The English language is rich with idioms, with one of the best exponents being “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Perhaps it’s a favorite because it’s an inspirational phrase about hope.
The origin of the phrase “Every cloud has a silver lining” dates back to the 1600s when John Milton used an earlier form of the words in his famous masque, Comus. The term was referenced multiple times after its appearance in Milton’s work.
The rest of this article will retrace the steps of this phrase back to its origins and how it has changed over the centuries to become the form we know today. If you’re interested to learn more about this idiom, stick around.
The Earliest Recorded Use of “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining”
On September 29, 1634, English poet John Milton presented his poem Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle. In this poem, he first gave utterance to this iconic phrase. However, we may not recognize it as the same expression commonly used today.
The scene from which the words arose took place in a forest after nightfall. A lady and her two brothers are traveling in the evening, and the brothers leave the woman alone to gather berries from the wood.
The woman is understandably terrified, alone in a dark wood, and seeks God’s guidance and protection. When she looks up, she sees the moonlight glimmering behind a cloud in the darkness and takes it as a sign of her deliverance and that God will answer her prayers.
However, the phrase is not what we recognize today and was quite different when Milton first penned the lines in 1634.
As you will see in the excerpt from Comus, the difference was quite drastic:
“I see ye visibly, and now believe
That he, the Supreme Good, to whom all things ill
Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glistering guardian, if need were
To keep my life and honour unassailed.
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.”
However, there can be no doubt that Milton’s reference to silver linings and the cloud was the origins point of the idiom we know and love today. After its appearance in Comus, the phrase appeared in literature multiple times, taking on slightly different forms.
But the link to Milton’s work is unmistakable because, for a time, clouds with silver linings took the name “Milton’s clouds.” The shortened phrase implied that these clouds had silver linings, as described by the poet who gave this expression life.
The History of the Phrase “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining”
While “Milton’s clouds” was an acceptable expression variation for a time, the phrase took a different form more than a century later. It then went through another paraphrase before becoming canonized into modern English.
The phrase underwent three significant changes after Milton first penned it. And those changes start with some paraphrasing and a lucky misquotation. Here are the three major milestones of the phrase before it took the form we recognize today.
The Writer Ann Maria Hall Quoted Milton
Ann Maria Hall reviewed “A Young Maid’s Fortunes” in 1840 and published the review in Dublin Magazine. In her article, she quoted Milton in paraphrase, saying:
“There’s a silver lining to every cloud that sails about the heavens if we could only see it.”
We can all agree that Hall’s paraphrase is undoubtedly a lot more familiar and easier to remember. But that was not to be the last stage of the phrase’s evolution, as you will see in the next section.
La Belle Assemblée Misattributed the Phrase to Ann Maria Hall
In 1849, the phrase as we know it today came into usage when a British Women’s Magazine, La Belle Assemblée, attempted to quote Ann Maria Hall but ended up misprinting her words and misattributing the expression to her.
Sarah Payton Parton Used the Phrase in Her Essay Nil Desperandum
In 1853, American author Sarah Payton Parton cemented the phrase into widespread usage by writing it in the first line of one of her most acclaimed essays, Nil Desperandum. She wrote, “Every cloud has a silver lining,” and the rest is idiom history.
Meaning of the Phrase “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining”
The phrase “Every cloud has a silver lining” means that there is always something good that can come out of even the bleakest circumstances. People often use the phrase to comfort, encourage, or inspire one experiencing a trying period.
Silver linings often refer to “blessings in disguise.”
If we go back to Milton’s use of the phrase in its earliest form, we can gather that he envisioned clouds at night. And while the clouds were blotting out the moon’s light, the silver moonlight still shone through, appearing as silver linings that “gleamed,” giving a glimpse of the moon’s glow through the “sable cloud.”
Milton’s imagery conveys profound hope in the darkness.
In Milton’s poem, the night is not moonless. Although the cloud may conceal the light, the light is still visible beyond the concealment. It’s easy to see why authors, poets, and songwriters today still opt for this idiom.
You may glean the positives long after the storm has passed. A silver lining can be a life-changing lesson, an opportunity for character development, and self-improvement. The results are sometimes recognized only in retrospect.
The Usage of the Phrase “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining.”
In everyday conversation, the phrase “Every cloud has a silver lining” can point out the positive side of a bad situation that has already happened or is still happening. It can be said to state an observation or used to assure.
An example of using the phrase when the testing situation is over:
“The country’s tourism suffered during the lockdowns. But environmentalists found that during the 2-year travel ban, many coral reefs showed signs of recovery. It was as if the period of decreased human activity rehabilitated coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. Every cloud has a silver lining.”
An example of using the phrase when the dire situation is still happening:
“Our flights have been canceled and rebooked for tomorrow. The airline is putting us up at a five-star hotel for the night. I guess every cloud has a silver lining.”
An example of using the phrase to state an observation:
“Erin lost her job last week but got a better-paying position at a different company. She wouldn’t have gotten this other job if she hadn’t lost her first job. Every cloud has a silver lining.”
An example of using the phrase to reassure someone:
“I know missing out on the trip with your friends because you got sick is disappointing. But I’m sure some good will come out of it. Every cloud has a silver lining.”
Sometimes, people shorten the phrase to “the silver lining.” For example:
“John contracted Covid and was in the hospital for a week. The silver lining in the whole ordeal is he completely quit smoking.”
The phrase “Every cloud has a silver lining” was first penned in the 1600s by English poet John Milton. Ann Maria Hall paraphrased his line, and a British paper for women misattributed the phrase to Hall. But Sarah Payton Parton’s use of the words in her essay forever sealed it as a favorite idiom of the English-speaking world.
We still use the phrase today to comfort and assure those experiencing dark times in their lives. As an idiom of hope, Milton’s phrase will live on as a reflection of our shared human experience.