There are old poems and there are new poems. But some of the new ones feel old and some of the old ones feel new.
Why should it be that even the funny spelling in the old ones doesn’t get in the way? In fact, when you come to them, it’s almost the other way round. The odd rendition is an attraction.
All this because I woke thinking about the westron wynde. When I first read the poem (and I can’t remember when that was) I knew westron was western. It never presented any kind of a problem, even though we had a maths teacher (this comes back to me only this minute) who was called Miss Rostron.
I can’t remember when I first read it. I only feel like I’ve always known it. Which is precisely how I felt when I first read it. Here it is:
Westron wynde, when wylt thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne?
Cryst yf my love were in my armys
And I yn my bed agayne!
I’ve just googled it to find out what I could. One scholar thinks it’s a lament for someone who’s dead. Just as the seeds grow when the spring rain comes, he says, so the lover wishes his love can come back to life (she’s dead).
Not what I thought.
I suppose at least we agree on the yearning. The lyric (put on paper when set to music in the 16th century, though it’s older than that) is the epitome of yearning. But I’ve always heard the speaking voice as someone who is stuck somewhere away from home, somewhere very dry.
Perhaps I’ve read it wrong. If it’s ‘westron wynde, when wylt thow blow [so that] the smalle rayne downe can rayne’, that does sound like a longing for spring. I have always read it as a longing for the wind to blow, the wind to change – and the sea was in my mind. If the wind came, I thought, the ship could move and get him back. Back home and back to some lover far away. Perhaps it’s during the Crusades, when a man might well never get back. And hence the small rain would be something not to mind, but to long for – and characteristic of these islands. It's ‘smalle’ kindly rain, not a tempest or a battering.
So in my mind the speaker is in a hot place – unable to get home. Somewhere hot and windless: a baked desert. He’s longing for England, or Scotland, or Ireland or Wales, where it rains, but it’s home.
Why is there something lovely in ‘the small rain down can rain’? Is it the monosyllables, like raindrops? Or the ‘rain’ both as noun and verb? Or the fact of four words in a row with an ‘n’ sound at the end of them? Perhaps a combination of all these things. And then ‘Cryst’ both as prayer and desperate outcry – in the way a secular voice could say it right now – and the universal snapshot of safety: in bed with your loved one. Rain on the roof outside. Not sex. Safety. And, of course, absolutely not to be had in the confines of the poem, except in the mind.
The photo is of a piece of artwork on marble done by Christina Fletcher, the poem etched without wordbreaks and without linebreaks. I love it. It slows you down as you read. The lyric emerges letter by letter. Like an old friend reaching through the ages, the poem bursts through.
Whatever the magic, it’s timeless. What – in this age of print and electronic files – will endure like this?