Sunday, April 02, 2017

This loud brook’s incessant fall

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.

- from Henry Vaughan's 'The Waterfall', 1655
My previous post, on  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's anthology Poems of Places, brings to mind Geoffrey Grigson, whose (considerably shorter) anthology Poems & Places I discussed here in 2009.  In another of his books, Recollections (1984), Grigson writes of the pleasures to be had in 'visiting or soaking myself for a while in scenery spiritualized, I suppose that is the word, by writers in their poems.'  He lists the Quantocks (Coleridge), the Lakes (the Wordsworths), the Cotswolds (Gurney), the Vale of Clwyd (Hopkins), Long Island (Whitman - 'wiping it clean again in fancy to the nakedness of sands and sea birds he knew') and outside Brecon in Wales, 'the Black Mountains, rivers, streams and waterfalls and the Langhorse Lake, recognizable in Vaughan's verbal spiritualization of the scenery he had known since childhood.'  He goes on to say
'There are discoveries to be made in this way.  Searching the map, I found that there exists a neglected waterfall just outside Brecon which Vaughan might have had in mind when he wrote his waterfall poem.  Had he translated the Welsh name of the stream, which is Ffrwdgrech, into the 'loud brook' of his poem?  That could be the meaning of the Welsh in these Ffrwdgrech Falls.  So I looked for the waterfall, to which there is no path, which can be missed on a lane which doesn't give a hint of the Falls' existence; and I felt as if I were the first person to recognize the falls and admire their extraordinary charm since Vaughan had been their repeatedly in the seventeenth century.'

Ffrwdgrech Waterfall, near Brecon, 1880s
In his introduction to Poems & Places Grigson says that few poets before the Romantics 'felt landscape more powerfully and with a completer consciousness than Henry Vaughan.'   He quotes Vaughan's 'twin brother Thomas, alchemist and clergyman in the same parish', on the idea that we should try 'to refer all naturals to their spirituals by the way of secret analogy.'  Hence a poem like 'The Waterfall' in which landscape is a metaphor for the spirit.  Thomas Vaughan is represented in Grigson's anthology be one poem, 'So Have I Spent on the Banks of Ysca Many a Serious Hour', his brother by seven, including 'The Waterfall'.    I'll end here with more of Henry Vaughan's poem, this time from the beginning, where short lines evoke the rapid descent of the water.
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.

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