“Westron Wind” – collision and departure

I’ve loved the little anonymous medieval lyric “Westron wynde” since reading it as an undergraduate. Simple as it is, it probably surfaces in my mind more often than any other poem, its emotional force undiminished by repetition:

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!

Such compact fullness, such simplicity and richness both of feeling and hinted situation. A sailor or merchant waiting for the wind that will take him home. Yearning, helplessness and the reaching out of hope. Erotic intensity, but what’s so yearned for is the wife and the home, with all the sense of emotional solidity that brings, not some vaporous fantasy. Sharpened by specific detail (it has to be a western wind, the imagined rain is small) but at the same time wide open, because the essential feeling is that of any loving husband separated for a long time from wife and home, comfort and security.

All that and more is in the pot but it’s the imaginative volatility and suddenness of the piece that makes it come so alive and stay so alive in the mind. I’ve stumbled on a comment by the poet and Dante translator Robert Pinsky that expresses it well, not just in relation to this poem but to poetry in general:

For me, writing has a lot to do with collision and departure. In the anonymous lyric “Western wind, when will thou blow, / The small rain down can rain? / Christ! That my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again,” I love that movement when the poet exclaims, “Christ!” because you haven’t been at “Christ!”—you’ve been addressing the wind, asking it a question. You’re thinking about a “small rain,” and the last thing that would follow a small rain might seem to be Christ. The change from imploring the wind to saying “Christ!” is a gesture of impatience and exaltation. For me that movement, like when an ice skater suddenly changes directions, has a lot to do with what poetry is.


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