Written after the death of his wife, Emma Hardy, ‘Rain on a Grave’ is a moving, deeply emotional poem that taps into the emotional qualities of nature. The two had a famously contentious marriage and Hardy professed to no knowledge of Emma’s illness before her death. Her passing came as a complete surprise. Many of the poems written during this time period express his desire to make amends, or go back to a time in which the two were happy together. Hardy uses a variety of poetic techniques and figurative language to convey his feelings towards his wife, and the wider world after her death.
Summary of Rain on a Grave
The poem begins with the speaker describing how nature is acting cruelly towards his dead wife. There is a rainstorm pounding on the grave, sending down huge amounts of water. He thinks that it feels disdainful towards her. This leads him to consider her delicacy and how she would’ve wanted to shelter from the rain. Now, there is no way for her to do so.
In the next lines, he wishes that he could swap places with his wife. If he would allow her to return to the land of the living and he would enter into his own grave. That, he thinks, would be a much better outcome. Or preferably, he could join her in death.
In the last lines of ‘Rain on a Grave,’ the speaker looks forward to the future. He imagines a time when the rain has stopped and the sun has finally come out. With warmer weather grass will grow on his wife’s mound, accompanied by daisies that appear like stars. This is a hopeful conclusion to a poem that is generally quite dark.
Poetic Techniques in Rain on a Grave
‘Rain on a Grave’ by Thomas Hardy is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of nine lines. Each stanza follows a different rhyme scheme, with the first conforming to the pattern of ABBCBAACB and the second ABCBADDCD. (The others will be discussed within the analysis.) These varying patterns of rhyme have an interesting impact on one’s reading of the poem. Their differences mirror the various ways the speaker handles the passing of his wife.
In regards to meter, there is also no standard pattern throughout ‘Rain on a Grave.’ The lines range in length from four up to seven syllables. Although the vast majority of the lines have five syllables. The only four-syllable line is the last of the fourth stanza and the only seven-syllable line is the sixth of the first stanza. The rest are either five or six.
Other Poetic Techniques
In regards to assonance, there are a few examples scattered throughout ‘Rain on a Grave.’ Often within the text, a vowel gets repeated numerous times within a stanza, rather than within one single line. That being said, two short lines that show vowel repetition are the third and fourth of the fourth stanza. These lines, “Would quicken and quicken / Each tentative tread,” make consistent use of the short “e” sound.
Alliteration is also present within ‘Rain on the Grave.’ One prominent stanza in which it is featured is the second. Here, a reader will find repetition in the letters that begin words in lines three, four, six, eight and nine. These pairings are created using consonants, making them examples of consonance as well.
Lastly, there are examples of enjambement or moments in which a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. This occurs numerous times, but a few examples include the first two lines of the first stanza as well as the first two lines of the fourth stanza.
Themes and Images
One of the most important themes of this text is grief and the numerous forms it can take. Hardy takes the reader through the different stages of grief that he may have experienced himself. First, he shows anger and depression over the fact that the rain is pouring down on his wife’s grave disdainfully. The speaker’s reaction is reflected in the natural world. It pours rain, seemingly angrily, as he seethes over the loss itself.
He also experiences denial and attempts to bargain with death. The speaker tries to find a way to deny, or put off, their fate. Hardy expresses a wish to enter into death alongside his wife, or at the very least switch places with her.
Finally, he makes it to acceptance, with a smattering of hope alongside it. This doesn’t occur until the fourth stanza as he imagines how the natural world will eventually depict her beauty and liveliness in sunnier weather. He is able to appreciate the life his wife lived and the impact she had, and still has on the world, and most importantly on him. This is expressed through the image of the daisies like stars and the green grass powered by her love and life.
The images associated with ‘Rain on the Grave’ connect to another important theme of the text, that of the power of nature and its connection to human emotions. Hardy’s own emotions are reflected in the reactions of the storm and conversely, the sun.
Analysis of Rain on a Grave
Clouds spout upon her
Their waters amain
In ruthless disdain, –
Her who but lately
Had shivered with pain
As at touch of dishonour
If there had lit on her
So coldly, so straightly
Such arrows of rain:
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker, who many assume to be Thomas Hardy himself, describes how the weather is impacting his dead wife’s grave. She is laying in the ground while above her the “Clouds spout upon her.” They have no regard for his emotions or the scared ground in which she is buried.
Nature is immune to the ups and downs of human emotions. Hardy uses the word “amain” to describe the power with which the rain falls and pools. It is coming with great force and with “disdain” for his mourning.
It is clear that the woman’s death is quite recent in the speaker’s life. In fact, he states that it was not long ago that she “shivered with pain.” Now a reader is aware of the dual pains experienced by the speaker and his dead lover. They suffer for different reasons, but they are unavoidably connected.
Nature is described as very menacingly. It is shooting arrows down from the sky at the grave. He compares the pains of the rain to that of “dishonour,” had any ever befallen her. Hardy clearly saw his wife as a delicate person while she was still alive, this has not changed since her death.
One who to shelter
Her delicate head
Would quicken and quicken
Each tentative tread
If drops chanced to pelt her
That summertime spills
In dust-paven rills
When thunder-clouds thicken
And birds close their bills.
The second stanza of ‘Rain on a Grave’ has a very different rhyme scheme from the first. It follows the pattern of ABCBADDCD. The next lines elaborate on the reactions of the speaker and the assumed reactions of his wife (if she were still alive). He states that she is and was the kind of person who would quickly try to find shelter if a storm came. Her head was “delicate” and she’d take “Tentative” steps away if any “drops chanced to pelt her.”
He paints the scene in greater detail in the next lines. He can imagine the whole picture clearly, perhaps because it has happened in the past. In this imagining it’s summertime and the rain is falling and creating “dust-paven rills” or streams, on the road. All creatures turn in at this time, and bird “close their bills.”
In this stanza, Hardy uses a great deal of alliteration, such as in lines three, four, six, eight and nine. There is the repetition of “s” in “summertime spills” and “t” in line eight with “thunder” and “thicken.” As well as similar instances in the other lines. This makes the lines flow much easier and helps the reader bounce from word to word, increasing the rhythm of the lines. Perhaps with the intention of mimicking the rainfall and/or idealizing the created memory.
Would that I lay there
And she were housed here!
Or better, together
Were folded away there
Exposed to one weather
We both, – who would stray there
When sunny the day there,
Or evening was clear
At the prime of the year.
Once again, Hardy changes the rhyme scheme in the third stanza of ‘Rain on a Grave.’ This time the lines follow a pattern of ABCACAABB. The speaker expresses his grief clearly in the first lines. He exclaims over the state that he has found himself in. His wife is gone and there’s nothing he can do about it. But, if he could, he would “lay there” instead and allow her to be “housed here” in the world of the living.
This is one of two preferable options. Another even better turn of events would be if he could join her in death and they would be reunited. They could be “folded away there” under the ground. Together they would face the weather and be exposed to whatever mother nature chose to throw down at them.
It wouldn’t matter to him what the weather was like, or presumably to her, as he’d be there with her to shelter her. Their mutual connection would allow them “stray there” as spirits around the grave when it was sunny and clear. Or, when the weather is bad, Hardy alludes to the possibility that they could find shelter elsewhere.
Soon will be growing
Green blades from her mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them –
Ay – the sweet heart of them,
Loved beyond measure,
With a child’s pleasure
All her life’s round.
In the final stanza of ‘Rain on a Grave’, the speaker’s imagination runs forward to the moments after the storm. He thinks that once it is sunny again, assuming he hasn’t joined her in the ground, and she has not been raised from the dead, that there will be grass growing “from her mound.” He makes it clear that it is “her mound” that the grass is growing from. She is the source of life and beauty that causes “daisies to be showing.”
Hardy uses a simile to compare the daisies growing freely on her grave to “stars on the ground.” This speaks to her immortality within his mind and the permanent impact she left on the world. She is at once part of and creating stars. He reinforces this idea by stating that she is “the sweet heart of them.”
The last lines speak to the way that Hardy, and the rest of the natural world, loved his wife while she was alive, and the way that she loved everything back. She loved, and was loved with, “a child’s pleasure”.