There be dragons!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Westron wynde

'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!'
I remember from early on one of my first college poetry teachers, Glenn Arbery, pointing out the subtle significance of this poem. It is one of the earlier poems in Middle English, apparently, the basis of Masses (called "parody Masses" b/c they were based off of secular tunes and therefore had parallel tunes or odes) by composer such as Taverner, Shephard and Tye; it has been set to music by Igor Stravinsky and John Renbourn and many others. So quite a prodigious piece. It has apparently touched people enough to be lodged in their imaginative world.

And I can see why. The subtlety of the piece alone is remarkable; only four lines that capture a little world, a little heart lamenting its exile from the place of happiness, lover and home. The speaker here, far from home, longs for the comforts of his house and family, his bed, far from the open field where now he lies in rain. The vehemence of his desire to be home is only hinted at by the ambiguous "Cryst" which can be read either as a curse - "Christ!" or as an exclamation "Cryest". Either way, the suddenness of the word in contrast to the small rain is stark indeed. And "small" rain, not gentle, not light but small. That's perfect. It stands out like nothing else but if one has ever walked out in an Autumnal mist of rain this phrase captures it entirely. I still don't know about the first line; is it "blow Western Wind" as a command? Or is it a question of despair as in "the Northern wind is now blowing; when will it be Western (balmy) wind?" But listening to the sound of the w's "W** wi* wh* w*t thou blow" = whish whish whish whish ... whish. The perfection of that line is like crystal or like a van Eyck painting; it captures in onomatopoeia the very sound of the event.

How often a soldier, World War Tommies or Jerries in the trenches of Flanders, or GIs in the hedgerows, men in the field of battle, saturated through with the rain and the cold and the sorrow and misery, how often have they paused in the beauty of the ineffable mist and remembered the home and the beloved? This 16th century poem captures that longing. Its ending, not with a lover but with bed; rest; sleep - mirrors also the longing in the midst of the daily drudgery of life for that rest which is silence. It is a poem essentially about longing for rest; requiem aeternam; an end to it all; when the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is finally done.

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