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The 16th century poem "Western Wind" goes as follows:

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

Or, to in modern spelling and punctuation:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! That my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

What I'm trying to understand is the sentence "Western wind, when wilt thou blow, the small rain down can rain?" I cannot for the life of me parse this sentence to understand what it's actually saying.

How should this sentence be parsed; or, how would one paraphrase it to be more clear as to the actual meaning?

  • You cannot say “will thou”: the concordance is broken. If you are going to say thou, you have to buy into the whole 2ps bailiwick, including verb concordance. – tchrist Jan 7 '14 at 17:44
  • I've edited it; that was my typing error. – Kate Bertelsen Jan 7 '14 at 17:53
  • You also can't change love for lover without breaking the scansion; I don't personally see why you would want to. However, many versions insert that at the start of the second line, which may solve the main problem. – Tim Lymington Jan 7 '14 at 18:00
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    This is one of the most famous cruxes in English scholarship, and the unhappy answer is that nobody knows. See Charles Frey, ‘Interpreting “Western Wind”’, ELH, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn, 1976, 259-278. I'm afraid that under the circumstances this is unambiguously LitCrit, so I'm voting to close it. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 7 '14 at 18:15
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    Lots of folks know the parsing, but they don't agree on a parsing. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 7 '14 at 19:26
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It's a poem of longing for a change in season, a rainy season that will be the time when the speaker can reunite with his/her love. A prose paraphrase might go:

Western wind, when will you blow (again)? When will the rains come (again)? Oh, (that will be the time) that my love will be in my arms and I will (once again) be in my bed.

As far as the first two lines, think of them as something like this:

Western wind, when will you blow (again), (When will) the small rain (again) rain down?

The phrase "small rain down can rain" is simply inversion, so that the rhyme will work (with the line ending in "rain.") Otherwise, it would read as "the small rain can rain down" (which would make the line end in "down" and ruin the rhyme with "again."

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The usual version is "that the small rain down may rain?" or "so that ..." if you prefer. The rain won't come till the wind changes.

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  • "The small rain down can rain" still doesn't parse well to me. Maybe I'm just missing something? – Kate Bertelsen Jan 7 '14 at 18:42
  • @KeithB: Apparently, but I can't see what. Rain rains down. If you are asking why this is important, it's off-topic here. – Tim Lymington Jan 7 '14 at 18:50
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    Wait, is it just in the wrong place because poetry? That is, the sentence would more properly be written, "The small rain can rain down"? – Kate Bertelsen Jan 7 '14 at 18:59
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    @KeithB: It would be "[...] that the small rain may rain down." – MrHen Mar 7 '14 at 19:28
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    @KeithB It does not in the wrong place fall. – tchrist Mar 14 '15 at 4:16
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This poem came to my mind today after many years because a group I sing with is singing the American "The Colorado Trail," which opens, "Weep all you little rains/ Wail winds wail,/ All along, along, along/ The Colorado Trail." It is an echo of the poem we're discussing, which is itself, as others have said, like a song or even (to me) like a haiku, in that a lot is going on between the lines and phrases of the poem that is left unsaid: in the white space, so to speak.

The poem's meanings are reinforced musically, sounding (especially if you hear it in Middle English, which sounds (to this untutored ear) something like Broad Scots.) Listen, speaking it aloud, to the alliteration of the 'w's and 'n's and the assonance of the short 'e's in "Westrn wynde when wilt . . blow," followed by the "oh" sounds in "thou blow," which is connected by the "t/th" combination of "wilt thou". It works almost as well musically in modern English or even American! The second line "(that) the smalle rain down can rain," picks up in 'down' the "ow" in 'blow' and picks up the pronounced 'n's in "westryn wynde" in 'rain.' Yet the vowels in that line create a flatter (wetter?!) sound. As others have said, the word 'that' is almost surely understood in the context; it acts something like the 'and' often used in Scottish Gaelic to express cause. The couplet almost explodes with frustration: When on earth will this dry season (or perhaps the stormy season of Northeast winds) be over, and the Western wind blow again, so that the small (soft, gentle, as opposed to fierce and stormy) rain can come?" (That lullaby, "Sweet and Low" comes to mind: "Blow him again to me . . ." sung by the wife waiting with her baby for her man to sail home.)

There is a space between the two couplets of the poem in which the frustration takes a turn. "CHRIST! That my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again!" Again, hear the assonance: Christ/my/ arms/ I/ my/ again. The connection between the two couplets is the frustration this (surely) man is expressing so eloquently. At a time when the sea connected people and places, when the waters were the highways far more than the roads on shore, especially in Britain, the winds were often what made the difference between being able to be home or being stuck in some other place or at sea, and the longing this poem expresses is made vivid to us by the music of the words in the rhythm and rhyme that is, truly, like a song. I actually do not know the Peter Pears (20th century) song, and I'm sure it does the poem credit, but I cannot see that it could improve upon it. Now, having said that, the melody of "The Colorado Trail" is very beautiful and in my opinion adds to the haunting refrain of what is a lament for a lost love. I wonder whether the person who wrote that song knew this poem!

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Pace tchrist, the sources are consistently quoted as 'will' not 'wilt'. For correct sequence this has to be subjunctive. The 'can' being parallel would also be subjunctive. These subjunctives would most naturally be counterfactual subjunctives, but to do that, 'will' and 'can' have to be main verbs, not auxiliary, in accordance with the common suggestion that the poem is much earlier than its known texts.

So a lame, modern version would be "Western wind, you never are wanting to blow, are you? Nor is the soft rain ever going to be able to rain down!"

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  • Did people ever use subjunctives in questions like this? Do you have a reference for that? it seems very strange to me. Couldn't this just be some dialectical variation? The OED does have citations for Wolle þou; Wil þou i ga; Yef þu will haue þat ioy; wil thow now?; Wyll thou or nyll thou; for second person indicative, in the 15th and early 16th centuries. – Peter Shor Apr 7 '16 at 16:14
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It is no good analysing a poem of the 16th century by applying structures of today`s language. The first two lines are not connected. You have to interpret what is meant.

I would understand it as: Western Wind, when will you blow again, (so that) it will rain. The poem says it in this form: (and) the rain can rain down again. The formulation is a bit wooden, but it is a poem of old times.

I don't know the poem, so I don't know why the speaker's love is only with him when it rains. But that's another question.

Added: Now I have read some websites about this poem. It is only one four-liner. I thought it were a longer poem. And it is a song text. Somehow this old text reminds me of modern song texts. Half of what is meant the reader has to guess.

Nevertheless there is something to this poem. It sticks in the mind. The technique is just to mention some fragments, able to evoke associations in the reader which give a certain impression of a mood, of a man's desire.

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I always interpreted this to mean something like a whaler whose ship is in the doldrums, thereby linking the first two lines i.e. until the wind picks up with a coming rain/storm thereby filling the sails, I won't be able to get home to my love and the comfort of my own bed.

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    We are looking for definitive answers written at an expert level, with explanation and context. Think along the lines of a short essay. – MetaEd Apr 5 '17 at 16:51
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The first rain is the noun, the second rain is the verb. It's repetition of sounds and rhythms like falling rain makes; it's the power of English grammar at the beginnings of the English language, it's mystery and magic and weirdness and the exactly RIGHT PERFECT strangeness, ineffability,that can make "poetry' what it sometimes can be. Inexplicable, beautiful, like music. I love that line even though I have no idea what it "means", and even though I wish I knew what the writer had it in mind to say or do or mean there.

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