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There is a famous short poem, of very murky provenance, which exists in a number of versions, one of which reads:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

The speaker seems to be asking the western wind to blow. Admittedly, he/she does not command explicitly, but this seems to be the gist of the question. But how would the wind blowing and the rain coming down serve the speaker's goal of being reunited with his/her love and in his/her own bed?

My best guess is that the speaker is a he, a soldier no less. I have read that medieval armies would struggle to campaign in winter, due to the comparative shortage of food and fodder. Therefore, it would make sense for a given army to discharge a portion of its manpower during those months. The speaker is yearning for the rough winter weather to set in, so that the army of which he is a part will send him home. But the only evidence I have for that hypothesis is that, following his victory at Agincourt in October, Henry V captured Calais in November, before immediately returning to England. Does anyone have a better theory?

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  • Actually, Henry V 'immediately returned to England' because he had already stayed in France much later in the year than originally intended. The siege of Harfleur had taken longer than anticipated, and rather than tamely sail straight for home he decided to march his army overland to Calais, during which Agincourt was fought. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 8:35

2 Answers 2

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Some of the question's assumptions need clarification. To begin with, in the United Kingdom as well as in mythology, the western wind is associated with gentle weather rather than "rough winter". The UK meteorological office says:

Southwesterly wind bring [sic] warm air from the tropics, which is cooled from below as it moves northwards over a gradually cooling sea. Sometimes the cooling is sufficient for sea fog or a thin layer of stratus to form. The cloud can become thick enough for drizzle, especially on windward coasts and over high ground. In general, winds from the west or southwest are associated with overcast, wet weather.

The "small rain" mentioned in the second line refers to this drizzle, not to winter storms. And this answer to a previous question about this poem delves into the gentility associated with Zephyr in classical mythology.

Nor is there textual warrant for the hypothesis that the speaker is a soldier, let alone for a connection to Agincourt. Finally, there is no explicit indication that the speaker is a man. E K Chambers, for example, cites this poem as illustrating the folk motif of "woman's love in absence" (p. 277) or "overheard complaints of women" (p. 281). Who the speaker is, and what the situation is, cannot be specifically determined from the text.

Given the absence of any discernible specifics in the poem's text, then, the question can be boiled down to: what connects the first two lines to the last two? How is the change of weather asked for in the opening lines related to the meeting yearned for in the closing lines?

While it's possible for the United Kingdom's weather to be wet at any time during the year, the longing for rain suggests that the speaker is enduring a hot, arid summer. It could be that the speaker or the beloved is undertaking some work that could not be done during the rain. Farming, especially during the haymaking season, is a possibility. Wet weather might keep such a worker at home with the beloved. But a laundress, an itinerant merchant, or yes, a soldier could also wish for relief from hot weather, and could take the daydream farther by wishing to be with their beloved. How can we know who exactly is speaking and under what circumstances? The absence of details in the text make any further speculation about the specifics inadvisable.

What the text does give us is a series of parallelisms and contrasts. The first two lines, with their evoking of the outdoors and on the public phenomenon of weather, are set against the last two, with their focus on the indoor intimacy of the lovers. But just as rain falls after the wind blows, the lovers fall into bed after an embrace. And if rain brings relief after the heat and drought, lovemaking brings relief after parting. There's also a contrast between the future, anticipated (a hope that the rain will come) and the past, longed for (a wish to be in bed again). In an excellent close reading of this poem, Charles Frey delves into further parallels and contrasts that structure this lyric, concluding that "all parts of the poem point to comparisons between the first two lines and the second two, between the endless life of nature and the human wish for it" (p. 270).

The connection between the wished-for weather and the wished-for embrace, then, is skillfully built up by the parallels and contrasts between and within the four lines of the poem. Frey writes:

blowing wind becomes analogized to lovemaking embrace, and rain rained down to lovers fallen abed. Thus the two sentences might each dramatize a fecundatory activity and a release down to bed of earth or home. The four lines work chiastically, as well, if one sees the lateral wind yielding to falling rain and the free-standing lovers falling to lateral bliss. (p. 268)

In its meteorological and amatory halves, then, the poem both opposes the interior world of the lovers to the exterior world of the weather, or the desired future to the remembered past, and brings those divergent elements together through structural patterning. One might call this an act of textual intercourse.

References

Chambers, E. K. "Some Aspects of Mediæval Lyric". Early English Lyrics: Amorous, Divine, Moral and Trivial, chosen by E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick. New York: October House, 1967. pp. 257–296. The Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/earlyenglishlyri0000sidg/mode/2up. Accessed 11 September 2023.

Frey, Charles. “Interpreting ‘Western Wind.’” ELH, vol. 43, no. 3, 1976, pp. 259–78. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2872415. Accessed 11 September 2023.

Met Office. Understanding Weather. https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/learn-about/met-office-for-schools/other-content/other-resources/understanding-weather. Accessed 11 September 2023.

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  • @cmw It's a quintessentially English poem that predates the Renaissance. And the Zephyr of classical myth was associated with pleasant weather, not rain.
    – verbose
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 0:32
  • Retracted. Older commentaries always mentioned the Zephyr, but you make a good point.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 0:56
  • Huh. I would have thought the speaker was the wife of a sailor at sea - in the Atlantic - and the western wind would bring him home.
    – davidbak
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 21:26
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It's probably a Biblical reference.

Many western poems and works of literature make allusion or references to the Christian/Jewish Bible, or borrow its symbolic language.

In the Bible, Western Winds are used as a symbol of God's blessing, refreshing, provision, and healing. Eastern Winds are symbolic of trouble, famine, exhaustion, difficulties, and even judgement.

This is because the Bible usually speaks from a Israel-centric viewpoint, and Israel is located between the Mediterranean Sea to the West and the deserts of the Arabian peninsula to the East. Eastern Winds brought dry desert heat that killed crops, brought famine, and made summers miserable, Western Winds brought refreshing rains and cool pleasant air from the sea and the promise of good harvest and plenty of food to eat.

"Ephraim feeds on wind, And pursues the east wind continually; He multiplies lies and violence." - Hosea 12:1

"Though he flourishes among the reeds, An east wind will come, The wind of the Lord coming up from the wilderness [read: desert]; And his fountain will become dry And his spring will dry up; It will plunder his treasury of every precious article." - Hosea 13:15

"And when the sun came up God designated a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint, and he begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life!”" - Jonah 4:8

"Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them." - Genesis 41:6

"Should a wise man answer with windy knowledge, And fill himself with the east wind? Should he argue with useless talk, Or with words which do not benefit?" - Job 15:2

"Terrors overtake him like a flood; A storm steals him away in the night. The east wind carries him away, and he is gone; For it sweeps him away from his place. For it will hurl at him without mercy; He will certainly try to flee from its power." - Job 27:21

"Panic seized them there, Anguish, as that of a woman in childbirth. With the east wind You smash the ships of Tarshish." - Psalm 48:7

(This looks like provision, but actually in-context is a judgement, both in-context in the Psalm, and in the context of when it actually occurred in Exodus. Link gives expanded context) "He made the east wind blow in the sky And by His power He directed the south wind. When He rained meat upon them like the dust, Even winged fowl like the sand of the seas, He let them fall in the midst of their camp, All around their dwellings. So they ate and were well filled, And He satisfied their longing." - Psalm 78:26

"You contended with them [b]by banishing them, by driving them away. With His fierce wind He has expelled them on the day of the east wind." - Isaiah 27:8

"To make their land a desolation, An object of perpetual hissing; Everyone who passes by it will be astonished And shake his head. Like an east wind I will scatter them Before the enemy; I will show them My back and not My face In the day of their disaster.’”" - Jeremiah 18:18

(West wind providing deliverance:) "So the Lord shifted the wind to a very strong west wind, which picked up the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea; not one locust was left in all the territory of Egypt." - Exodus 10:19

(West wind (from the sea) bringing wind to end extended famine:) "Now Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of the roar of a heavy shower.” [A prophetic declaration - no rain has occurred in 3 years, but Elijah is saying he prophetically "hears" what has not yet arrived] So Ahab went up to eat and drink. But Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bent down to the earth and put his face between his knees. 43 And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” So he went up and looked, but he said, “There is nothing.” Yet Elijah said, “Go back” seven times. And when he returned the seventh time, he said, “Behold, a cloud as small as a person’s hand is coming up from the sea.” And Elijah said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Harness your chariot horses and go down, so that the heavy shower does not stop you.’” Meanwhile the sky became dark with clouds and wind came up, and there was a heavy shower [breaking the multi-year famine]." - 1 Kings 18:41-46

God did use the desert wind (east wind) to provide deliverance in parting the red sea for Moses in the book of Exodus, but in that case, the dry east desert wind was what they needed to dry up the water. (Exodus 14:21) Still is kinda the exception to west wind = good, east wind = bad, but it's the exception that proves the rule.

These verses, and others like them, have provided Christianity with symbolic language of West vs East winds that have been used in the 2000 years since.

Here's a modern Christian song using the same symbolism:

Awake awake o' North wind, Awake awake o' South wind, Blow over me.
Come o' Winds of Testing, Come o' Winds of Refreshing, Blow over me.
...
I won't be afraid, I will face the Wind. Let the winds blow! Let the winds blow!

(The Winds of Testing = Eastern Arabian desert winds, Winds of Refreshing = Western Mediterranean sea winds)

I can't speak for certain that this is a Biblical reference, East and West winds are a very well-known example of Bible symbolism, so much so I originally thought your Question was asked on Christianity.SE or BiblicalHermeneutics.SE when I read the title.

I would read your poem as, "Times of refreshing, when wilt thou arrive?", he's asking for God's providence, or Fate/Destiny to smile on him, a "changing of the winds" metaphorically. When will the dry winds stop blowing on my life, and when will times of goodness return? If only my love were in my arms! And a pleasant bed to rest on! If only the winds of fate would shift in favorable ways!

You might be more familiar with the use of seasons instead of winds to convey the same metaphores. e.g. "Spring blossoms, when wilt thou bloom? The winter of my life's hardship drags ever on!"

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