Clouds, Style, and Poetic Generation in Descartes’s Météores (1637)

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In this essay, I argue that the clouds in Descartes’s Météores (1637) tell us something valuable about the impact of contemporaneous deliberations around poetic writing on philosophical expression in early modern France. When Descartes replaces rainbows with clouds as the primary origin of meteorological wonder at the start of the Météores, he is engaged, I suggest, with a question of poetic style. To wonder at rainbows and clouds was, for a generation of humanists, philosophers, and rhetoricians, to become a poet. The meteora, those atmospheric phenomena which, according to Aristotelian tradition, lacked substantial form, were imperfectly mixed, and were therefore provisional and uncertain, could only be the object of a similarly speculative kind of poetic language. As he takes pains to distinguish the rainbow from the clouds, Descartes strips the language of meteorological investigation of its poetic ostentation and casts his broader repudiation of Aristotelian qualities as a rejection of the figure of enargeia in natural philosophy. I argue that the Météores are a reflection on writing in early modern France in which meteorological phenomena are shown to be, like poetic writing itself, the product of both material and ineffable forces.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)144-159
Number of pages16
JournalRomance Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


  • Clouds
  • Descartes
  • meteorology
  • poetic style
  • rainbows

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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