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14 January 2014

A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,

A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,
'Twas like a sheet with Horns;
The sheet was Blue —
The Antlers Gray —
It almost touched the Lawns.

So low it leaned — then statelier drew —
And trailed like robes away,
A Queen adown a satin aisle
Had not the majesty.

                                               F509 (1863)  J1710

Like many people, Emily Dickinson enjoyed cloud watching. We've seen them as ships, sailors, and pirates in earlier poems as the poet reverses sea and sky. In this poem, however, she draws an amusing sketch of a big flat cloud, low to the ground, that looked like a sheet with antlers. In the second stanza it gains some dignity, drawing back in a stately fashion to trail away. No longer looking like a sheet, the cloud now appears to be beautiful robes, more majestic than any queen's.

The poem is in common ballad or hymn form: iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. Dickinson divides the third line of the first quatrain into two lines to make a nice emphasis on the contrasting colors, blue and gray.
         It's odd to have a blue cloud, but when the cloud is thin and the sky intense, they can look very blue. Perhaps its color is what "surprised the Sky."


  1. This poem, with its odd specificity, and seeming resistance to metaphor (A sheet? Antlers? Can those things be assigned meanign here?) stuck out to me. Its hard to imagine a cloud with horns, and the strangeness of the shape must be what caught the poet's attention. But then, I suppose because a poem must lean toward meaning, this poem does with the lines "so low it leaned", as if the cloud, and the poem itself is leaning toward us, but then, before we can grasp it, it statelier draws itself away with a majesty that is beyond earth-bound queens. The cloud, poem, self, is so surreally specific, and yet so ephemeral, so graceful; the inspiration of a moment.

    It's quite a turn from the poem preceding it in the fascicle, "A pit- but heaven over it". The two poems could hardly be more different.

    1. Random thought response to your comment, d scribe:
      Just reading about the blue and grey remind me of Civil War colors. Having said that, I cannot imagine how that works in the poem. I agree with the 'resistance to metaphor'. There's anthropomorphizing, but that's weak sauce for Dickinson. I suspect it was a (beautiful) sketch of an impressive and unusual cloud. Thank you for the lovely 'surreally specific and yet so ephemeral' description.

    2. You're welcome. Coming back and looking at this passage in preparation for commentary on Fr686, I'm struck again by the poems' resistance to "interpretation". I keep thinking this must be a riddle of some sort, because I've come to expect that. And maybe it is, but I just haven't cracked it yet? But I suspect that the answer to the riddle of this poem is that sometimes there is no riddle, and there is no answer, or rather the answer is the thing is just the thing, and the poem, in turn is a thing about that thing. It's a kind of pre-post modern move. It seems like a perfectly natural thing to do in a poem, and yet it puts all of the other poems in question. When is a metaphor a metaphor, and when it is only a thing? Still, this poem gives us permission to drop meaning and just enjoy clouds. Bravo.

  2. ED’s concise description of this gorgeous cloud wakes 50+ summer canoe trips in Quetico Provincial Park/Boundary Waters Wilderness. There’s something in that northern air that makes such clouds possible, embeds them in memory, like unforgettable love. Thank you Emily.