The Rainy Day
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) is best known for “The Song of Hiawatha.” He also wrote many other celebrated poems. And then there’s ‘The Rainy Day’, which isn’t numbered among his most famous. But it is one of the finest poems written about rain, so deserves a few words of analysis for that reason alone.
Rain and misery are two certainties in life, at least in the New England that Longfellow knew so well. Longfellow’s poem uses the rain/misery connection to offer a misconception about life. In the first stanza, Longfellow talks of the rain and wind outside. He uses the second stanza to discuss the internal, miserable weather raging within his heart. For the final stanza, he shifts from simply describing his mood to the authoritative, as he commands his heart to be of good cheer and remember that, although it may be raining now, the sun is still shining behind the clouds, though he can’t currently see it. When we’re miserable or sad, it can be very difficult to recall happiness, to remember what’s now out of sight. In his penultimate line, we find the most famous line in this poem: ‘Into each life some rain must fall.’ Misery is part of a common lot of humanity. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “When it rains look for rainbows when it's dark look for stars.” Longfellow might have been well-advised to listen to Wilde’s advice.
There Will Come Soft Rains
By Sara Teasdale
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Unlike the majority of Teasdale’s war poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains” has not been entirely forgotten. Three decades after its initial publication, in the wake of World War II, Ray Bradbury featured the poem as the foundation of a similarly post-apocalyptic short story, also titled “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles. In his re-appropriation, Bradbury portrays a future world that has been destroyed by mankind’s heedless progress, in a gruesome fashion that I don’t want to discuss. Bradbury’s story shares with Teasdale’s poem the terrifying insight that mankind is no longer connected, organically, to the natural world. The only species capable of mass, mechanized, self-destruction, humans are utterly alone, detached from a natural world that no longer even notices we are there. Imported into the futuristic world of 2057, Teasdale’s words become bitterly ironic. As early as World War I, Bradbury implies, mankind had been warned.
The poem awakens that old sentimental longing to return to a state of deep connectedness with nature. It even deploys a set of familiar stylistic markers that seem to have been borrowed directly from a nineteenth-century aesthetic economy. The poem’s alliteration, for instance — “whistling their whims,” “feathery fire”— and the sing-song rhymes— “ground/sound,” “night/white,” “fire/wire,” all evoke a sense of comforting gentility. But this veneer of conventional sentimentality merely heightens the profound impact of nature’s heartlessness. The poem’s sweet, sentimental quality and its tranquil, idyllic descriptors are deceiving. Ultimately, all of our sentimental feelings about “frogs” and “wild-plum trees,” as well as the language through which we have constructed those myths of a connection to nature, are tossed, mockingly, back at us. The reader is led to believe that the “soft rains” will signal our own renewal and that the birds will sing to celebrate our salvation.
The poem challenges those idyllic fantasies with the reality of a natural world dominated by indifference, motivated only by its own survival, and oblivious to the existence or extinction of man. However, Teasdale locates a kernel of hope in this harsh vision. Devoted exclusively to its own survival, nature, in Teasdale’s conception, proffers no comfort to mankind, but can, nonetheless, provide the key to our own preservation. Rather than a retreat into an irrecoverable, idealized past. Teasdale was influenced to write this poem by reading Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species. In such, she was urging her audience to adopt the ways of nature—to focus more whole-heartedly on their own survival.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” first appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in July 1918—less than two months after the passage of the Sedition Act. Meant to strengthen the provisions of the already-repressive Espionage Act, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, was designed to quash American opposition to the war, outlawing “virtually all criticism of the war or the government.” Following its passage, anthologies and magazines continued to publish a small number of anti-war poems, but only if the poems were strategically nonspecific in their critique and refrained from offering a political alternative to the war. This climate of censorship casts a different light on the apparent obliqueness of Teasdale’s anti-war poems. Rather than a limitation, their historical imprecision might be what enabled their circulation at the height of World War I. It is possible, in fact, that Teasdale’s cultivation of a demure, “poetess” persona might have, contradictorily, enabled her to publish anti-war poetry more freely.