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Now we know who wrote The rain raineth

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Our prolonged search for the name of the author of the well-known verse The rain raineth has succeeded at last, thanks to Linda Jessup, a farmer and attorney in a small community a few miles from Tehachapi, California, who sent us this enlightening email:

My 1959 edition of Simon and Schuster's (sixth printing) of The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry (edited by William Cole) credits Lord Bowen for the ditty. It reads exactly:

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just's umbrella.

- Lord Bowen

I used to read this book often in my free time as a child and searched for it as an adult. I was happy to find a copy. It's chockfull of funny stuff, like this little one about "The Perils of Obesity":

Yesterday my gun exploded
When I thought it wasn't loaded;
Near my wife I pressed the trigger,
Chipped a fragment off her figure:
'Course I'm sorry, and all that,
But she shouldn't be so fat.

--- Harry Graham

Robert Wolchock, of Portland, Oregon, wrote: "I love the verse. At first I thought it sounded like Ogden Nash -- actually, I still think it does. But your comment that it was popular before Mr. Nash could have written it makes me think it also sounds rather like Rudyard Kipling, don't you think?"

We tried to check whether Kipling was indeed the author, but the nearest we could find was this verse:

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost at his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair--
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way.

- Kipling, Tomlinson.

From Ross Miller (Stonington, Connecticut):

I've seen the little verse attributed to Lord Bowen, but I can't prove that it's his. I once wrote a seasonal variant:

The snow it snoweth on the just
and also on the unjust's hovel
but chiefly on the just, because
the unjust steals the just's snow shovel.

(apologies to Lord Bowen).

Google searches using various terms of varying degrees of inspiration yield mostly Bowen, interspersed with assorted other attributions, often corrected, but nothing definitive. The numerical advantage, however, is with Bowen.

A stylistic analysis of the four candidates you offer seems to point toward Lord Bowen, too. First, the language is that of the east side of the Atlantic. Americans don't "do language" that way. Although Belloc was a European, his style has more in common with Ogden Nash than Bowen.

Belloc and Nash both speak in a 20th century idiom, whereas "The Rain It Raineth" has a grammatical and poetic precision reminiscent of the 19th, and a wit unthinkable in other than a loyal British subject. Sam Ervin (that's with a "v") was eloquent, but in an American South sort of way that has more in common with Mark Twain and William Faulkner.

One more possibility offered up by the engines of search is Tennyson, but that one is quickly refuted, specifically in several letters to the editor in The New York Times. It seems that if it were Tennyson (or Belloc or Nash, all better preserved than Bowen) it would have been cited easily, and it has not.

The only other aphorist of note that I can think of whose style is similar is Lord Acton, another tersely witty Brit, but I have never seen the poem attributed to him, so it is probably safe to say it is not his. Again, if it were his, it would have been cited, since so many of his bon mots are still quoted time and again.

Given the available evidence, and the relative lack of contradictory evidence, I am inclined to think, until otherwise persuaded, that Lord Bowen is indeed the author of "The Rain It Raineth."

During our search, we found a very early reference to "snow snoweth" written by an unnamed poet back in the days of King Arthur:

The beauty of dame Tryamour was beyond conception.
For heat her cloathès down she dede
Almostè to her girdle stede
Than lay she uncover't;
She was as white as lily in May,
Or snow that snoweth in winter's day:
He seigh
(saw) never none so pert (lively).

From Rejean Levesque, Beloeil, Canada:

In my database I have Lord Bowen as the author... Many anthologists also mention [the verse] as being a Hopi proverb. At DevianART in the Journal subsection, Inukandji wrote:

The just and the unjust
Get wet just the same.
Raindrops don't care
If one has no shame

Feel free to visit my blog, The Frictionary

From John Felix, Hollywood, Florida:

Transplanted Irishman here. Came across your site on AWAD newsletter. "The rain it raineth" -- I'd have guessed Belloc, but my Oxford Quotations tell me it's Lord Bowen. The final quotation from Sam Ervin contains a paraphrase of Shakespeare's "what meat doth this our Caesar eat." Good for Sam!

We thank the many readers who kindly helped is in our search for the elusive author of that famous verse.

FOOTNOTE. Lord Bowen's daughter, Ethel Kate Bowen, married Josiah Wedgwood IV, who later became the first Baron Wedgwood. The present (fourth) Baron Wedgwood, aged 52 and a director of the Waterford Wedgwood Pottery Company, is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood.

Story first posted July 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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