The Rainbow

James Thomson


James Thomson

James Thomson was an 18th-century British poet who is remembered for a few select poems.

He’s one of the sixteen Scottish poets on the Scott Monument.

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In ‘The Rainbow’ Thomson explores themes of the importance, or lack thereof, of science as well as nature, beauty, and joy. The poem uses strong images and memorable phrases like “the grand ethereal bow / Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds” to describe a rainbow and all the surrounding natural sights. The tone is reverential, allowing the poem to foster a mood of wonder and happiness.

The Rainbow by James Thomson


Summary of The Rainbow 

The Rainbow’ by James Thomson is a simple, yet beautiful, depiction of the way that a rainbow can entrance the mind and soul. 

The poem begins with a description of the musical qualities of natural places. The speaker emphasizes the way that all the sounds of the woods come together to make a concert that is perceptible to human ears, if one is listening. In the next lines he introduces the rainbow, a brilliant “bow” that is striking and ethereal. He brings in Isaac Newton, who made the science of colour what it is today. The speaker then concludes with the image of a boy, devoid of scientific understanding relishing in the beauty of the “bow”. 


Structure of The Rainbow 

‘The Rainbow’ by James Thomson is a single stanza twenty-one line poem. The lines do not follow a single rhyme scheme although there are several examples of rhyme within the poem. These can be seen at the ends of lines as well as within the text. Half-rhyme is one of the most prominent ways that a writer can make a poem feel as though it sniffed by rhyme but not structure it that way. 

Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, the “l” sound in “hills,” “hollow,” “lows,” and “vales” in lines four and five. Or, the repetition of the “r” consonant sound in line ten with “fair,” “proportion,” “running” and “red”. 


Poetic Techniques in The Rainbow 

Thomson makes use of several poetic techniques in The Rainbow’. These include but are not limited to imagery, alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The latter, is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In the case of this particular poem, the poet alludes to the research of Sir Isaac Newton in line twelve and contrasts it with the pure experience of a child.

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “hills” and “hollows” in lines four and five as well as “landscape laughs” in line one. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this poem, such as the transitions between lines three and four as well as that between lines twelve and thirteen.

Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example, the first eleven lines that use visual and auditory cues to help a reader better imagine the scene.


Analysis of The Rainbow 

Lines 1-6 

Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.

Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,

Mix’d in wild concert, with the warbling brooks

Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,

And hollow lows responsive from the vales,

Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.

In the first stanza of ‘The Rainbow,’ the poet begins by using image-rich words and personification to describe the landscape. It is “Moist, bright, and green” and it “laughs” in joy. It’s a beautiful place that’s filled with the music of nature. The lands are alive wit the sounds of nature’s concert. It is “wild” and made up of brooks, and the bleating of sheep from the hills. There are the “hollow lows responsive from the vales” and the sound of the springs. 

These lines create a peaceful and sublime mood, the reader is exposed to the beauty and asked to imagine what it would see, sound, and feel like. 


Lines 7-11

Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,

Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow

Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,

In fair proportion running from the red

To where the violet fades into the sky.

Continuing on into the next five lines of ‘The Rainbow,’ the speaker describes how while the music of the woods and streams is playing there is a rainbow shooting up “immense”. It is in the “Bestriding earth” in all its “grand ethereal” beauty. The “bow” runs from “red” to “violet” through the sky. 


Lines 12-16 

Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds

Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;

And to the sage-instructed eye unfold

The various twine of light, by thee disclosed

From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy;

In the twelfth line the speaker brings in “Newton”. Thomson is referencing our modern understanding of light and colour as set out of Isaac Newton. He was the first to understand the rainbow and used a prism to refract light. 

It was by him that the knowledge of the rainbow and how it is formed was “disclosed”. But, there is a big difference between Newton’s discovery and the emotional qualities of the landscape. Science does not touch on the emotional or spiritual aspects of the world, things that the poet feels are more important. 

The sixteenth line uses caesura. In the second half of the line a “boy” is brought into the poem. 


Lines 17-21 

He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,

Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs

To catch the falling glory; but amazed

Beholds th’ amusive arch before him fly,

Then vanish quite away. 

The boy has a different experience of nature than Newton does. He sees it in all its beauty and runs through the fields delighted at the radiant colours. Thomson uses alliteration in these lines with words like “bright” and “bend” as well as “fields” and “falling”. 

It is more than enough for the boy to see the rainbow, experience its beauty, and then watch as it flies and vanishes away. His understanding of the rainbow is as important, if not more so, than “awful Newton[’s]”.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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