Let’s start with a riddle.
Read the following poem and see if you know what the poet is talking about (or, in this case, talking to). Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a poem. It’s all of 32 words long, so it’s not like I’m asking you to read the Odyssey.
“White sheep, white sheep / On a blue hill, / When the wind stops / You all stand still. / When the wind blows / You walk away slow. / White sheep, white sheep, / Where do you go?”
Now, if you guessed the writer was actually referring to sheep you’ve somehow missed the concept of a riddle. Not to mention a metaphor.
Christina Rossetti was talking about clouds, which people seemed to pay more attention to in her era than we do now. Remember “I wandered lonely as a cloud …” by William Wordsworth?
Those two poets lived in a time when people would look at the sky as they might look at a painting or a sculpture. They gazed at its beauty, and counted it as a constant blessing. Now most of us glance up at clouds to determine how much inconvenience they might bring us in the form of rain. Or, in times of draught, what relief they promise.
We usually see clouds as carriers of cargo. Romantics saw them as visual evidence of a beauty indefinable, crafted by the hand of an artist unsurpassed in technique and talent.
We even use them occasionally to denote negativity. When tea is stale or impure we call it cloudy, we say that impractical people have their heads in the clouds, and the particulars of a situation being “cloudy at best” means that something’s not above board and some shenanigans might be going on.
Personally, I love clouds. Even the gunmetal gray monsters that march in to a fanfare of rumbling thunder can be beautiful, and awe inspiring. If I ever get around to taking a painting class – either oils or watercolors (not ceilings or baseboards; I’ve promised myself to never paint another ceiling or baseboard) I’ll probably paint only clouds. Sometimes in my paintings they might drift over fields of wheat or flowers or maybe an ocean. Sometimes they’ll float all by themselves, completely removed from the silly doings of mankind beneath them.
But, much as I like them, I tend to take them for granted and not pay them the attention they’re due. Until they remind me.
One day when my wife Karen and I drove into Houston to see a play it sprinkled all the way and by the time we arrived the bottom had dropped out and rain was pouring down with a vengeance. It had rained every day for a week, clear skies had become a distant memory, and more rain was in the forecast. So we expected the downtown streets to be flooded and the bayous to be spilling over their banks when we left the theatre.
But a few hours later we emerged into a sun-splashed afternoon with a bright blue sky into which a colony of beautiful ivory-white cumulous clouds had taken up residence.
On the way home one big fellow hovered directly in front of us over the freeway. I tell you, that cloud was a thing of beauty, alone to itself and set against all that blue sky. It rose up to a majestic height, a perfectly white mountain of puffy, billowy peaks and valleys. The fact that we hadn’t seen anything but dark thunderheads for so long surely added to our appreciation of that imposing companion on our drive home.
Every fall when we got to the part in “Hamlet” where Polonius and Hamlet discuss the shapes of clouds – “Me thinks it looks like a weasel.” “It is backed like a weasel.” “Or like a whale.” “Very like a whale.” – I’d ask my students if they ever compared the shapes of clouds to other things. They usually grinned. Because they all had.
You have, too, I’ll bet. But maybe not since you were a child, and saw the world though younger, sometimes clearer, eyes.
I’ve often thought that if I could have the privilege of showing a person, blind since birth and suddenly able to see, just one thing to convey the visual beauty of what they’d missed it would be a grandiose cloud floating in a clear sky. That would, I suspect, take their breath away.
How odd that most of us are perfectly able to see everything around us, but we rarely look up at the finest display of all.