A summary of a miniature medieval classic
The anonymous song or poem simply known as ‘Westron Wynde’ (sometimes modernised as ‘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 the more recent composer, John Tavener). However, the words to the song may be from even earlier than the sixteenth century, perhaps the fourteenth or fifteenth century. How should we interpret ‘Westron Wynde’? It turns out its meaning is not exactly straightforward.
This four-line poem, in its original spelling, 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!
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 – rather surprisingly – about longing for rain, rather than escaping it. We say ‘rather surprisingly’ because the second half of the poem suggests a longing to escape from the elements. It turns out, however, that the poem may be medieval literature’s answer to Phil Collins’s ‘I Wish It Would Rain Down’.
The poem should be seen as a song rather than ‘poem’ in the modern sense: it was written (or composed) principally to be chanted and listened to, rather than read in a book. Indeed, when it was written (sorry, composed) the printed book had only just been invented.
If you like ‘Westron Wynde’, we recommend this compilation of great short medieval poems.
Image: Excerpt from John Taverner’s mass ‘Westron Wynde’, via Wikimedia Commons.