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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Cloud-Balancings
By John Ruskin (1819–1900)
 
From ‘Modern Painters’

WE have seen that when the earth had to be prepared for the habitation of man, a veil, as it were, of intermediate being was spread between him and its darkness, in which were joined, in a subdued measure, the stability and insensibility of the earth and the passion and perishing of mankind.  1
  But the heavens also had to be prepared for his habitation.  2
  Between their burning light—their deep vacuity—and man, as between the earth’s gloom of iron substance and man, a veil had to be spread of intermediate being;—which should appease the unendurable glory to the level of human feebleness, and sign the changeless motion of the heavens with a semblance of human vicissitude.  3
  Between earth and man arose the leaf. Between the heaven and man came the cloud. His life being partly as the falling leaf, and partly as the flying vapor.  4
  Has the reader any distinct idea of what clouds are? We had some talk about them long ago, and perhaps thought their nature, though at that time not clear to us, would be easily enough understandable when we put ourselves seriously to make it out. Shall we begin with one or two easiest questions?  5
  That mist which lies in the morning so softly in the valley, level and white, through which the tops of the trees rise as if through an inundation,—why is it so heavy? and why does it lie so low, being yet so thin and frail that it will melt away utterly into splendor of morning, when the sun has shone on it but a few moments more? Those colossal pyramids, huge and firm, with outlines as of rocks, and strength to bear the beating of the high sun full on their fiery flanks,—why are they so light, their bases high over our heads, high over the heads of Alps? why will these melt away, not as the sun rises, but as he descends, and leave the stars of twilight clear, while the valley vapor gains again upon the earth like a shroud?  6
  Or that ghost of a cloud, which steals by yonder clump of pines; nay, which does not steal by them, but haunts them, wreathing yet round them, and yet—and yet, slowly; now falling in a fair waved line like a woman’s veil; now fading, now gone: we look away for an instant, and look back, and it is again there. What has it to do with that clump of pines, that it broods by them and weaves itself among their branches, to and fro? Has it hidden a cloudy treasure among the moss at their roots, which it watches thus? Or has some strong enchanter charmed it into fond returning, or bound it fast within those bars of bough? And yonder filmy crescent, bent like an archer’s bow above the snowy summit, the highest of all the hill,—that white arch which never forms but over the supreme crest,—how is it stayed there, repelled apparently from the snow; nowhere touching it, the clear sky seen between it and the mountain edge, yet never leaving it, poised as a white bird hovers over its nest?  7
  Or those war-clouds that gather on the horizon, dragon-crested, tongued with fire;—how is their barbed strength bridled? what bits are these they are champing with their vaporous lips, flinging off flakes of black foam? Leagued leviathans of the Sea of Heaven, out of their nostrils goeth smoke, and their eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. The sword of him that layeth at them cannot hold the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon. Where ride the captains of their armies? Where are set the measures of their march? Fierce murmurers, answering each other from morning until evening,—what rebuke is this which has awed them into peace? what hand has reined them back by the way by which they came?…  8
  How is a cloud outlined? Granted whatever you choose to ask, concerning its material or its aspect, its loftiness and luminousness,—how of its limitation? What hews it into a heap, or spins it into a web? Cold is usually shapeless, I suppose; extending over large spaces equally, or with gradual diminution. You cannot have, in the open air, angles and wedges and coils and cliffs of cold. Yet the vapor stops suddenly, sharp and steep as a rock, or thrusts itself across the gates of heaven in likeness of a brazen bar; or braids itself in and out, and across and across, like a tissue of tapestry; or falls into ripples, like sand; or into waving shreds and tongues, as fire. On what anvils and wheels is the vapor pointed, twisted, hammered, whirled, as the potter’s clay? By what hands is the incense of the sea built up into domes of marble?  9
 
 
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