Friday, April 28, 2006

Scottish streams

John Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853-4

In this memorable passage, John Ruskin observes the acoustic qualities of Scottish streams:
'I know no other waters to be compared with them; - such streams can only exist under very subtle concurrence of rock and climate. There must be much soft rain, not (habitually) tearing the hills down with floods; and the rocks must break irregularly and jaggedly. Our English Yorkshire shales and limestones merely form – carpenter-like – tables and shelves for the rivers to drip and leap from; while the Cumberland and Welsh rocks break too boldly, and lose the multiplied chords of musical sound. Farther, the loosely-breaking rock must contain hard pebbles, to give the level shore of white shingle, through which the brown water may stray wide, in rippling threads. The fords even of English rivers have given the names to half our prettiest towns and villages – (the difference between ford and bridge curiously – if one may let one’s fancy loose for a moment – characterizing the difference between the baptism of literature, and the edification of mathematics, in our two great universities); but the pure crystal of the Scottish pebbles, giving the stream is gradations of amber to the edge, and the sound as of ‘ravishing division to the lute,’ make the Scottish fords the happiest pieces of all one’s day walk.'

From Fors Clavigera, Letter XXXII, August 1873, Section 14

1 comment:

r.swigg@tiscali. co. uk said...

What of Charles Tomlinson's superb adaptation in verse, called "Ruskin Remembered"
("Annunciations", 1989)?

What is it tunes a Scottish stream so fine?
Concurrence of the rock and of the rain.
Much rain must fall, and yet not of a sort
That tears the hills down, carries them off in sport.
The rocks must break irregularly, jagged--
Our Yorkshire shales, carpenter-like, form merely
Tables and shelves for rain to drip and leap
Down from; the rocks of Cumberland and Wales
Are of too bold a cut and so keep back
Those chords their streams should multiply and mingle.
But there must be hard pebbles too--within
The loosely breaking rock, to strew a shingle
Along the level shore--white, for the brown
Water in rippling threads to wander through
In amber gradations to the brink, the ear
Filled with the link on link of travelling sound,
Like heard divisions, crisp above a ground,
Defining a contentment that suffices--
As walking to unblent music, such as this.

It's a poem best read aloud to catch the internal rhymes and spondees--better still if
you hear the poet himself read it in the Charles Tomlinson page of PennSound, with its
Collected Poems link.