In The Cloud-Messenger Kalidasa created a new genre in Sanskrit literature. Hindu critics class the poem with The Dynasty of Raghu and The Birth of the War-god as a kavya, or learned epic. This it obviously is not. It is fair enough to call it an elegiac poem, though a precisian might object to the term.
We have already seen, in speaking of The Dynasty of Raghu, what admiration Kalidasa felt for his great predecessor Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana; and it is quite possible that an episode of the early epic suggested to him the idea which he has exquisitely treated in The Cloud-Messenger. In the Ramayana, after the defeat and death of Ravana, Rama returns with his wife and certain heroes of the struggle from Ceylon to his home in Northern India. The journey, made in an aërial car, gives the author an opportunity to describe the country over which the car must pass in travelling from one end of India to the other. The hint thus given him was taken by Kalidasa; a whole canto of The Dynasty of Raghu (the thirteenth) is concerned with the aërial journey. Now if, as seems not improbable, The Dynasty of Raghu was the earliest of Kalidasa's more ambitious works, it is perhaps legitimate to imagine him, as he wrote this canto, suddenly inspired with the plan of The Cloud-Messenger.
This plan is slight and fanciful. A demigod, in consequence of some transgression against his master, the god of wealth, is condemned to leave his home in the Himalayas, and spend a year of exile on a peak in the Vindhya Mountains, which divide the Deccan from the Ganges basin. He wishes to comfort and encourage his wife, but has no messenger to send her. In his despair, he begs a passing cloud to carry his words. He finds it necessary to describe the long journey which the cloud must take, and, as the two termini are skilfully chosen, the journey involves a visit to many of the spots famous in Indian story. The description of these spots fills the first half of the poem. The second half is filled with a more minute description of the heavenly city, of the home and bride of the demigod, and with the message proper. The proportions of the poem may appear unfortunate to the Western reader, in whom the proper names of the first half will wake scanty associations. Indeed, it is no longer possible to identify all the places mentioned, though the general route followed by the cloud can be easily traced. The peak from which he starts is probably one near the modern Nagpore. From this peak he flies a little west of north to the Nerbudda River, and the city of Ujjain; thence pretty straight north to the upper Ganges and the Himalaya. The geography of the magic city of Alaka is quite mythical.
The Cloud-Messenger contains one hundred and fifteen four-line stanzas, in a majestic metre called the "slow-stepper." The English stanza which has been chosen for the translation gives perhaps as fair a representation of the original movement as may be, where direct imitation is out of the question. Though the stanza of the translation has five lines to four for the slow-stepper, it contains fewer syllables; a constant check on the temptation to padding.
The analysis which accompanies the poem, and which is inserted in Italics at the beginning of each stanza, has more than one object. It saves footnotes; it is intended as a real help to comprehension; and it is an eminently Hindu device. Indeed, it was my first intention to translate literally portions of Mallinatha's famous commentary; and though this did not prove everywhere feasible, there is nothing in the analysis except matter suggested by the commentary.
One minor point calls for notice. The word Himálaya has been accented on the second syllable wherever it occurs. This accent is historically correct, and has some foothold in English usage; besides, it is more euphonious and better adapted to the needs of the metre.