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Friday, July 8, 2011

Number 210: Percy Bysshe Shelley "The Cloud"

The Cloud

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night 'tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven's blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest,
As still as a brooding dove.

That orbèd maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o'er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent's thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun's throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon's with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hap Notes: Today, in 1822, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams were on the small schooner "Don Juan" (named by Byron but Shelley called it "Ariel") when it capsized in a squall and they were drowned. There is speculation about why the ship went down but, in the end, the results are the same, the poet was dead at 29 years old.

In today's poem, Shelley speaks as the cloud and exhibits his very sound knowledge of the way weather works. He was always interested in science and was well read about it and infinitely curious. This is pretty much how weather works from the evaporation to air to cloud to rain to evaporation again. The clouds don't really make the dew but it is certainly a composition of the cloud. A cenotaph is a monument erected to the dead. The "woof" he is talking about is the texture, as in weaving; the woof and warp (sometimes called the woof and weft- store that tidbit for future poetry reading.) He's even technically correct about this as the woof is the horizontal threads, the warp the vertical.

So in spite of the genies in the purple deep and the swarm of golden bees and the girdles (which is a word often used in poetry and does not mean that Lycra thing that holds in one's stomach, think of it like a big sash that encircles the waist) of pearl, Shelley's got some accuracy here.

The internal rhyming of every other line is both deft and awesome even if "breathe" and "beneath" is stretching it a little. It's a good effort. I loved this poem when I was a kid and I still find it charming.

Here are a few Shelley tidbits you may not know. First, he was tall- 5'11" and slender and walked with a bit of a stooped posture. His thick hair was prematurely greyed in places (some call it "grizzled.") It is said that his eyes were "stag like"- large and fixed on you when he talked. His voice was said to be high pitched (by the by, did you know that Abraham Lincoln's voice was also said to be high pitched with a distinctive Kentucky-Indiana twang?) Bysshe is an alteration of the surname "Bush" (that's right, as in George) and is pronounced "bish."

Shelley was enormously generous, kind and enthusiastic. Byron said, on Shelley's death, " You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was without exception the best and least selfish man I ever knew." (I think he's referring to the fact that Shelley was looked on as a wild-eyed revolutionary in England. Everyone, to a man, who knew Shelley thought he was generous.)

As Shelley's body was cremated on the beach, his heart would not burn. It remained in the ashes (some speculate it was his liver, others that his heart had calcified, making it harder to burn, from his many illnesses which may have stemmed from heart trouble.)

His heart was given to his wife, Mary. A year after she died, the Shelley family opened her box desk (a lap desk) and found a notebook she had shared with Percy, locks from her children's hair, some of Shelley's ashes and a copy of his poem "Adonais" wrapped around his heart. "Adonais" was the poem Shelley had written as an elegy to Keats, who died in 1821, a year before Shelley drowned.

It's my personal opinion, but, I think this poem sums up Shelley almost perfectly. He really was a cloud spirit: stormy, beneficent, complex, serene, egalitarian (rain falls on both the rich and poor) and deeply beautiful, sentimental (everyone has memories of the rain and snow) and mysterious.

Here's where we've talked about Shelley before:

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