Friday, February 14, 2020


The vision of life as the flowing of a river (or a stream, a brook) is a lovely and felicitous one.  Not surprisingly, poets return to the image again and again, in all times and in all places.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am fond of the fragments of blank verse that appear in William Wordsworth's Alfoxden notebook, which he kept from January through March of 1798.  In the notebook, one finds this:

                    They rest upon their oars
Float down the mighty stream of tendency
In a calm mood of holy indolence
A most wise passiveness in which the heart
Lies open and is well content to feel
As nature feels and to receive her shapes
As she has made them.

William Wordsworth, in James Butler (editor), The Ruined Cottage and The Pedlar (Cornell University Press 1979), page 115.

"Holy indolence" deserves our attention.  As does "a most wise passiveness," another beguiling combination of words.  However, since our subject at the moment is life as the flowing of a watercourse, we shall have to save our consideration of these lovely combinations for another time.  This brings us to "the mighty stream of tendency."  Wordsworth was quite taken with the phrase.  It first appears in a fragment on the previous page in the Alfoxden notebook:

Some men there are who like insects &c
dart and dart against the mighty
stream of tendency[,] others with
no vulgar sense of their existence
To no vulgar end float calmly

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 113.

The phrase eventually found its way into Book IX of The Excursion, as part of the "Discourse of the Wanderer":

What more than this, that we thereby should gain
Fresh power to commune with the invisible world,
And hear the mighty stream of tendency
Uttering, for elevation of our thought,
A clear sonorous voice.

William Wordsworth, The Excursion (1814), Book IX, lines 85-89 (edited by Sally Bushell, James Butler, Michael Jaye) (Cornell University Press 2007).

In addition to "the mighty stream of tendency," in an earlier section of The Excursion Wordsworth gives us these lines, spoken by "the Solitary":

                                                         The tenor
Which my life holds, he readily may conceive
Whoe'er hath stood to watch a mountain Brook
In some still passage of its course, and seen,
Within the depths of its capacious breast,
Inverted trees, and rocks, and azure sky;
And, on its glassy surface, specks of foam,
And conglobated bubbles undissolved,
Numerous as stars; that, by their onward lapse,
Betray to sight the motion of the stream,
Else imperceptible; meanwhile, is heard
Perchance, a roar or murmur; and the sound
Though soothing, and the little floating isles
Though beautiful, are both by Nature charged
With the same pensive office; and make known
Through what perplexing labyrinths, abrupt
Precipitations, and untoward straits,
The earth-born wanderer hath passed; and quickly,
That respite o'er, like traverses and toils
Must be again encountered -- Such a stream
Is human Life; and so the Spirit fares
In the best quiet to its course allow'd:
And such is mine, -- save only for a hope
That my particular current soon will reach
The unfathomable gulph, where all is still!

William Wordsworth, Ibid, Book III, lines 974-998.

One either likes this sort of thing in Wordsworth or one does not.  I am among the former.  Walter Pater wrote one of the finest essays on Wordsworth.  Among many other perceptive observations, he notes: "And the mixture in his work, as it actually stands, is so perplexed, that one fears to miss the least promising composition even, lest some precious morsel should be lying hidden within -- the few perfect lines, the phrase, the single word perhaps, to which he often works up mechanically through a poem, almost the whole of which may be tame enough."  (Walter Pater, "Wordsworth," in Appreciations, with an Essay on Style (Macmillan 1889), page 39.)

Samuel Birch (1869-1955), "Our Little Stream, Lamorna" (c. 1926)

"Such a stream/Is human Life; and so the Spirit fares/In the best quiet to its course allow'd."  These lines fit well with "the mighty stream of tendency," "holy indolence," and "a most wise passiveness." Once again:

                    They rest upon their oars
Float down the mighty stream of tendency
In a calm mood of holy indolence
A most wise passiveness in which the heart
Lies open and is well content to feel
As nature feels and to receive her shapes
As she has made them.

It is the floating, the "calm mood," the "passiveness," "the best quiet to its course allow'd" that are alluring:  a willing surrender to an unceasing flow.

I return to an entry from a notebook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge which has appeared here before:

"The Whale followed by Waves -- I would glide down the rivulet of quiet Life, a Trout!"

Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 54 (1795-1796).  As I noted in my previous post, there was a time when Wordsworth and Coleridge were thinking the same thoughts.  Another way to put it is that they were completing each other's thoughts.  A wonderful time it was.

These two passages in turn bring this to mind:

         The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

Samuel Birch, "A Cornish Stream"

All this talk of rivers and of life inevitably brings me to one of my favorite poems.  I beg your forbearance, dear readers, for it has appeared here on three previous occasions.  My only excuse is that I have carried this poem within me for over forty years, and, although I do not think of it daily, I know it is always there.

    The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens,  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

Samuel Birch, "The Stream at Lamorna" (c. 1914)


Anonymous said...

HAVE you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?

And nobody, knows, so still it flows, 5
That any brook is there;
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there.

Then look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow, 10
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go.

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life 15
Some burning noon go dry!

Above is an early poem by Emily Dickinson. It is not one of her best, but within its words one finds intimation, a sweet hint, of the greatness to come. I suppose one could interpret the poem (like you I hate to disembowel a poem in search of its "meaning," which means, all to often, to miss the beauty of the poem qua poem). Simply put the poem could refer to life or it could refer to her poetry. For sure, no matter what Miss Emily is saying, our evanescent lives are like a river, and like a river one day our lives will dry up like a parched stream. We could reckon that Dickinson's poetry waxes and wanes like a poetry, though, to be honest, I don't think that's what she means. One thing to note--and it's typical of Dickinson--that the brook within her, whether it cascades in torrents or, drought-stricken, barely flows, is hidden from others. In other poems this quiet little woman, as reticent in life as she was in her poetry, speaks of a volcano within her, saying in one poem that if others suspected the seething and violent molten mass within her, they'd flee. While the faint winds of conformity and convention lapped softly at most of those in Amherst a hurricane raged in the heart of the little strange lady down the street--though none could see it in her freckled face.


Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for sharing Dickinson's poem, which is new to me. You have done it once again: your deep knowledge of her poetry has brought us many such gems -- exactly on point -- many times over the years, which I greatly appreciate.

And thank you as well for your lovely meditation on the poem, and on her. I appreciate your pointing out that it is an early poem by her: I did sense that a bit, but wasn't sure. But, as you say, one can feel an "intimation, a sweet hint, of the greatness to come." Your observation about the brook being "hidden from others" is very helpful: from what I know of her poetry (which I have learned about from you!), this is an essential point, isn't it? As you say: "reticent," but with "a volcano within her." Which is what (among many other things) makes her poetry so wonderful.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. I'm always happy to hear from you.