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6 january 2018

Clouds is a terrific title for a book, the more so as it is literally about clouds. The only drawback of Richard Hamblyn's title is that you can't get Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now" out of your head while you're reading it.

After reading Hamblyn's book, though, you will no longer be able to claim that you really don't know clouds, at all. Hamblyn offers an extensive meta-history of cloud nomenclature, and a unique essay on clouds as represented in music and multi-media installations. He also provides a fair amount of cloud science, though more in wisps here and there than in a weighty chunk, as perhaps befits the topic. Or doesn't: one of the facts that Hamblyn stresses is that clouds are massive things, weighing many tons and charged with enormous potential energy.

Hamblyn begins with a look at clouds in "myth and metaphor," cross-culturally. But this first chapter soon turns into a kind of natural history of clouds. In this opening chapter, Hamblyn gradually moves from folk understandings of clouds to early-modern scientific knowledge that stripped away their gods and mysteries and left them vague assemblages of dust and ice.

One man, an early-19th-century English pharmacist named Luke Howard, single-handedly established the systematic description of clouds that we all learn in 5th-grade science class and promptly forget forever. Hamblyn tells the story of Howard's Adamic naming of the clouds so well that a few of the categories may actually have returned from their half-century dormancy and become active terms for me now. Cirrus, cumulus, and stratus make wonderful sense, and their Latinity, though at times criticized, has proven durable as an international nomenclature.

Hamblyn's extensive discussion of clouds in the arts is often more technical than aesthetic. He guides the reader through various solutions to the rendering of clouds, from the stylization of Correggio to the empirical observation of Constable and back to the stylization of Magritte. Early photographers had great trouble capturing clouds because the white of a cloud had much the same value in early black-and-white processes as the blue of the sky. Robert Fenton used filters and darkroom techniques to give us his remarkable early images of cloudscapes, which he proceeded to use as stock backgrounds for highly composed outdoor photographs of other things. Hamblyn reprints images from late 19th-century cloud atlases (apparently real things, not just novel and film titles). And he is proud to claim membership in the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Clouds concludes with the smart but unsettling observation that clouds may contribute to global warming or mitigate it – or perhaps both at once, as clouds form part of the feedback loops that govern the earth's mutable climate. Human interventions in cloud cover, from seeding rain to covering the upper atmosphere with airplane contrails, have unpredictable consequences; about all we know is that our effect on the clouds is no more negligible or neutral than their effect on us.

Joni Mitchell may have written the most famous poem (really just one stanza) about clouds. But Hamblyn cites several others who were just as intrigued by those bows and flows of angel hair. Wordsworth and Coleridge were slightly cloud-crazed. Goethe was a huge Luke Howard fanboy. Hamblyn quotes other cloud poets from Whitman to Walcott. Shakespeare gets literally just a footnote on p. 228: "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish," says Antony to one of Cleopatra's servants, a cloud that keeps changing and eventually dissolves – Antony's elaborate metaphor for himself.

But Shakespeare uses a lot of clouds, more gloomy than fanciful. Hamlet famously teases Polonius about what certain clouds look like, as a way of showing the power princes have over fawning courtiers. Very like a whale, indeed. Clouds in Shakespeare can be "slippery," "filthy," "contagious," "black," "suspicious," "threatening," "dull," even "envious" (of the sun, in Richard II). Prince Hal thinks of himself as the sun and his lowlife associates as "base contagious clouds." At best, Shakespearean clouds "cap" the towers that will disappear, says Prospero, like all theatrical illusion – and all solid reality – ultimately must.

And as so often, Emily Dickinson has the best take on everyday objects. A brief and lesser-known poem of hers echoes some of Hamblyn's themes (and Shakespeare's) on the ephemerality of clouds:

A Cloud withdrew from the Sky
Superior Glory be
But that Cloud and its Auxiliaries
Are forever lost to me

Had I but further scanned
Had I secured the Glow
In an Hermetic Memory
It had availed me now.

Never to pass the Angel
With a glance and a Bow
Till I am firm in Heaven
Is my intention now.
Hermetic memory was the goal of photographers contemporary with Dickinson, but a frustrating one. Ralph Abercromby wrote, the year after her death, "Cloud forms are so transient, that sometimes after a good picture has been focussed on the ground glass, the character will have disappeared before the dark slide can be arranged" (138). Fortunately today we have iPhones to secure the Glow.

Hamblyn, Richard. Clouds. London: Reaktion, 2017.