference.
29 March 2005
Deep Sea Diving Poets
To find the most spectacular and rare things in the ocean, whether they be forms of aquatic life or ancient shipwrecks containing priceless treasures, a diving team must prepare to go deeper into the abyss of the water than it ever has before. Things discovered there are usually spoken of as having unimaginable beauty because they are so rarely seen and appreciated. Just as divers have to delve deep within the ocean to find the most valuable treasures, so do poets tap into something sublime to get their message across. Some poets are more straight forward than others, relaying their intentions through precise language that can be easily grasped and understood. These would be the divers that limit their expeditions to the backyard pool. Conversely, just as there are those adventurous deep-sea divers, there exist poets who mask the meaning of their poems in heavily colorful and sometimes entirely metaphorical terms. Percy Shelley’s is one such author and “The Cloud” is one such poem. It would be simple minded and down right lazy for one to conclude after reading this poem that it is actually about a cloud and the water cycles of precipitation, evaporation, and condensation. This essay aims to prove, through sequential dissection of each stanza, that what Percy Shelley’s “The Cloud” is actually about is exposing the illusions of birth and death as beginning and ending.
The cloud in this poem is an autonomous being; referring to itself in the first person through all six stanzas. The reader’s very first impression of the cloud is one that depicts a being with the power to give and nurture life. From its “wings are shaken/ the dews that waken/” what Percy calls “sweet buds” and what the reader can identify as a metaphor for a sort of embryonic encasement that is brought out of stasis by the life-giving cloud (lines 5-6). With line nine’s third repetition of the word ‘I’ and the ensuing third proclamation of powerful ability, the reader starts to relate this boasting cloud to another seemingly all powerful being; God. In lines one through eight the cloud bore a countenance of a nurturing mother, bringing much needed sustenance to flowers and their buds, or, as the reader may see it, mothers and their children – a link Shelley must have wanted the reader to make with his line about buds being “rocked to rest on their mother’s breast” (line 7). This care-giving image is immediately contrasted with the destructive side of the cloud who gloats in its ability to “wield the flail of the lashing hail,/ And whiten the green plains under,/ And then again…dissolve it in rain, And laugh as [it passes] in thunder” (lines 9-12). At first glance, these lines may just resemble an artful description of the changing seasons. Looking closer, reading over, and viewing the first stanza as a whole, the reader can, if at all familiar with The Bible, analogously place these lines next to God’s famous Alpha and Omega speech from Revelations. This cloud has the ability to bring life and death, and it appears to take pleasure in displaying its awesome abilities in both ways while disregarding those who are consequently affected by its tyrannical rule over the terrain. After reading the first stanza, the readers are left with the impression that the cloud knows something we do not; its aptness for both creation and destruction hints that perhaps it does not take these things too seriously.
The cloud then appears less God-like in the following stanzas, attributing its travels “over Earth and Ocean” to a pilot called Lightning (line 21). Shelley’s “delight in scientific discoveries and speculations” is put forth in this poem as he attempts to deify this cloud, the Earth, and the Ocean as his own personal way of making sense of the world (Abrams 699). He thinks that lightning is “lured by the love of the genii that move/ In the depths of the purple sea;” (lines 23-24). Deconstructing this line we can uncover many things. For one, the cloud has lost, or been stripped of the ultimate power it seemed to have in the first stanza. No longer does its “lashing hail” seem all that intimidating or God-like with the appearance of lightning as its pilot; director; or boss. Even then, lightning is not ultimately in charge because it is being attracted by the love of geniuses. The sudden shift in apparent meaning of this poem at this juncture proves the editors statement that “Shelley in fact possessed a complex and energetically inquisitive intelligence that never halted at a fixed mental position; his writings reflect stages in a ceaseless exploration” (Abrams 700). So the question remains, what was Shelley beginning to explore in these lines? The meaning seemed certain in the first stanza – in at least that the reader could make some easy analogies – but in the second Shelley includes another player, lightning; the cloud’s pilot, who is in turn controlled, in that it is attracted to, the love of geniuses. But what is the love of geniuses? Other than being an alternative form to plural form of the word genius, according to Collier’s Dictionary, genii could be one of three things: a guardian spirit, as of a person or place; either of two warring spirits, one good and one evil, assumed to be fighting for control over one’s fate; or a supernatural being; spirit; jinn. Further more, the Latin word ‘genius’ translates as a talent or inclination. Putting the facts together – we know that the cloud, the earth, the ocean, and the lightning (along with the sun, moon, and other aspects of the natural world in later stanzas) are portrayed as gods; that the lightning guides the cloud – one can conclude that the love of the genii is “The Spirit” moving around “in the depths of the purple sea”, a place to which only the most imaginative minds dare travel, and that the degree of love of this Spirit determines where and when the lightning will strike (line 28).
To put it more clearly, Shelley seems to be saying that poets draw their brilliant ideas from a repository deep within the imaginative scope of the human psyche, and that they are capable of this because they love the realm from whence these ideas came. Examining the fact that this sea, or psychic storage area for The Spirit, is called purple and that those who swim in it lure the deified pilot called lighting, it can be surmised that those who dive in this sea are considered royalty – purple being the traditional color related to monarchs – and just as lightning rarely strikes the earth, so is inspiration infrequently conveyed as brilliant as it seems in ones own mind. Shelley certainly regarded himself and his contemporaries in a high light for being able to achieve such levels of aesthetic sublimity. Simultaneously, Shelley gives the impression that he is lamenting the fact that lightning never strikes the same point twice. His cause for sadness appears to be his realization that when lightning does strike it can bring beautiful results, but that after it does it is hard or impossible even to regain the that divine inspiration without more divine intervention; the effects of the lightning strike wearing off as time passes or “dissolving in the rains” (line 30). Shelley echoes his melancholy and that of William Wordsworth in “To Wordsworth”, where he says “Poet of Nature, thou has wept to know/ That things depart which never may return;/ Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow,/ Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn” (lines 1-4). In “The Cloud” Shelley offers a type of consolation for this fleeting glory, stating simple that “the Spirit he loves remains” (line 28).
In the third and fourth stanzas the Sun, Moon, and stars continue this consolatory work, letting the inhabitants of the Earth below know that they are there, watching over them and awaiting their return to the immutable world. The interpretation that forces of nature are watching over us comes from the third stanza’s depiction of a eagle on the “jag of a mountain crag” being bathed in the sunlight (line 35), the fourth stanza’s illustration of “that orbed maiden” peaking through the cloud and making way for the stars which are reflected in the very same sea through which the genii swim (line 45), and stanza five’s description of a beautiful rainbow that makes the Earth laugh and smile. The construal that all the inhabitants of the earth are somehow part of the natural forces around them comes entirely from the sixth and final stanza; which holds, as will be shown, the true meaning of this poem. Shelley conveys romantic ideas with lines like “Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,/ The Spirit he loves remains,” (line 28); hinting to Shelley’s preoccupation with neo-Platonist and Plato’s view of cosmic love being a force that is immutable and a natural adhesive for all things within the universe. Like his romantic contemporaries, Shelley believed that it was the imagination that told us the truth about life. His imagination told him that no one ever really dies and his proof for this fact was seen in nature. Just as a cloud could one day be a large mass, the next it could have disappeared from the sky entirely, but it is not dead, for as the cloud says itself “I cannot die” (line 76). The cloud then parallels its disappearing and reappearing act to that of a “child from the womb” and “a ghost from the tomb”, saying that it will always “arise, and unbuild it again” (lines 83-84). Like the Law of Conservation energy states, energy is constant; it cannot be created or destroyed; it merely passes from one form to the next. Being well-read in all arenas, Shelley was undoubtedly aware of this principle when he wrote this poem and used it as the main theme of the work.
This poem acts as the final consolation for those who like Wordsworth once did, began to lament their mortality and their ephemeral gusto for life’s pleasures. It is really about the next stages of existence past the one we know here on Earth. The poem suggests that birth is not the beginning and that death is not the end; that we were somewhere before our birth and that we will be somewhere after our death. Exactly where we were is left up to the thinking-man’s only diving equipment: his imagination.
Shelley, Percey. “The Cloud”, “To Wordsworth”. The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Vol. 2A The Romantic Period (7th Edition). Abrams, M.H. et al (eds).
W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York, 200.