The Cloud by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Cloud by Shelley is perhaps the most important one in Shelley's poetry in terms of imagery and symbols. It symbolizes the force and harbinger of revolution. It is the agent of change that inspires one to move from apathy to spiritual vitality. It is dynamic and creative. In this poem, it is even personified, angelic, immortal, and mythical. The Cloud is here treated as a kind of essential element which binds and sustains all other things. It supplies the soil with rain so that regenerate.

P. B. Shelley (1792-1822)

It gives shade to the sapling and the ripeness of the fruit. It functions as the gardener, nurse and mother to the natural beings. But it also works like a thresher, and it has its aggressive nature too. By employing this form of personification, Shelley is able to endow the nature with the powers and attributes of the immortal gods; the cloud is made a minor divinity.

The cloud is not only capable of changing but also not capable of dying. It becomes the gardener that brings rain to the thirsty flowers, a nurse who shades the child as the child is having a nap in the midday sun, a bird that shakes its dew over the buds, and a thresher who beats the seeds off after harvesting the crops. It sleeps, laughs, floats, pursues a beloved, folds its wings like a bird, it broods, marches through the rainbow triumphantly. This is obviously the common symbol of the Shelleyan revolution.

The first stanza states the various activities and functions of the cloud. It brings fresh showers from the seas and rivers for thirsty flowers. It provides shade for the leaves when they sleep during the daytime. It showers down upon buds that open up after being fed in this manner. Sometimes, the cloud also brings the hail that covers the green plains with a white coat, but soon enough it dissolves this hail with rain.

In the second stanza the poet describes some more of the cloud’s activities. It disturbs the snow on mountaintops, and this makes the tall pine tree grown in surprise. At night, the snow forms its pillow while it sleeps in the arms of the storm. Lightning guides the cloud over water and land, because it is attracted by its love for the genii, the negatively charged counterpart of the positive charge in the lightning above, or the spirits that live below the purple sea. In search, of this love, lightning travels everywhere taking the cloud with it. During his journey, the cloud enjoys itself in the smile of the blue sky, while lightening dissolves itself in tears of rain. The details of the first stanza and the second stanza evoke both gentle and harsh qualities of the cloud; it is not only the agent of nursing baby plants, it also threatens and even destroys the old pine trees ( in Shelley, the old trees are rooted evil institutions and conventions of inhumanity).

The third stanza describes the cloud’s game with the sun. The cloud says the red colored sun, with its large eyes and its burning feathers, jumps onto the cloud’s sailing cradle when the morning star loses its shine. Its position is similar to an eagle sitting for a moment on the top of a mountain, which is moved hither and thither by the earthquake. When the sunset announces the end of the day, singing its song of rest and love from the sea beneath, when the red covering falls upon the whole world from the sky, the cloud rests like a dove, sitting in its nest with folded wings. This image evokes the Biblical image of the Holy Spirit, the one universal creative force, evoking the cloud significance as a universally creative force of the nature.

In the fourth stanza, we find the cloud talking about the moon. It says that the moon guides over the soft, silken floor of the cloud, the floor that has been prepared by the midnight breezes that scatter the cloud here and there. At some places, where the moon places its feet, the cloud’s thin roof is rent open, through which the stars peep and stare. When, after staring, the stars turn round and run away, the cloud laughs at them. Then, the cloud widens the hole in its tent-shaped roof and consequently moonlight floods all objects on the earth’s surface. The moon is then reflected by the calm surface of lakes, rivers and seas, till is seems that a part of the sky has fallen down. Here, the cloud is the type of altocumulus. The images of the playful moon and stars evoke the idea of the playfulness of the creative forces like the cloud and its allies.

In the fifth stanza, the cloud describes the manner in which it restricts the moon and the sun. It restricts the sun’s throne with a bright circle, while it creates a circle of pearls round the moon’s throne. When its banner is spread across the sky by the stormy wind, it makes the bright volcanoes dim and the stars spin and swim. It hangs like a roof over a torrential sea, and protects it from the heat of the sun. It is itself supported in its roof-like position of the mountains. The multi-colored rainbow forms a triumphal arch, through which it marches, attended by the hurricane, fire and snow, pushed by the stormy breeze. Here, the cloud changes from the form of cirrostratus to that of stratocumulus.

In the final stanza, the cloud describes its origin; it says that it is the daughter of earth and water, and an infant nursed by the sky. It passes through the holes in the oceans and the shores. It changes, but it does not die. The cloud is one thing and also many things; it changes its forms but it is the same essence of life, growth and change in the nature. It is the agent of the cycle of life, for it changes the seasons and sustains all living beings by bringing the rain, giving shade, letting the sun shine when needed, and bringing the dry autumn for plants to wither and give way to the next spring. It is not only gentle like a child, it is also terrible like a ghost; it supports the system of life ceaselessly and in numberless ways.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Cloud by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 28 Nov. 2013,