Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
In this poem Thomas lies awake at night, listening to the rain falling onto the roof of the hut that he rests within. The rain and the poet’s solitude prompt thoughts of those soldiers who are exposed to danger and death in the world outside.
Rain: This poem lies within a tradition of Romantic poetry wherein the solitary poet, contemplating or moved by nature, finds himself in connection with a wider world. Romanticism is one of the most broad and influential of all artistic and literary movements, beginning during the second half of the eighteenth century, and placing great emphasis on individual insight, feelings and imagination as a means of understanding the world. The Romantics revered nature as a source of beauty and ‘numinous’ experience— in nature they sensed the sacred, or God. ‘The Sublime’ was the name that was given for this sensation of connecting with a broader, more profound spiritual reality.
The rain in ‘Rain’, then, is a part of nature that allows the thoughtful and inward-contemplating Thomas to connect with the wider world (just as, for example, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Eolean Harp’, the wind playing on harp strings prompts the poet to wonder if he responds to nature similarly). Like the Romantics, Thomas finds an inspiration in nature that leads him via his memories, emotions and thoughts to a new understanding of the world around him. Where he diverges most clearly from the Romantics in ‘Rain’ is an absence of the sublime, or an explicitly spiritual dimension. Instead, in the contemplation of his death and that of others, this late Romantic poem embraces existential questions and modern alienation– in other words, the problem of finding a meaning for human existence in a seemingly hostile world.
STRUCTURE: ‘Rain’ is written in blank verse— Iambic Pentameter without rhyme. This is one of the most common verse forms in English, but Thomas experiments with it very effectively. He plays with the rhythm and intensity of each line through a number of different means, each intended to give a sense of the increasing and decreasing intensity of the rain on the sounding walls of the hut, and the poet’s response to this. To create this effect, Thomas uses repetition, clever internal rhyming and also uses the spondee— a metre where two syllables within a foot have equal weight. Another feature of the poem is that it is a monologue, giving us entry into Thomas’ thoughts in solitude, in which the reader is an implied listener— ‘hearing’ the immediate fears and thoughts of the poet.
“Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain…”: The poem opens describing a rainstorm at night in the kind of plain, conversational language that is a feature of the poem. In lyric poetry the use of rain to suggest sadness and melancholy might ordinarily be thought clichéd: Thomas is careful, then, to convey his thought and sensations in deliberately pared-down, simple terms. The poem’s tone is as a consequence disarmingly open, even confessional. This line introduces two important technical features of the poem. The first is the repetition of words— “rain” here, but also “solitude”, and “love”— that becomes a feature of the poem. “Rain” alone is repeated throughout the poem seven times, and in this first line as later, the repetition conveys not only the insistent force of the rainstorm outside but the also heightened consciousness of the listener. The second feature is the rhythmical variation in this and other lines. The regularity of the iambic pentameter is often challenged by the use of repeated stresses. Here Thomas uses spondee, that is, stressing two syllables in a row, and in poetry the effect of this is often to slow down the pace of a line. Along with the pauses denoted by the commas in the opening line, this gives the effect of a quickening and slowing of pace— the sort of rhythm you might hear as you listen to sheets of rain against your roof or window in a blustery storm. So the line scans something like this: “RAIN, MIDnight RAIN, NOTHing BUT the WILD RAIN…”. Thomas connects this insistent and slow spondee rhythm with the word “rain”: as with “wild rain” here (repeated again at the end of the poem).
“On this bleak hut, and solitude…”: the poem begins with a melancholic, contemplative tone. “Rain”, “nothing”, “bleak”, “solitude”, “me”: these words suggest the introspective, lonely and rather depressed nature of Thomas’ thoughts. As critic Bernard Bergonzi points out in ‘Heroes Twilight’, Thomas talked of his “elaborate self consciousness” which one perceptive doctor recognized led him to depression and illness (p. 79). Note, indeed, the complicated elaboration on his thoughts and feelings over these first six lines: Thomas using enjambement to convey the flow of his conscious mind.
“…and me / Remembering again that I shall die…”: Thomas’ solitude, with a heightened consciousness of his surroundings and himself, brings about what is known as an epiphany— a sudden realisation of profound meaning— in Thomas’ recollection of his own mortality.
“And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks…”: the oblivion of death is contrasted to the gift of life. Thomas’ awareness of the falling rain leads to a heightened perception of the world beyond himself.
“For washing me cleaner than I have been / Since I was born into this solitude.”: The image used here is one of ritual cleansing, or ablution. Ablutions— cleaning oneself with intent to purify the self or honour a god— are common rituals in the world’s religions. In this sense the rain comes as a blessing to Thomas; it first awakens him to a consciousness of death, but then provides consolation as a sign of life. Thomas’ deepening sense of a life-long loneliness, however, is emphasised by his second reference to “solitude”.
“Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:”: Thomas pursues the idea of rain being an ablution with the image of rain blessing the dead, and thus cleansing them of sin. Note the spondee here, “rain rains”: conveying the weight of the rain through a repetition of sense and slowing of rhythm.
“But here I pray that none whom once I loved”: Thomas reverts in this line to regular iambic pentameter. The effect is to move from the heightened consciousness of the rain against the roof of the hut— the thrumming that is outside Thomas’ control while the “rain rains”— to a more measured prayer, thus conveying Thomas’ effort of self-control.
“Is dying tonight or lying still awake”: the internal rhyming here— “dying” with “lying”— subtly suggests the rhythmic sheets of rain on the roof, while Thomas’s mind is drawn to those caught outside in the deluge. Thomas is, of course, thinking of those soldiers serving abroad. The rain first led Thomas into isolated self-examination and thoughts of death: his spirit however rebelled, embracing the rain and the living world beyond. This feeling does not last long, however. He is forced into sympathy with those like him: awake in the rainstorm, and conscious of death.
“Solitary, listening to the rain, / Either in pain or thus in sympathy”: Thomas’ own isolation— “solitary” is repeated for a third time here— draws him into agonized kinship with soldiers whom he has known (“whom once I loved”) and the possibility that they are exposed to the rain, whether injured or alone on duty. Thomas again uses internal rhyming here— “rain” and “pain”— to create an echo of the sounding rhythm of the rain. The rhyme also perhaps signifies the growing linkage of the two ideas in Thomas’ mind.
“Helpless among the living and the dead,”: Thomas’s pity here, his reaching out to the exposed and the injured, contains a sense of self-consciousness too, of his own helplessness.
“Like a cold water among broken reeds… all still and stiff / Like me…”: a key simile here, where Thomas pictures those exposed in the rain on the battlefield as being “like a cold water”. This conceit develops the central figure of rain. Rain has brought Thomas to a consciousness of isolation and death, but it has also signified life, and his consciousness of it has encouraged his connection with the wider world. Yet opposed to its vital energy— with which Thomas has carefully suffused the poem and its rhythms— is this image of those whom the rain falls upon. They are imagined as water at rest, cold and without life, “among broken reeds”. These countless broken reeds (“myriads”) are themselves images of broken men (the image is biblical: from Isaiah 36:6). This is an image of abjection, that is, of having fallen to the lowest possible state, of being cast down into suffering. Thomas’ imagination encompasses both the dead and these dying men caught in the rain— he too shares this feeling of abjection. Note the alliteration and assonance Thomas uses— “all still and stiff”— to maintain the strong rhythms of this poem.
“Like me who have no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved…”: Thomas expresses his kinship with the suffering (“like me”). Previously in the poem Thomas has dwelt on solitude and the rain that has awakened him to a consciousness of both life and death. At the end of the poem, Thomas becomes interested in the role of “love”, the word repeated twice in the lines following. Thomas asserts that the rain has “dissolved” his love: note the continuing use of watery metaphors, as the rain seem to lead to a dissolution of Thomas’ sense of self, of his capacity for love. In literary terms, this is an interesting turn: the rain at the end of the poem is not a clichéd Romantic symbol: it is a kind of solvent for the soul, dissolving the self.
“…except the love of death, / If love it be towards what is perfect…”: the idea that only a “love of death” remains after the self has been stripped away is disturbing, even doubtful (“if love it be”), but Thomas seems to accept oblivion with a cold appreciation of his emotional circumstances. The “love of death” would later, in fact, gain a place in psychological theory. After studying the trauma victims of the Great War, Freud became interested in this drive towards self-oblivion, which he called Thanatos, the death-drive. Freud later developed the idea that this secret drive within the self, opposed to the preserving instinct for life, sought the peace of non-being. Something like a wish for this “perfect” consolation of complete oblivion seems to be conclusion of Thomas at the end of the poem. This is not to say that this poem contains a suicidal wish at the end: rather a wish for non-being, for being out of the world— out of the rain.
“…and / Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.”: the rainstorm, or “tempest”, has brought Thomas a vision of the nature of both life and death— it has spoken to him (“tells me”) and given a glimpse of death that is at once bleak (because like “cold water” it is inert and without life and energy) and yet consoling (because it has “dissolved” conflict).
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Apologies to my A-level scholars for the length of these notes, but I have found this a very difficult poem to be brief on. As a poem that both uses and transforms the pastoral mode— contemplating war indirectly through natural forms— this poem bears interesting comparison to Robert Frost’s ‘Range-Finding’. Frost, of course, was a prime influence in Thomas becoming a poet: neither fought before writing their poetry about the conflict but nonetheless approached the war in novel ways. This poem can be compared with ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley and ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen for the different ways in which each of these poems philosophically examine the relationship of the living to death and the dead.]