A Short Analysis of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘The Rainy Day’

On Longfellow’s glorious rain poem

The US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) is best-known for The Song of Hiawatha, and for growing a beard to hide the marks of a family tragedy, but he also wrote many other celebrated poems. And then there’s ‘The Rainy Day’, which isn’t numbered among his most famous. But it is one of the finest poems written about rain, so deserves a few words of analysis for that reason alone.

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

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.

Rain and misery are two certainties in life, at least in the New England that Longfellow knew so well (misery is found the world over, though). Like death and taxes, they’re bound to rear their heads again and again. Longfellow’s poem uses rain-misery connection to offer a fine piece of pathetic fallacy: the first stanza talks of the rain and wind outside; the second stanza moves to the internal, miserable weather raging within the poet’s heart; and the final stanza shifts from the indicative (simply describing) mood to the imperative, as Longfellow commands his heart to be of good cheer and remember that, although it may be raining now, the sun is still shining behind the clouds, though he can’t currently see it. When we’re miserable or melancholic – as poets have often known – it can be very difficult to recall happiness, to remember what’s now out of sight. In his penultimate line, we find the most famous line in this poem: ‘Into each life some rain must fall.’ Misery is part of the common lot of humanity.

Longfellow deftly conveys the cyclical nature of suffering – something it shares with the weather – through his rhyme scheme, which is aabba in the first two stanzas. This brings the stanza back to where it started, but not simply by virtue of finding a rhyme for ‘dreary’: instead, ‘dreary’ is rhymed against itself, in a feature which I propose we call the ‘homorhyme’ (which is different from rime riche in that identical words, rather than mere homophones, are paired with each other). There is no escape from dreary thoughts or dreary weather, it would seem.

However, the final stanza suggests a gap in the clouds: the rhyme scheme shifts to aabbc, as we lose the ‘dreary’ from the first line, disrupting the cycle. But we have not entirely broken away from it: the bb rhymes of ‘all’ and ‘fall’ recall the ‘wall’ and ‘fall’ from the first stanza, and finally we have that leaden word, ‘dreary’, to weigh down the poem like a weight. Nevertheless, the pattern or cycle has been broken.