30 May 2011

How beautiful is the rain...

Rain streams across a hotel window and breaks the street outside into a rippling impressionist geometry.

Rain on a window unfailingly triggers in my bed the recitation of a single stanza from a poem, in a classroom forty nine years ago.

The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.

The poem is Longfellow's How beautiful is the rain! and this is the fourth stanza of eleven.

Curious that an eleven year old should have felt such empathic pull from an image and an idea that meant nothing to him from his own experience ... and continue to feel it as a permanent and consistent association across the next five decades. I would have expected the opening line pairs from stanzas two and three to be the ones that stuck, because they are instantly recognisable – and stanza three ties very specifically to the visual image which I associate the poem:

How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoof
... ... ...
Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;

But the mind is its own master, and stanza four is what has stayed with me across the gulf between then and now.

(Possibly the fact that I learnt the poem in the classroom of the monstrous Mrs F has something to do with it. Mrs F was the class teacher from hell – literally, perhaps, to judge by her constant warnings of fire and torment in the afterlife. Maybe I sat in the whiff of sulphur and brimstone, imagining the release of cool rain? But no ... I suspect that this is a fancy constructed well after the event, a poetic rationalisation of the past from a psychologically aware adult future.)

The whole poem, to be honest, has little appeal for me as an adult ... I left it behind about five years after I first heard it ... but that single stanza remains mnemonically wedded to sight of rain flowing down window glass.

If you want the whole Longfellow poem...

How beautiful is the rain!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!

How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!
Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!

The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.

From the neighboring school
Come the boys,
With more than their wonted noise
And commotion;
And down the wet streets
Sail their mimic fleets,
Till the treacherous pool
Ingulfs them in its whirling
And turbulent ocean.

In the country, on every side,
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard's tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain!

In the furrowed land
The toilsome and patient oxen stand;
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.
For this rest in the furrow after toil
Their large and lustrous eyes
Seem to thank the Lord,
More than man's spoken word.

Near at hand,
From under the sheltering trees,
The farmer sees
His pastures, and his fields of grain,
As they bend their tops
To the numberless beating drops
Of the incessant rain.
He counts it as no sin
That he sees therein
Only his own thrift and gain.

These, and far more than these,
The Poet sees!
He can behold
Aquarius old
Walking the fenceless fields of air;
And from each ample fold
Of the clouds about him rolled
Scattering everywhere
The showery rain,
As the farmer scatters his grain.

He can behold
Things manifold
That have not yet been wholly told,--
Have not been wholly sung nor said.
For his thought, that never stops,
Follows the water-drops
Down to the graves of the dead,
Down through chasms and gulfs profound,
To the dreary fountain-head
Of lakes and rivers under ground;
And sees them, when the rain is done,
On the bridge of colors seven
Climbing up once more to heaven,
Opposite the setting sun.

Thus the Seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
Mysterious change
From birth to death, from death to birth,
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime
Of things, unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
Turning forevermore
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.

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