In ‘To the Rainbow’ Campbell delves into themes of religion, God, and nature. The poem speaks on the power of science, or lack thereof, to define the word adequately. The speaker instead turns to religion as a source of meaning in the world and relates it to the appearance of a rainbow in the sky.
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Summary of To the Rainbow
The poem takes the reader through a series of metaphors and similes that compare a rainbow to God’s presence. The speaker contrasts religion and natural beauty against science. He believes that no one can define for him what a rainbow is without it losing some of the splendour it holds on its own. There are several images that depict people and creatures around the earth viewing the rainbow, the joy it can bring, and how it is maintained throughout time as a symbol of God.
Structure of To the Rainbow
‘To the Rainbow’ by Thomas Campbell is a thirteen stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. They are also all rather similar in meter and line length. Visual, the stanzas look even. The odd-numbered lines, starting with line one of stanza one contain eight syllables while the even-numbered lines contain six.
Poetic Techniques in To the Rainbow
Campbell makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘To the Rainbow’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “station” and “spirits” in the second stanza and “delivered” and “deep” in the eighth stanza.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. Campbell uses this technique several times in ‘To the Rainbow’. For instance, in the first line he calls the rainbow a “Triumphal arch” and in the second a “midway station…For happy spirits to alight / Betwixt the earth and heaven”. It is, he says, a stairway to heaven of sorts.
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.
Analysis of To the Rainbow
Stanzas One and Two
Triumphal arch, that fill’st the sky
When storms prepare to part,
I ask not proud Philosophy
To teach me what thou art; –
Still seem; as to my childhood’s sight,
A midway station given
For happy spirits to alight
Betwixt the earth and heaven.
In the first lines of ‘To the Rainbow’ the speaker begins by describing the rainbow as a “triumphal arch”. It is something that fills the sky after the storms are over and cannot be described by philosophers. It is too much of the world, too natural and even emotional for science to debunk.
He recalls how in his youth, or with the youthful eyes he still has now, how the rainbow seemed to him to be a “midway station” for those to pause at when they’re travelling from earth to heaven. Recently deceased souls might make use of it.
Stanzas Three and Four
Can all that Optics teach unfold
Thy form to please me so,
As when I dreamt of gems and gold
Hid in thy radiant bow?
When Science from Creation’s face
Enchantment’s veil withdraws,
What lovely visions yield their place
To cold material laws!
In the third and fourth stanzas of To the Rainbow, the speaker returns to the idea that science, or any person, can explain or “unfold” the mysteries of the rainbow for him. There is nothing that science could tell him that would please him as much as how he perceives and used to perceive the rainbow.
He warns in the fourth stanza that when science is turned to everything that’s beautiful in the world withdraws. All that remains is “cold material laws”. This is not the way he wants to see the world.
Stanzas Five and Six
And yet, fair bow, no fabling dreams,
But words of the Most High,
Have told why first thy robe of beams
Was woven in the sky.
When o’er the green, undeluged earth
Heaven’s covenant thou didst shine,
How came the world’s gray fathers forth
To watch thy sacred sign!
The speaker addresses the rainbow as “fair bow” in the fifth stanza. By speaking to it, the poet is making use of a technique known as apostrophe. He believes that the source of the rainbow and its purpose in the sky comes from “Most High,” meaning God. That is the only force that can explain fully and with the joy he wants, the reason for the colours.
In the sixth stanza, he imagines the very first time that “thou didst shine”. The “gray fathers,” those who were alive then and came out to “watch they sacred sign.” A reader should take note of the juxtaposition between the “gray” of these fathers and the colours of the rainbow. They had yet to experience the colour.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And when its yellow luster smiled
O’er mountains yet untrod,
Each mother held aloft her child
To bless the bow of God.
Methinks, thy jubilee to keep,
The first-made anthem rang
On earth, delivered from the deep,
And the first poet sang.
All were uplifted when the first rainbow came into the sky. He imagines that “Each mother held aloft her child / to Bless the bow of God”. The rainbow has by this point become a manifestation of God. To these people, and to the speaker, it is a symbol of God’s presence on Earth. A reminder that he is there watching.
Campbell begins the eighth stanza with the word “Methinks”. He believes that in order to maintain the “jubilee” of seeing the rainbow the “first poet sang”. It is the source of art, music, and a place to remember God’s love.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
Nor ever shall the Muse’s eye
Unraptured greet thy beam;
Theme of primeval prophecy,
Be still the prophet’s theme!
The earth to thee her incense yields,
The lark thy welcome sings,
When, glittering in the freshened fields,
The snowy mushroom springs.
The speaker believes, as he says in the ninth stanza, that no one who has an appreciation for such things, will look at the rainbow and not feel rapture. Anyone who realizes the beauty of the world or loves God will “greet thy beam” as if prophecy.
The earth is brought more fully into the poem in the tenth stanza. He speaks of how all the elements work together to worship and welcome the sight into the sky. “Thy welcome” sings the lark and the “earth” gives up its “incense” to the sky. The earth’s essence is embodied in the rainbow.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
How glorious is thy girdle, cast
O’er mountain, tower, and town,
Or mirrored in the ocean vast,
A thousand fathoms down!
As fresh in yon horizon dark,
As young thy beauties seem,
As when the eagle from the ark
First sported in thy beam:
The poem begins to conclude in the eleventh stanza where the poet refers to the rainbow as a “glorious…girdle”. It is “cast” over the mountain, tower and town. It reaches all people and all places and even touches the bottom of the ocean. This is a metaphor for God and the reach of God’s power and love.
The twelfth stanza is an example of anaphora. Three of the four lines begin with “As,” creating a series of similes that speak on the rainbow, the continuation of its beauty, and the striking moment “when the eagle from the ark / First sported in thy beam”. This alludes to Noah’s ark, the flood, and the end of the storm. It speaks to hope and peace, themes that are continued in the final stanza.
For, faithful to its sacred page,
Heaven still rebuilds thy span;
Nor lets the type grow pale with age,
That first spoke peace to man.
The last lines reference Heaven again and its choice to “rebuild” the rainbow’s span. It is continually cast into the sky, reminding everyone on earth of the first time “the type… / spoke peace to man”. Here again is another religious allusion, referencing the bible and its words as a source of peace for all humanity.