Monday, June 11, 2012

The Cataract of Lodore

The Robert Southey poem I mentioned in my previous post is 'The Cataract of Lodore'.  It was written in 1820 for his children and begins '"How does the Water / Come down at Lodore?" / My little boy ask'd me...' Sadly the little boy, Herbert, had died in 1816, so the playful tumbling water that ends 'all at once' could be read in part as a poignant memory of his son.  Southey's poem traces the water 'from its sources which well / In the Tarn on the fell', 'through meadow and glade, / In sun and in shade', until 'it reaches the place / Of its steep descent.'  There, the second part of the poem describes the cataract itself in onomatopeiac rhymes.  I've reproduced below its last 37 lines and, as you can see, the line lengths seem to take on the form of the waterfall itself. Thus the poem could be compared, for example, to John Hollander's mountain-shaped verse, 'A View of the Untersberg', which I discussed here recently. 

... flowing and going,
And running and stunning,
And foaming and roaming,
And dinning and spinning,
And dropping and hopping,
And working and jerking,
And guggling and struggling,
And heaving and cleaving,
And moaning and groaning;
And glittering and frittering,
And gathering and feathering,
And whitening and brightening,
And quivering and shivering,
And hurrying and scurrying,
And thundering and floundering,
Dividing and gliding and sliding,
And falling and brawling and sprawling,
And diving and riving and striving,
And sprinkling and twinkling and wrinkling,
And sounding and bounding and rounding,
And bubbling and troubling and doubling,
And grumbling and rumbling and tumbling,
And clattering and battering and shattering;
Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,
Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,
Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling,
And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,
And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,
And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,
And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;
And so never ending, but always descending,
Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending,
All at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar,
And this way the water comes down at Lodore.

If you converted the rhythms and rhymes of this poem to music, you might hear echoes of the way water sounds change as they cascade down the rocks.  I was more intrigued by its shape, and so I erased the poem's words entirely and superimposed an image of the waterfall.  The shape below is formed from the full 71 lines describing the cataract and the photograph of the Lodore Falls I used appears on the Footless Crow site, where it accompanies the text of a letter Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to Sara Hutchinson in 1802.  'Lodore' he says 'is beyond all rivalry the first and best thing of the whole Lake Country.'   It is 'broad and wide, and from top to bottom it is small waterfalls, abreast, and abreast'; so, not actually like the picture below at all... In fact, to convey a visual impression of the falls, the poem would need several columns of text cascading down the page, joining and dividing at various points.  But Southey's goal was to trace the water's course rather than capture it in a sketch, and if there is music in the words it is not the sound of the falls at one particular place, but the noises the water makes on its journey down the rocks: moaning, groaning, rumbling, tumbling, clapping, slapping and ending in a mighty uproar.

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