Constable’s Clouds

Poem by Peter Filkins

for Fred H. Stocking
Scudding through distances, hovering in blue
vacuities of a summer’s day, cumuli
float upon the surface of a ranging eye
that studies their shape, analyzes their hue
in pigments now aswirl upon the palette,
soft collisions of white and red and grey
soon weathering the canvas, capturing a day
whose transience we know because he saw it
there in the changeable sky he stood beneath,
stratus and nimbus, thunderhead and puff
fixed in their currency, the consequence of
the raw prevailing wind on Hampstead Heath.
“No two days are alike, nor even two hours,”
and so his brush keeps on the move while he
does not, despising those who continually
ignore their craft by “running after pictures.”
Weymouth, Harrow, Flatford, Dedham Vale,
ephemera beneath the sky’s broad radius
casting England’s neutral light on all that is
and eludes him, be it fame, or more so the pale
“evening light off a dark grey effect—looking
eastwards” toward a drifting bank of cloud
that’s there, then gone, someone in the crowd
later calling his picture “a nasty green thing.”
Maria coughs again, the taste of blood
causing a cloud of fear to pass across
her feverish bright-eyed gaze. Soon loss
will fell him. “Every gleam of sunshine blighted,
can it be wondered I paint continual storms?”
Each gathering front, each rising eastern gale
turbid now with grief, as wind and hail
consume a placid landscape, unleashing forms
that build and threaten, yet do not release
him from the sadness planted in his heart,
the demands of composition, the rigor of art
as equal to rain as sun, misery as peace.
“I shall never feel again as I have felt,
the face of the world is totally changed to me.”
And yet the sketches continue, originality
hard won upon the back of a life that’s dealt
with setback by studying atmospheric effects.
“Clouds. Moving very fast. With occasional
very bright openings to the blue,” the residual
of an autocumulus inhabiting the flex
of a brushstroke, “wind after rain in morning”
the note he jots to catalogue the weather
he’ll use, if not survive, observing much later,
“in truth, my art is another word for feeling.”


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2