‘The Voice of the Rain’ by Walt Whitman (1885)

And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form'd, altogether changed, 
      and yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own 
      origin, and make pure and beautify it:
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Reck'd or unreck'd, duly with love returns.)

SENSE

This poem, I believe, is best seen as not an image of some natural phenomenon, nor even just a philosophical/metaphysical reflection on that image: it is instead best seen as an image of the poet himself, and, thus, of humanity. My suspicion is that the poem could very well have been inspired by a rainy day, while Whitman sat outside (or inside) and observed the rain fall and make its noises. Nevertheless, before he had reached the end of writing it, I am sure that he meant it to signify what takes place in the act of writing poetry itself, or the creative act generally. The images of the world are, so to say, often if not always reflexive, unavoidably an image of the perceiver, who, if representing that image in a poem, will see his own image as if reflected in a puddle. Everywhere we look we see ourselves, and this is not because we are the center of reality – far from it. Rather, there is no center, and so every place is the center. So we, the human, the conscious being among others, our individual set of perceptions is merely one of an infinite number of centers to which all other centers relate. And in perceiving the wind and the rain and the touch of the breeze against the cheek, wet with the rain, it is possible to find what we ourselves are: that is the hope, at least, consciously or unconsciously, of the poet.

Inasmuch as that hope is conscious, I think it would be fair to say that Whitman would have a developed sense of it. What I have stated abstractly is something Whitman states concretely, not with philosophy, but with poetry, again and again. Look again: the poem is basically an image of the cyclic patterns of nature, specifically the Earth. She is eternal in one sense, relative to us. During the course of our individual lives, she changes naught at all. And though the name of the poem is “The Voice of the Rain,” he calls that voice “the Poem of Earth.” A curious effect is created here by referring to the voice as a poem in the writing of the poem. If one looks at the words at just the right angle, one gets the sense of a concentric pattern of poems: here is a poem of a poem of a poem, etc. Everything is making a poem about something else: the rain of the Earth, the poet of the rain, and so it goes. Just as the cycles of nature involve a coming and then a going, so the poet is another of nature’s cycles, taking in the observations he makes of the world, and turning them into poems, returning them, in some sense, back from himself.

Of course, there is one way in which the poet is different from the rain: the poet is conscious and can speak consciously. But, like the rain that surrenders to gravity in its cyclic fall, so the poet, to some extent, is surrendering to the reactions of his unconscious in writing poetry. The conscious aspect is the surrendering aspect, giving shape in its collapse to the landscape. Nevertheless, this difference does not destroy the analogy, merely make it sharper and more distinct.  The poet is different from the rain, but he is in his mode of being like it through and through. Here, it is participation that is the point! Participation is the activity of relationship, and the poet’s relationship to the world is in the mode of love, rather than urge. Urges, such as hunger or sex, lead to consumption quite naturally. Love leads to respect, an enjoyment without consumption of the world. Of course, it seems to only be reachable on the other side of urges: without urges there is no life. But with consciousness there comes again this capacity, inherent within the world, to just be in relation to everything else. Why this is I think is a central mystery of our existence. Its answer must contain the whole. And Whitman brushes right up to it in this poem.

FORM

Whitman writes in free verse, without any set syllabic count or number of metrical feet. His poem does fundamentally alternate along iambic and trochaic rhythms, but that is difficult to avoid if one is speaking in natural English rhythms in the first place. The poem does not halt, but has the pace of metrical poem without strict meter, which does generally seem to be true for any free verse poet, unless they intend to make their patterns of sound jolt hard, which is not the case here. What free verse does allow for is an improvisation of rhythm from line to line, according to the effect one intends. Take:

I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe…

The rhythm of “I descend to lave the drouths” manages to sound like one is falling through the words down with the rain into the ground. And “Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,” for its part, through a climbing iambic rhythm conveys the sense of the line. It could be said that this poem is as metrical as any in its way.

The long and extended lines are just a typical Whitmanian feature. It almost goes without saying that this is central to the structure and ultimately effect of his poetry. The eighth line, “And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin, and make pure and beautify it,” well it is 25 syllables long, which is, by some standards, monstrous, even relative to the other lines in this poem. But it is in making long lines not drone but sing that the punch hits hardest, and, believe it or not, that is a difficult thing to do. If I had to put my finger on why it works here specifically, it would be to say that it grants the rain a voice that is solemn, even authoritative, but not ponderous. Also, Whitman is here allergic to enjambment, not splitting phrases or clauses up between lines, but keeping them together at their natural length. False enjambment is highly tempting to the poet writing in a strict meter: here that is dodged by default.

A final note on form: Whitman pulls off a fine maneuver in the sixth line, already pulled from the poem previously, “I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe…” “to lave,” “drouths,” and “atomies” are all rather archaic words that one could only expect in a poetic context in the first place. But, the tricky bit is, that Whitman is not writing a poem in some archaic tune here. This is the only line in which any archaisms are placed. The effect is thus distinct. If the poem had been littered randomly with them, there would be no effect other than to perhaps be slightly or somewhat pretentious or off point. If the poem had contained only one, it could have been seen as a random and not well considered deviation. But by using three at once, and only here, I think it works. The point is that as the rain is descending back down to Earth, it speaks for an instant with that dignity that archaism can convey. It is as if the Rain, some divinity, in descending to Earth and to mortals from on high, takes it upon herself to speak with an elevated and elite tone, to remind us of her once exalted state before she comes crashing down violently into the dust.

POETRY INSIGHTS

Sometimes I would like to conclude with something about how reading some particular poem can teach someone writing poetry something valuable. Maybe just one thing even at best: some takeaway. In this case, I would note something basic: use natural images, which can only be used by both being in nature and also by taking the time to reflect and pay attention to what can be gleaned from your surroundings. Look at something striking or wonderful in some way, and just write about it, not being concerned with form or structure yet. Take that material then and see what can be done with it.

Featured image: ‘Sudden Shower Newburry Marshes’ by Martin Johnson Heade (c. 1865-1875), image in the public domain.

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