On the subject of rain

July 12, 2011

The past couple of weeks at the Scottish Poetry Library seem to have been all about weather. We hosted the launch of These Islands, We Sing, a rich anthology of islands poets, and it is a collection full of meteorological observations.  Whether in poems about summer, such as Ruaraidh MacThòmais/Derick Thomson’s ‘Leòdhas as t-Samhradh’ / ‘Lewis in Summer’ or the atmospheric quiet of Siùsaigh NicNèill’s Iona, ‘West Beach on a Rainy Day’, the collection reflects the constantly changing nature of the island environment.

Our own environment has been in a state of flux too, especially over the weekend. One member of the SPL was stranded in the Gothic splendour of Napier’s Craighouse campus as the storms raged overhead. Over the library, it sounded like giants were pulling wheelie bins down the High Street all day.  So what poetry suits a storm? Bad weather seems to be a theme that runs throughout British poetry (I wonder why?),and there are a huge number to choose from.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous rain poem might be a place to start:

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

It is certainly true that the rain has been raining all around: it is rather nice to imagine Stevenson walking through Edinburgh in similar weather, thinking out these lines as the rain ran down his collar.

Indeed there are some days our run of bad weather seems perpetual, as this anonymous holidaymaker visiting Oban felt moved to remark:

Mull Weather

It rained and rained and rained and rained,
The average was well maintained;
And when our fields were simply bogs,
It started raining cats and dogs.
After a drought of half an hour,
There came a most refreshing shower;
And then the queerest thing of all,
A gentle rain began to fall.

Next day ’twas pretty fairly dry,
Save for a deluge from the sky.
This wetted people to the skin,
But after that the rain set in.
We wondered what’s the next we’d get,
As sure as fate we got more wet.
But soon we’ll have a change again,
And we shall have

A drop of rain

There is something pleasing about hearing a humorous response to rain, rather than moaning about it. However, there is a lot more to rain than simply being stuck inside, pleasant though it can be to curl up with a poem and a cup of tea at these times.

Indeed, bad weather can be hopelessly romantic. The carefree surrendering of yourself to the elements is a common metaphor for the dizzying feeling of falling in love. One need only think of The Sound of Music where Liesl dances in the rain with Rolf to see the (albeit rather obvious) joy of singing, and kissing, in the rain. In reality, however, actress Charmian Carr who played Liesl shot through one of the plate-glass windows of the gazebo, and had to complete the scene in agony.

So rather than being exuberant in your rain romance, it might be a better idea to take your inspiration from Robert Frost’s poem A line-storm song:

Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.

This seems a far more elegant idea: and probably a safer one.

Rain needn’t be romantic in the literal sense however. For poet Don Paterson, the romance of films in which it rains comes from something different. For him, the appeal lies in the redemptive qualities of the deluge. He sees a parallel between cinematic rain and the rain of the Biblical flood. He sees the world wiped clean by rain, and an opportunity for hope in:

one long thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score

For Paterson, it is the atmosphere created by rain that gives the films their depth and impact. Rain sets the scene and becomes as important as the characters and the plot.

Rain is undeniably atmospheric, but it also lends itself to poetry in a rhythmic capacity. It is easy to think about the steady ‘plip, plop, plip, plop’ of rain as a metrical beat, or of the rhythm of rain lashing against a house or running down a window. In A.A Milne’s poem, ‘Waiting by the Window’, two raindrops (John and James) race down a window, the rhythm of the poem getting faster until:

John is there, and John has won!
Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!

In a glorious flurry of exclamation, the sun has come out again, and the raindrop-rhythm is broken.

Playing with the rhythm of the rain is not however, an idea limited to children’s poetry.  Shakespeare uses rain to symbolise the passing of time and the melancholy of life at the end of Twelfth Night, when the Fool sings or speaks these words:

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.

In this poem, rain is mentioned in the second and fourth lines throughout, providing a refrain. In both lines, the quick repetition of words with a single syllable (‘hey,ho’), (‘For the rain’)  sounds like the ‘pitter-patter’ of rain falling. This recurring sound of rain provides a melancholy undercurrent to the poem which is otherwise light and humorous.

So, there we are: enough rain in poetry to keep you happy during even the stormiest day. Of course, as I finish this, the rain has stopped and it is a glorious day. Let’s hope it stays that way.

~ Alice

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