Monday, May 27, 2019


"Bourne" is one of my favorite words.  I discussed it in a post back in June of 2013, and returned to it again in October of 2017.  The original sense of the word was "a boundary (between fields, etc.)" or "a bound, a limit."  Oxford English Dictionary, Volume II (Second Edition 1989).  However, thanks to Shakespeare, the word took on another sense:  "The limit or terminus of a race, journey, or course; the ultimate point aimed at, or to which anything tends; destination, goal."  Ibid.  The OED states:  "The modern use [is] due to Shakespeare, and in a large number of cases directly alluding to the passage in Hamlet."  Ibid.  The passage referred to appears in Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy:  "But that the dread of something after death,/The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will."

As I noted back in 2013, I first encountered "bourne" in this poem by Christina Rossetti:

                 The Bourne

Underneath the growing grass,
     Underneath the living flowers,
     Deeper than the sound of showers:
     There we shall not count the hours
By the shadows as they pass.

Youth and health will be but vain,
     Beauty reckoned of no worth:
     There a very little girth
     Can hold round what once the earth
Seemed too narrow to contain.

Christina Rossetti, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (Macmillan 1866).  No "dread of something after death" here.  Nor anything that "puzzles the will."  Which is quite characteristic of Rossetti.

I later came upon this, which I also included in my 2013 post:

                         The Bourne

Rebellious heart, why still regret so much
A destiny which all that's mortal shares?
Surely the solace of the grave is such
That there naught matters; and, there, no one cares?

Nor faith, nor love, nor dread, nor closest friend
Can from this nearing bourne your footfall keep:
But there even conflict with your self shall end,
And every grief be reconciled in Sleep.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).  De la Mare was fond of Rossetti's poetry.  Perhaps his poem is a conscious or unconscious echo of Rossetti's poem.  The feeling is certainly similar:  "solace," not "dread."  And, "Sleep."

In a recent post I mentioned de la Mare's wonderful anthology Behold, This Dreamer!  One of the sections of the book is titled "The Bourne," and includes an excerpt from William Drummond of Hawthornden's prose work A Cypress Grove (1623):  "Life is a Journey in a dusty Way, the furthest Rest is Death."  Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (Faber and Faber 1939), page 424.  The section also includes Rossetti's "Up-Hill," which begins:  "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?/Yes, to the very end," and which concludes: "Will there be beds for me and all who seek?/Yea, beds for all who come."  Ibid, pages 426-427.

George Mackley (1900-1983), "Brackie's Burn, Northumberland"

My return to "bourne" at this time is occasioned by coming across this passage from John Ruskin last week:

"In the old quiet days of England, which I can but just remember, when it was possible to eat one's dinner without receiving a telegram, and when one might sometimes pass a whole day without hearing the least bit of news, remaining content with the information one had received up to that time of life -- in that benumbed and senseless period, little as you may now be able to fancy it, though nobody could be violently carried about in iron boxes, many people took what they called walks, and enjoyed them.  And quite within access, in that torpid manner, from my own home -- within access also through pleasant fields and picturesque lanes -- there used to be a pastoral valley called the valley of the Stream, or Bourne, of the Raven.  This word Bourne has, as you probably know, two meanings in old English, of which only one, that of limit or end to be reached -- the Bourne from which no traveller returns -- has remained, and that only in poetical use, to our time.  But the more frequent meaning of it in early English was that of a small gently flowing, but quite brightly flowing stream; and when you find the names of villages ending with that word -- Ashbourne, Sittingbourne, or, as in an instance with which we are all now much too familiar, Tichbourne -- it always means that the village stood beside a streamlet."

John Ruskin, manuscript of lecture ("The Bird of Calm") delivered on January 13, 1872, in Woolwich, in The Works of John Ruskin (edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn), Volume XXII (1906), page 239 (footnote 1).

One of the wondrous things about reading Ruskin is that you never know what is around the corner.  This may seem like a truism:  after all, do we ever know what any writer will say next?  But in Ruskin the degree of surprise is enhanced due, first, to his passion for all the particulars of the World and, second, to the universe-wide range of his mind, which may at any moment alight anywhere.  Hence, when I was not expecting it, out of the blue comes a delightful disquisition on "bourne."

The OED gives us this definition of "bourne" as a stream:  "A small stream, a brook; often applied (in this spelling) to the winter bournes or winter torrents of the chalk downs.  Applied to northern streams it is usually spelt 'burn'."  Oxford English Dictionary, Volume II (Second Edition 1989).  However, I prefer Ruskin's lovelier definition:  "a small gently flowing, but quite brightly flowing stream."  "The valley of the . . . Bourne of the Raven."

[A side-note:  I entirely sympathize with the cranky commentary in the first sentence of the quoted passage.  Ruskin was, in general, not pleased with the modern world as it existed in the Nineteenth Century.  One can only imagine how cranky he would be today.  I find his crankiness endearing.  And right on the mark.]

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

I have been dwelling in Victorian England the past few weeks.  In addition to reading Ruskin, I have been visiting some of my favorite poems from that period.  Around the time I encountered Ruskin's discussion of "bourne," I had returned to this:

   A nun takes the veil

     I have desired to go
          Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
     And a few lilies blow.

     And I have asked to be
          Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
     And out of the swing of the sea.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).  "Blow" (line 4) is used in the sense of "to blossom; to bloom."

Does Christina Rossetti haunt this poem as she may haunt de la Mare's poem?  "The Bourne" could not have been a direct influence, since it was published in 1866, after Hopkins wrote his first draft of "Heaven-Haven" (which was originally titled "Rest") in 1864.  But he greatly admired her poetry, and, of course, they shared the same strong faith (although Hopkins's was more fraught).  "Rest" is a word that one comes across quite often in Rossetti's poetry.  In a March 5, 1872, letter to his mother, Hopkins wrote of Rossetti:  "the simple beauty of her work cannot be matched."  R. K. R. Thornton and Catherine Phillips (editors), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume I: Correspondence 1852-1881 (Oxford University Press 2013), page 216.

In any event, although "bourne" does not appear in the poem, its sense as used by Rossetti and de la Mare fits well here:  a place of arrival, the end of a journey.  The hope, faith, and serenity of the poem never fail to move me.

Fred Stead (1863-1949), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"


George said...

I think that the sense "stream" is more commonly written as "burn" or "burne". I have seen it as a component of place names--Bannockburn--or family names that must derive from place names--Swinburne. The one use I can think of in poetry is in Basil Bunting's "The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer": "The bit level neebody/will drain soak up the burn."

Bovey Belle said...

When I lived in Dorset, there were several villages with the appendage "Winterbourne" which means a stream which appears only during the winter months (Hardy would have known them well). I think that "bourne"is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning stream. I haven't come across it in the poetic sense. So much to learn . . .

Stephen Pentz said...

George: I agree that one is likely to encounter "burn" more often. But, as Ruskin's passage and Bovey Belle's comment above suggest, "bourne" appears to have been quite prevalent in parts of England at one time, and, to use Ruskin's phrase, in "early English." Thus, the OED's citations to "bourne" as "stream" include, among others, (1) Drayton (Poly-Olbion): "The Bournes, the Brooks, the Becks, the Rills, the Rivilets"; (2) Milton (Comus): "And every bosky bourn from side to side"; (3) Longfellow (translating from German) (Happiest Land): "Over mountain gorge and bourn"; and (4) Jefferies: "The villages on the downs are generally on a bourne, or winter water-course."

In any case, it is a lovely word, and its loss is to be regretted. I particularly like "winterbourne" or "winter-bourne."

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: It's wonderful to hear from you again! I'm delighted to know you are still stopping by, which I greatly appreciate.

Thank you very much for sharing (once again) your great knowledge of England's land and history. After receiving your comment, I did some internet searching and came across Winterbourne Abbas and Winterbourne Steepleton in Dorset, as well as others in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Lovely. (I notice that the spelling "Winterborne" is also used.)

I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones. Thank you very much for continuing to visit over the years. Please return soon.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, Coincidentally I am reading or a I should say re-reading, for perhaps the third, or perhaps fourth time, Change in the village by George Sturt who often wrote under the pseudonym of George Bourne, chosen apparently for the village of Lower Bourne, near Farnham in Surrey where he lived after moving from Farnham.

I think his books, particularly the one mentioned above, as well as The Wheelwright's Shop are probably his best, though all are wonderfully written and show the changes and traditions of the countryside and the villages around Farnham in Surrey in the last years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century. I think one of the best and most honest chroniclers of English rural life, unafraid to sometimes show the harsher sides of poverty, yet always with a compassionate eye.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: That is a nice coincidence. Thank you very much for providing the information about George Sturt/Bourne, who is new to me. I have since found Change in the Village and The Wheelwright's Shop on the Internet Archive. The latter is quite interesting: truly a vanished world, but he has preserved it and given it life, providing us with the smallest details. The book is a proverbial labor of love.

Change in the Village seems lovely as well. I came across this in the opening pages: as you note, he makes a few observations about the "harsher sides" of village life, but then writes this: "On the other hand, some of the circumstances were so acceptable that, to recover them, I could at times almost be willing to go back and endure the others. It were worth something to renew the old lost sense of quiet . . ." As you say, he views things with a clear yet "compassionate eye." Again, he has preserved a vanished world. Hardy crossed my mind as I read some of the passages.

Thank you for introducing me to his work.

Nikki said...

I've been meaning to thank you for the paintings you include. So many of the artists are new to me and I'm loving discovering them.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: You're very welcome. I fell into including the paintings by chance, but now I can't imagine the posts without them. I'm happy to hear that you are enjoying them. Thank you.