Ô bruit doux de la pluie…

Ô bruit doux de la pluie / Par terre et sur les toits!

oh brWEE DOO duh lah PLWEE / pahr TAY ray sewr lay TWAH!

Oh, the soft sound of rain / On the ground and the rooftops!

These are the first two lines of the second stanza of Paul Verlaine’s poem (see earlier posts). The first thing to notice as you say or listen to these lines is how difficult they are to say. The ui sound (wee) after the r in bruit is particularly difficult, so it slows the speaker down.

With this sequence of ui – ou – ui, (wee – oo – wee) we are forced to take our time over these words, almost as if we were caressing them.

Which makes sense, since the words suggest again that the rain is a gentle, caressing shower rather than a drenching storm. The poet makes us both hear and feel the rain.

In the next line, in fact, we can hear the pitter-pat that we often associate with rain. It’s no accident that the French poet and the American onomatopoeic word both choose the same p and t sounds to represent the sounds of the rain: gentle, effortless sounds that evoke the tiny thud of a raindrop breaking in the dust or on a rooftop.

These two lines together form another excellent example of le vers alexandrin: a total of 12 syllables, perfectly divided into two groups of six syllables each, and those subdivided into three syllables each. But let’s take a closer look:

Because the letter that the French call e instable at the end of terre elides (glides into) the e of et, the three syllables at the beginning of that line are pahr tay ray. The problem with this is that the emphasis then falls on the least important word in the line, et (and). But Verlaine has rectified this little problem for us: the vowel sound in the word terre tends to be drawn out when we pronounce it, giving us the illusion of having spoken three syllables when in fact we have only spoken two.

That means four syllables in the last segment of the line, but those four single-syllable words are pronounced quickly, with a change of rhythm. Have you ever listened to the rhythm of the rain? It’s not constant. It varies, according to the wind or the breeze that blows, according to the gutters, the downspouts, the roof tiles or shingles, the uneven surfaces that the rain falls and drips on. Verlaine has recreated those sounds for us here.

In tomorrow’s post: The next two lines of this poem! And you’ll find the complete poem here.

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