One of Percy Shelley's most beloved poems, "The Cloud," published in 1820, exemplifies the poet's revolutionary spirit as it transforms the work's namesake into a universal symbol of change. As the cloud undergoes a variety of transformations—a slight breeze, a gentle rain cloud, a vehicle for lightning, a dangerous hurricane—Shelley shows that this common, everyday element of the natural world can rival the sun and the moon on their strongest days. An 1820 review of Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama, in Four Acts, With Other Poems that appeared in The London Magazine identified “The Cloud” as a singular example of Shelley's talent. Considering the poem's powerful language and the imagery shaping Shelley's political message, this is unsurprising. Shelley effectively expresses two of the Romantic movement's preoccupations in a single verse: the power of nature and radical political thinking.
The poem contains six stanzas varying in length. Shelley writes in an anapestic meter, where two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed syllable. In each stanza, the Cloud describes different roles it plays, ending finally with its continual rebirth in nature. Throughout the poem, the Cloud embodies numerous human qualities, from laughing as thunder rumbles over the mountains below to brooding in the sky as night gently passes. By heavily personifying the Cloud and its neighboring elements of Nature, Shelley establishes a strong link between the strengths and cycles of the natural world and mankind.
Considering Shelley's strong political beliefs and his track record of using nature to dramatize human emotion, a close reading of "The Cloud" illuminates the underlying radical ethos driving the poem's vivid language and imagery. Even as the Cloud's monumental development is exhausted during a powerful storm, it is destined to return again. Shelley understands that no revolution is swift or easy: many battles must be won and lost before victory prevails. The cloud, like the revolutionary spirit of the people, "can change, but it cannot die."