''Heavily,'' intoned Tennyson. ''Heavily the low sky raining/ Over tower'd Camelot.''m Rain! It instantly conjures up a sense of something deeply British. Hollywood , for instance, still cannot resist the romance of a downpour in London. Of Constable, that most English of painters, a Swiss-born artist remarked that his pictures made him want to reach for his umbrella. The fact is that even when a long period of sunshine descends on these sparkly islands, the cliche persists. The topic at bus stops, at hairdresser's, over garden fences, is still of the weather, and the weather really isn't weather unless it's rain.Skip to next paragraph
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You'd expect, therefore, that British poetry would be filled to overflowing with rain. The native takes such admittedly perverse delight in the soggy subject that it would be natural to assume that it pervades the works of Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats: that the beauty and luxuriance of ''the soft refreshing rain'' would be on every tongue, its virtues lauded and eulogized, analyzed and synthesized. And yet the generalization seems to be that British writers avoid mentioning rain, and certainly do not go singing in it.
When they do touch on it, they use it as a symbol of sadness, despair, and even disaster. Wordsworth, who after all lived in the Lake District, one of the wettest-loveliest parts of the country, apparently preferred the ''lonely'' cloud that ''floats on high'' and threatens no precipitation. Keats equated a ''weeping cloud'' with melancholy. Shakespeare (though the words are not his best, and may have been added by someone else) has his clown sing, at the end of ''Twelfth Night,'' a miserable little ditty with the refrain:
With a hey ho the wind and the rain
For the rain it raineth every day.m
True, he did make ''the gentle rain from heaven'' a simile for ''the quality of mercy,'' but it is atypical, and his more usual approach to the subject may well be the storm in ''King Lear,'' the kind of terrible rain that ''drenches steeples'' and ''drowns the cocks.''
Wordsworth's friend Coleridge wrote ''Ode to the Rain.'' But it is hardly one of his memorable verses, and with its repetitive ''Do go, dear Rain! do go away!'' it hints at an ulterior motive. The poem was written to ingratiate himself with the element because he was worried that if it didn't stop raining an unwelcome visitor might stay even longer than he already had. He doesn't really like the ''dear Rain'': He just likes his visitor even less.
Japanese poets seem to take delight in the rain far more often than the British. What British poet could be described, like Basho, as happily ''sitting by his riverside house . . . bending his ears to the soft cooing of a pigeon in the quiet rain'' on ''a day so perfect that you want it to last forever''? Basho , in his weathery travels, could be depressed by rain; but he had a way of lightening it - of perceiving its essential beauty. He even saw it as ''fun'':
In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain.m
But who, among the British, finds rain worthy of praise?
I believe Hardy does. Hardy wrote the wettest, wateriest, the most utterly pluvious poem anyone has surely ever written. It is called ''A Sheep Fair.'' It reminds me of sheep-dipping days when I lived on a Yorkshire farm. The sky, as if in sympathy with the animals, always abandoned itself to total deluge. Here are Hardy's first two verses:
The day arrives of the autumn fair,
And torrents fall,
Though sheep in throngs are gathered there, Ten thousand all,
Sodden, with hurdles round them reared: And, lot by lot, the pens are cleared ,
And the auctioneer wrings out his beard, And wipes his book, bedrenched and smeared, And rakes the rain from his face with the edge of his hand, As torrents fall.
The wool of the ewes is like a sponge With the daylong rain:
Jammed tight, to turn, or lie, or lunge, They strive in vain.
Their horns are soft as finger-nails,
Their shepherds reek against the rails, The tied dogs soak with tucked-in-tails, The buyers' hat-brims fill like pails,
Which spill small cascades when they shift their stand In the daylong rain.m
Marvelous! This - through his dark-glass view of the world - is Hardy celebrating, reveling in, the thoroughness of English rain. The only other poem by an English poet in love with rain that I know is John Clare's ''The Summer Shower.'' Here he really delights in it. It has 27 short verses and it needs, in fairness to its tender descriptions, to be read whole. A flavor, though, might be gained from two stanzas where a ''weeding troop'' of field laborers heads for home in face of thickening showers:
With laughing skip they stride the hasty brook That mutters through the weeds until it gains A clear and quiet nook
To greet the dimpling rain
And on they drabble all in mirth not mute Leaving their footmarks on the elting soil Where print of sprawling foot
Stirs up a tittering smile. . . .m
The 18th-century Northamptonshire poet's ''rustic simplicity'' is entirely deceptive. Even the unfamiliar words (''drabble'' means ''to slosh through mud'' and ''elting'' means ''soft'') contribute to a stunning mastery of - a genius for - onomatopoeia: The sound-sense of these select words is aptness itself. Rain deserves no less.