Western wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
Anonymous; British Library Royal Appendix 58 c. Early Sixteenth Century
“Western Wind” (or “Westron Wyde” as the ms. has it) is an anonymous lyric from the early 16th century (c. 1530). It’s extant in a single manuscript that appears to have been a commonplace book used by several English court musicians associated with the royal court and were collecting musical pieces for lute. As Julia Craig-McFeely notes British Library Royal Appendix 58 (RA58) is actually
two music manuscripts that became bound together as the single source, Royal Appendix 58, one inserted inside the other some considerable time after their respective compilations—possibly at the time they became part of the Royal collection in the British Museum. The outer portions of RA58, the part of the MS containing the lute music, was written throughout by the same scribe, though it is difficult to see this as the tablature section has little text with which to compare the other music, and the manuscript is suffering badly from the effects of fading. This section of the MS isa collection of tenor voice parts, and the original parchment cover was marked ‘Tenor’ by its owner. The inserted book was a collection of medius and contratenor parts, indicated by its scribe writing ‘medius’ at the top of the first page.
The general consensus regarding the RA 58 is that it’s from about 1530; the language of the poem could easily be earlier, and I suspect (but can not prove) that it’s perhaps c. 1400. There is music presented in RA58 with the text, but interpreting what the notation means is a bit difficult. Musicians and composers have come up with different melodies.
“Western Wind” is one of the first poems that grabbed my attention in that This Is Important way when I was teenager reading my father’s old copy of the Quiller-Couch edition of The Oxford Book of English Poetry. The poem seemed so very simple, a tiny four-line love-lyric (a particularly English love-lyric, given its reference to rain). It captures the feeling of love-in-absence, the emotional state of the lover longing for the presence of the beloved, the comforts of home and a familiar and shared bed.
I like the way the poem uses repetition in the second line, drawing our attention to the phrase “The small rain down can rain” — notice the way the line catches our ear and eye with the repetition of “rain,” as both verb and noun, and the way the meter emphasizes the words as if they were themselves falling rain. “The small rain” is a particularly English phrase as well, referring both to the constant steady fall of micro drops that are almost more like mist than rain, and to “a little rain,” where “small” refers to quantity rather than the size of the drops.
The phrase “the small rain” is one with an ancient history. Here’s the entry from the OED for the phrase. You’ll notice that there’s an archaic letter, the eth (ð = th sound) no longer used in English.
Small rain III. 10. a. Composed of fine or minute particles, drops, etc. In later use chiefly of rain.
c897 K. AELFRED Gregory’s Past. C. lvii. 437 Swiðe lytle beoð ða dropan ðaes smalan renes, ac hi wyrceað ðeah swiðe micel flod. c1000 Sax. Leechd.
1649 WINTHROP New Eng. (1853) I. 209 The Rebecka,..two days before, was frozen twenty miles up the river; but a small rain falling set her free.
1676 WOOD Jrnl. in Acc. Sev. Late Voy. I. (1694) 177 Thick Fogs with small Rain. 1727 A. HAMILTON New Acc. E. Indies I. xxii. 262 A small Rain happened to fall that damped my Powder. 1823 SCOTT Quentin D. i, Heaven, who works by the tempest as well as by the soft small rain (OED small, a. and n.2 III.10.a).
The same phrase is used in the King James 1611 Bible, in Deuteronomy 32:2:
My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass
The date of the King James translation is too late to have directly influenced “Western Wind,” but it does show the use of the phrase—and it’s not impossible that it was influenced by the lyric.
In English custom and poetry the western wind is the wind of spring; see for instance Robert Herrick’s short lyric, “To the Western Wind,” which also treats the west wind as a gentle wind that brings rain. John Masefield does something similar in his “The West Wind.” The spring opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales summons the west wind by name, in his invocation of Zephyru, the Greek god associated with the west wind and spring. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” has a similar association between the western wind and rain—but in Shelley’s poem the wind is associated with autumn, and Italy.
In this very English poem, notice that the narrater—who could be a woman or a man, we don’t know—says, somewhat urgently, or perhaps plaintively, “when” will the small rain come? It reminds me very much of the moment when the barometric pressure changes, just before the rain comes, and it’s suggestive of the speaker’s own state of mind.
A melody with the same “Western Wind” title was used by a number of sixteenth century English composers (most notably Thomas Tallis, Richard Taverner and Christopher Tye) as the cantus firmus in the Mass, under the less than surprising title of the Western Wind Mass, but it isn’t clear that the tune used by the masses is the same one recorded in British Library Royal Appendix 58 c; in fact it seems rather unlikely. It’s also not clear that the tune used by the composers wasn’t simply another tune for our lyric. Either way, the various masses are all quite lovely, whether or not directly related to the lyric.