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Featured Poem: The Waterfall by Henry Vaughan

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 23rd May 2011

So, we’ve had the wildness and wonder of the sea; the full force of its rushing waves and soaring swells, its overwhelming physical and emotional pull. You don’t have to be a seasoned sea-dog to have been exhilarated and exhausted (and perhaps even just a little bit nauseated) by Kipling’s account of sea-life; no gentle glides or smooth serene journeys, but instead a headlong plunge into the centre of a storm, enough to leave even the most sturdiest of sea legs shaking. Time to get away from the shudders, stumbles and ‘crazy-eyed hurricane blowing’ into waters altogether more calming. After all, the aquatic element is often used to induce feelings of peace and tranquillity; just consider the images conjured up to aid relaxation of babbling brooks and near-silent streams, not to mention CDs full of the soothing sounds of the sea. Not to mention that we could all benefit from relaxing the flow of life from time to time.

The vision and sensation of a cascading waterfall, as well as being a striking natural spectacle, seems to embody the serenity along with the unstoppable strength inherent in water; the calm but steady momentum being carried ever on towards that sudden and mighty surge just before tipping over the edge, to crash momentarily and swiftly – and then returning to a peaceful state, perhaps being even more at ease than formerly, having been released from a relatively brief but suspended state of tension. Another quite accurate mirroring of environmental elements – and water specifically – with the ups, down, highs, lows of human nature as a whole. And Henry Vaughan further reflects not just the image but the sentiments and profoundly powerful symbolism in this particular poem.

Though far more sedate and focused than Kipling’s enlivened ode to the sea, there is much to be found in the flow of Vaughan’s waterfall; as the saying goes, still waters run deep, and this poem certainly runs to several depths. This water is not simply sedate and comforting but is refining, purifying, enriching – the ‘transparent, cool and wat’ry wealth’ is the very essence of life. And life is a central aspect here, as the waterfall which courses with a life all of its own also closely replicates the human life cycle. For Vaughan, whose poetry increasingly became concerned with the spiritual, the water’s life does not end when it plummets from the precipice but instead continues on its voyage, flowing back and creating eternal life. There is an element of death, as in so much water-based poetry, but here there is no threat or danger; natural trepidation is soothed by the promise of rebirth and resurrection – ‘Why, since each drop of thy quick store/Runs thither whence it flow'd before’. Also, there is the other religious link of baptism – the waterfall as ‘sacred wash and cleanser’ – and inversely at its most basic, just a picturesque sight to behold, pleasing many a pensive eye. Indeed, this poem is just as much an assault on the senses as Kipling’s rollercoaster ride of the sea, albeit on a subtler level, but read it aloud and you’ll discover that it’s not just the visual but also the aural aspect of the waterfall that Vaughan has created, particularly in the structure and stress patterns of the first stanza. Setting the precedent for all those aural relaxation aids, perhaps…?

The Waterfall

With what deep murmurs through time's silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat'ry wealth
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay'd
Ling'ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
The common pass
Where, clear as glass,
All must descend
Not to an end,
But quicken'd by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

Dear stream! dear bank, where often I
Have sate and pleas'd my pensive eye,
Why, since each drop of thy quick store
Runs thither whence it flow'd before,
Should poor souls fear a shade or night,
Who came, sure, from a sea of light?
Or since those drops are all sent back
So sure to thee, that none doth lack,
Why should frail flesh doubt any more
That what God takes, he'll not restore?

O useful element and clear!
My sacred wash and cleanser here,
My first consigner unto those
Fountains of life where the Lamb goes!
What sublime truths and wholesome themes
Lodge in thy mystical deep streams!
Such as dull man can never find
Unless that Spirit lead his mind
Which first upon thy face did move,
And hatch'd all with his quick'ning love.
As this loud brook's incessant fall
In streaming rings restagnates all,
Which reach by course the bank, and then
Are no more seen, just so pass men.
O my invisible estate,
My glorious liberty, still late!
Thou art the channel my soul seeks,
Not this with cataracts and creeks.

Henry Vaughan (1622-1695)

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