Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets have often been drawn to the harsh weather of wind and rain, either to celebrate it as a force of nature or to lament its ubiquity (at least in the British Isles!). From the opening words of Geoffrey Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales onwards, English poetry has often turned to the rain. Here are ten of the very best poems about rain and stormy weather.
1. ‘Westron Wynde‘.
This song (‘Western Wind’) dates from the early sixteenth century, and the tune to which it was sung influenced a raft of English composers such as the Tudor John Taverner (not to be confused with John Tavener). However, the words to the song may be from earlier, probably from the Middle Ages.
The precise meaning of the first two lines (especially ‘the small rain down can rain’) remains something of a mystery, but most scholars appear to favour the following meaning: western wind, when will you blow so that the small rain can rain down? Interpreted this way, the poem is about longing for rain, rather than escaping it. The original spelling of the poem, as it appears in a Tudor manuscript, runs:
Westron wynde, when wyll thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne?
Cryst yf my love were in my armys,
And I yn my bed agayne!
2. William Shakespeare, Feste’s song from Twelfth Night.
This song, from one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is sung by the Clown or Fool character, Feste, at the end of the play. Some critics have expressed doubts over Shakepeare’s authorship of the song, which may have been written by Robert Armin (who played the fool characters in the original productions of many of Shakespeare’s plays) or may be an earlier song that predates the play. It uses wind and rain as symbols of life’s hardships, and thus concludes the poem on a somewhat bittersweet note. All revels and festivities – such as those enjoyed at Twelfth Night – are short-lived intervals in life’s daily grind (‘the rain it raineth every day’, after all):
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day …
The song is also the only good poem we know that features the word ‘toss-pots’.
3. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Rainy Day‘.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary …
Longfellow is best-remembered for his Song of Hiawatha, but this fine rain poem perfectly captures the mood that rainy weather so often inspires – dreary depression. Its repetition of ‘My life is cold, and dark, and dreary’ was possibly inspired by Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, who utters, ‘My life is dreary’. But Longfellow’s poem is mostly remembered for the line, ‘Into each life some rain must fall’, which has attained almost proverbial status.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘Summer Shower‘.
A Drop fell on the Apple Tree –
Another – on the Roof –
A Half a Dozen kissed the Eaves –
And made the Gables laugh –
A few went out to help the Brook,
That went to help the Sea –
Myself Conjectured were they Pearls –
What Necklaces could be …
So begins this wonderfully evocative poem describing the coming of rain to the dry summer land, with some arresting and unusual metaphors for the raindrops – as you’d expect from a Dickinson poem. Her personification of the summer shower may border on the twee, but what saves it from sentimentality is the fact that we often use such language in everyday speech when describing the ecosystem and the cycles inherent in the natural world. The rain really does ‘help’ the brook by allowing evaporated water to fall back into it and rejoin the rivers and streams, just as those rivers and streams flow into the sea to ‘help’ maintain that part of the Earth’s water system. (More classic summery poems here.)
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘During Wind and Rain’.
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs …
This poem is structured like a song, with a repeated refrain at the beginning and end of each verse or stanza. The poem sees Hardy recalling his first wife Emma’s childhood life in Devon with her family. Emma, like her parents, is now in that ‘high new house’ of heaven, and all that remains of her is the name on her gravestone and Hardy’s memories of her. Hardy’s use of the refrain ‘the years O!’ calls to mind not only the passing of time but also the years marked on those gravestones, alongside the names: ‘Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.’
6. Edward Thomas, ‘Rain‘.
Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Rain’ was written in 1916, while Thomas was fighting in the trenches:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon …
Like many of Edward Thomas’s poems, ‘Rain’ has a simple setting: the speaker, sheltering from the rain alone in a hut, muses upon his loved ones miles away and on death and the ‘love of death’. And speaking of love of death, the next poem on this list also embraces this subject …
7. Alun Lewis, ‘All Day It Has Rained‘.
All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found …
Like Edward Thomas’s ‘Rain’, this rain poem is also a war poem – though Lewis was a poet of the Second, rather than the First World War. Indeed, Lewis was an admirer of Thomas’s poetry and ‘All Day It Has Rained’ might be considered his tribute to Thomas’s rainy war poem. The mention of ‘celebrities’ and ‘refugees’ (uneasily rhymed on purpose here) makes this a curiously modern poem – a poem for our times as well as of its time.
8. Edith Sitwell, ‘Still Falls the Rain‘.
Written in 1940 during the Second World War, ‘Still Falls the Rain’ is perhaps Sitwell’s best-known poem. As well as being a fine modern nature poem, it’s also – given the circumstances of its composition – a war poem and, indeed, a religious poem.
9. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Song for the Rainy Season‘.
Bishop was one of the greatest female poets of the twentieth century, and this is one of our favourites among her poems. Focusing on her house and the weather the house endures, Bishop gradually describes local details through innovative use of rhyme and half-rhyme, bringing the house to life.
10. Don Paterson, ‘Rain‘.
Published in the New Yorker in 2008 and written by one of Britain’s leading contemporary poets, this poem is a meditation on the various uses of rain in films, written in rhyming (and half-rhyming) tetrameters. The triplet with which the poem concludes is beautifully effective.
Paterson has expressed the opinion that the more complex an idea or emotion is, the more onus there is on the poet to express themselves clearly. ‘Rain’ is a fine example of such an attitude to the poet’s craft and responsibility: describing his own fondness for films that ‘start with rain’ or open with shots of a ‘downpour’, Paterson goes on to say that even the worst or overly long film can ‘do no wrong’ in his eyes, if it opens with rain on a ‘starlit gutter’. Even if one of the actors’ native twang or brogue breaks in while they’re speaking in the false accent they’ve adopted for the film, or poor editing means the boom mic is in shot, or a clunky speech by one of the female characters betrays the film’s origins in a play (imperfectly adapted for the big screen), a film that opens with atmospheric views of rainfall will always be a winner for the poet. Why? What is it about this filmic image that holds such appeal for him? We have analysed this poem here.
That concludes our pick of the best rain poems. Have you got any recommendations for a rainy day? If you enjoyed this list, continue to brave the elements with our list of classic poems about snow and winter. You might also enjoy our pick of the best poems by Robert Burns and our selection of very short classic love poems. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Falling rain in downtown Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, © Tomas Castelazo 2012, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Edward Thomas in c. 1905, from the Hutton/Stringer Archive; Wikimedia Commons.