How to Find a Silver Lining in Unexpected Places

The poem that inspired the lovely phrase resonates positively across the centuries.

Posted in , May 26, 2021

Silver linings

“Was I deceived,” wrote John Milton in his 1634 musical poem Comus, “or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

This line is generally accepted to be the origin of the oft-quoted phrase of encouragement, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Typically, the phrase is offered to mean that even when things are not going well, there is some hidden benefit, some positive thing to be gleaned from the experience.

Reading the original line has me reflecting on new layers of meaning in the famous saying. For one thing, I had never imagined the proverbial silver-lined cloud to be in the night sky. To the extent that I had visualized it at all, I had pictured a stormy cloud darkening an otherwise-blue, sunny sky. The silver lining in my mind came from the sun that kept shining behind that cloud.

Milton’s cloud, however, is illuminated by the moon, not the sun. The darkness in his poem does not come from the cloud, but from the night sky itself. I realize now that we might not even recognize a cloud in this sky at all—if not for its silver lining that sparked to life because of the reflected light of the moon. This is the very definition of authentic positivity—the sun isn’t always going to shine. We can find light in unexpected places when we are patient and observant enough to see it.

Comus, which is a masque—a pre-operatic form of musical dramatic poetry—tells the story of a woman who is frightened and alone in a forest. The comfort of a silver lining in a dark night is a profound image—one that is not surprising in its resonance in the centuries since the masque’s publication.

There is one more aspect of the original quotation that stands out to me—the questioning “Was I deceived…” that opens the line. I imagine there is a context in the masque that might reveal who this question is directed to, but for me, it is a rhetorical moment of self-talk. I suspect we have all had moments when we noticed something so astonishing, so lovely and awe-inspiring, that we asked ourselves, perhaps out loud, “Is this for real?”

The next time you face a dark night, think of Milton’s musing observation and let light ricochet across the sky, turning forth its silver lining against each of your clouds. You won’t be deceived by its brightness.

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