Too Much of a Good Thing

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Rainy Day
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

I hope, by the time you read this, that this summer’s relentless rains will be a distant memory, the puddles and uninvited swamps will have dried up, and the sun will be shining brightly. But Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Rainy Day” perfectly describes the mood on the day I write this: cold, dark, and dreary (again). And I was delighted to discover that this poem is the origin of the popular adage, “into each life some rain must fall,” which has almost achieved the status of a proverb. In 1944, Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher even wrote a song with this title, recorded by the Ink Spots with Ella Fitzgerald—find this gem on YouTube. The song adds the apt refrain, “but too much is falling in mine.” I’m sure we can all relate!

The poet uses the pathetic fallacy to interpret the dark and dreary weather as a reflection of his own emotional mood. The ‘pathetic fallacy’ is the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals—in this case the weather. The poet is aging, and “the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast” of wind, just as the leaves do. They are already dead; he anticipates the same plight for himself. His life is as cold and dreary as the rainy day, and he is mouldering (slowly decaying) just like his garden wall. Longfellow uses repetition and a singsong rhythm to echo the monotony and incessant dripping of the raindrops, as well as the despair and hopelessness he feels. The rhyme scheme, like the weather and life’s vicissitudes, is cyclical: aabba / aacca / ddbba, repeating the “weary/dreary” rhyme in every stanza, and tying the last stanza to the first with its repetition of the wall/all/fall rhyme, and circling back to “dreary.” I wondered if Longfellow might have taken inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known “The Raven,” which begins, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary….” Poe (1809-1849) was a contemporary, but died much younger than Longfellow, in 1849. However, from what I can find, “The Rainy Day” was published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842, while “The Raven” wasn’t written until 1845. So perhaps the inspiration went the other way!

In the third stanza, the poet attempts to change his tone. He commands his “sad heart” to cheer up, reminding us that the sun is still shining behind the clouds and will eventually return—as, indeed, it has!—bringing hope along with it. Sadness and depression are a “common fate” experienced by everyone, but they are temporary. And here is the immortal line that bears the poem’s main message: “into each life some rain must fall”—that is, we all face adversity at one time or another, but we must handle it with strength and forbearance. This newfound connection with all of humanity brings him solace. This simple but affecting poem reminds us that dark times only make the joyful ones that much sweeter.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was the most popular poet of his day, a popularity which continued through the first half of the 20th century. Born in Portland, Maine, he became a professor at Harvard and helped to gain international recognition for American poetry. A bridge in Boston is named for him. He had six children, but lost two wives, one to a miscarriage and the other in a tragic fire. His ballads, such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Evangeline,” and book-length poems such as the Song of Hiawatha, were regularly taught and often memorized in school. His poems are known for their musicality, with stories often taken from mythology and legend. Although today his poems may be considered simplistic by academics, they are accessible, direct, and musical. He expresses emotions that many of us share—such as the deep melancholy expressed here. His personality became part of his reputation; James Russell Lowell said Longfellow had an “absolute sweetness, simplicity, and modesty.” 

This summer’s rains have definitely been too much of a good thing—let us hope they are gone for a good while. Maybe our reward will be a dry winter! 

 

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