In 1655, Henry Vaughan wrote one of his lesser known yet most complex poems: "The Waterfall."1 Considered by many to be a mystic and a visionary, Vaughan writes a quintessential poem concerning the resurrection of the soul. Upon examination, the poem is a visionary revelation. In Henry Vaughan's vision, the waterfall, and the stream from and into which it flows, is equated with the resurrection of the soul. In its entirety, "The Waterfall" is essentially an elongated metaphor for the soul's passage from the temporal world into paradise.
In order to convey and clarify this theme, Vaughan utilizes the vision of a waterfall and its surroundings to its fullest by depicting and developing different, yet related images in the poem. The water cycle, especially the constant transition of liquid water to water vapor, is the most developed image used in demonstrating Vaughan's thoughts on resurrection. However, it is not the only image presented which offers insight into Vaughan's ideas. The revelation from his vision seems to become apparent toward the end of the poem, where Vaughan's longing for heaven or paradise becomes evident.
Since imagery is the most essential and most effective aspect of the poem, language and sound are used in conjunction with each other to clarify each individual image. As Vaughan's focus on the various aspects of his vision change, and therefore, as the images in the poem progress, different words or poetic devices are introduced which enhance, or "sharpen," the clarity of the images. Structure and meter, however, are used in a visual, rather than an aural manner. They enhance the complete waterfall metaphor in its presentation on the printed page2, by helping the development of the visual image that forms in the reader's mind. The entire first section consists of varied meter and line lengths in order to accommodate the image of the water plummeting over a precipice. Just as water approaching a waterfall is rough and unpredictable, so too is the line length in this first section. The use of different meter and stress in the lines adds to the effectiveness of the sound devices by allowing certain words to be annunciated more strongly than others. In lines three and four, "fall" and "call" are both stressed, thus increasing their aural duration, and enhancing the sound of water falling off of a precipice. Beginning with the line "Dear stream! dear bank,... (line 13)," in the second section the structure becomes much more uniform. The lengths of the lines become even, in accordance with the image of the water, which after the water falls, becomes calmer and more sedate. By presenting such a solid image, using a variety of methods, Vaughan establishes a firm foundation in the reader's mind from which the other images in the poem are more readily comprehended.
In order to derive a true sense for the poem, one must look at the circumstances of the author's life which might have led him to compose the piece. Born Henry Vaughan on April 17, 1622, the author was an Anglo-Welsh poet and a mystic. He is best remembered for the "range and intensity of his spiritual intuitions."3 Leaving his home town of Llansantffread, Breconshire, in Wales, Vaughan traveled to the University of Oxford to study law. When in 1642 the Civil War broke out, he returned home, and their was "converted" by the verse of George Herbert into the man of religious fervor who composed "The Waterfall." Vaughan was a well educated man, and in the year 1650 he began to practice
medicine. Through his knowledge of the sciences, Vaughan is able to use an idea, such as the natural cycle of water, and include it in his poetry as a new, or fresh perspective on the theme of resurrection. Also, his passion for the religious would seem to be the driving force behind the composition of "The Waterfall."4
In the first section of his poem, Vaughan begins not with the waterfall metaphor, but by describing the water before the waterfall and the water actually falling over the precipice. The image he invokes is that of the water in the stream before the waterfall lingering behind due to its fear of the precipice, and that of the water that has already fallen calling to the water above to continue on its prescribed course:
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stayed
Lingering, and were of this steep place afraid,... (lines 3-6).
Here, the beginning of the theme which consists of Vaughan's opinion that heaven, or more accurately the passage into heaven should not be feared, presents itself. This theme is more fully developed in the second section, and it eventually coincides with Vaughan's expression of his longing for paradise. However, in the first few lines of the poem, Vaughan's boldness, almost to the point of yearning for the death, is disclosed. In these lines, he asks why the water, like a fearful attendant, does not venture over the waterfall, but instead cowers away from the drop. These verses represent the fear many have of death, and of what lies beyond death. The author tries to convince his reader that there is nothing to fear, since, as the next six lines demonstrate, everyone must move on to what Vaughan believes to be a better life.
The sound of the language used in the description of the waterfall in the first five lines provides for an auditory image of the waterfall, in addition to the visual. The sound devices used in the first lines help establish the auditory image of the water before it cascades over the precipice. The consonance of the letter "s" in "time's (line 1)," coupled with the alliteration of the letter "s" in "silent" and "stealth (line 1)," conveys an aural depiction of the subtle hissing noise that the water in the stream makes. In the second line, the tranquility of the stream is represented through the elongated, almost breezy sound of the double "o" in "cool," and again in the alliteration of the soft "w" in "watery wealth." In the next two lines, however, the tranquility of the stream is interrupted by the waterfall. Aurally, this is accomplished with the use of open-ended syllables combined with the use of harder, more concise sounds. In line three, Vaughan chooses two rather open sounds to help convey the idea of a fall. In fact, he uses the word "fall" because of its ability to be lengthened by the reader, until the sound trails off; much like the diminishing sound an object makes while falling. The same is done in the next line with the word "call." In this line, Vaughan also adds the harsher "ch" sound, in "chide." This has the effect of invoking the image of a hard sound of impact, somewhat like the crash of the water at the bottom of a waterfall. After the impact, the water will return to its normal, fluid state, and continue on down the stream. Vaughan expresses this aurally by returning to the tranquil, elongated sound of the alliterated "l" in "liquid, loose," and "Lingering." With the use of these sound devices, Henry Vaughan is able to present a very vivid image of "The
Waterfall," in the ear, as well as in the eye of the reader.
Using the idea of death as a point of transition, not only thematically but structurally as well, Vaughan introduces his metaphor of the waterfall for the passage of the soul into paradise in the last two lines of the first section: "But quickened by this deep and rocky grave, / Rise to a longer course more bright and brave (lines 11-12)." Lines seven through ten aid in the transition by depicting all of the water plunging over "The common pass (line 7)," but continuing on their course, afterward. The apparent substitution of "deep and rocky grave (line 11)," for simply "waterfall" is very effective in enhancing the image of resurrection. It clearly connects the precipice and fall of the water to death, and as the next line continues, the stream after the falls to the after life. This final line of the first section, however, seems to symbolize two ideas, or rather one idea, and another which is an extension of the first. The meaning of "brave," in line twelve, is given as sparkling,5 therefore, by this definition, the stream after the precipice can be considered as a metaphor for the afterlife. When the word "Rise" is considered, however, the image of the water cycle, specifically the idea of water evaporating and rising into the sky, is introduced. As a sort of "middle ground," the conjunction of the two images works well, but it is not necessary since the ambiguity of the line does not alter the theme; on the contrary, it adds an extra dimension to the numerous ways in which Vaughan utilizes different aspects of the waterfall.
When Vaughan begins his second section, in line thirteen, he introduces the idea that the vision of the waterfall has led him to discover certain correlations between water and the resurrection of the soul: "Dear stream! dear bank, where often I / Have sat and pleased my pensive eye,... (lines 13-14)."
The correlation between the resurrection and the waterfall, however, are discussed in the next two lines, as well as in lines nineteen and twenty. Also, interwoven among these images which involve the water cycle are images which question the fear that many have of death.
Why, since each drop of thy quick store
Runs thither whence it flowed before,
Should poor souls fear a shade or night,
Who came, sure, from a sea of light? (lines 15-18).
In order to ask the complete question in these four lines, Vaughan first develops the image of the water cycle. This is accomplished in lines fifteen and sixteen where he states that each drop of water returns to the place from which it came. Since the natural path of water is somewhat circular, water being a liquid which evaporates then condenses and returns to earth in its liquid form, Vaughan could choose any point to begin his metaphor. The point that seems most logical, and that fits the imagery most accurately is that of water in its gaseous state in the sky. Just as the water condenses and returns to the earth to fill streams and rivers, the soul, contained in the human body, is sent to earth to live for a short while before returning. Then, in the resurrected soul's place, come others to live and then return to the heavens; and so the cycle continues. Vaughan's allusion the water cycle, especially to the evaporation of water, is particularly effective because it fits the idea of resurrection so tightly. The water in liquid form represents the soul on earth, and since most liquid water is found on the earth, the representation is very precise. Later the soul's passage from the earth into paradise, which is represented by evaporation, is also accurately depicted because, just as the soul rises to heaven, so too rises water vapor into the sky. In this image of the water cycle, there is also a hint to the preexistence of the soul. The soul's unison with the body is represented by the water vapor's combination with dust particles in the air, which carry the now liquid water in droplets to the ground. Although this image corresponds with the cycle of water, it does not seem to be emphasized as much as resurrection and evaporation.
As the section progresses, the goal of lines fifteen through eighteen is revealed to be to question why one should fear death. Vaughan asks that, since water, and therefore the soul always returns to paradise, why should people fear the "shade or night, / Who came, sure, from a sea of light? (lines 17-18)." The phrase "shade or night" personifies death as something, or someone, who comes and leads the soul to paradise. However, Vaughan paints death as a benevolent and glorious being who comes "from a sea of light...." The use of the phrase "sea of light," is impeccable because, not only does it stress the benevolence of death, but it also emphasizes the glory of heaven. The word "sea" invokes the image of the sky and of the sun whose "light," and heat, cause the evaporation of water. This apparent metaphor of the sun and sky for God and paradise coincides exactly with the image of the water cycle. Thus, since kind death is to lead one back to paradise, why should any fear of this transition remain?
Through the use of sound devices, these two images are made crisper and more complete, and they are also subtly connected to other images in the poem. In line fifteen, the closed syllables of "each" and "drop," emphasize the singularity or individuality of the drops. This helps to continue the image of "The common pass (line 7)," from the first section, by demonstrating that every individual experiences the same transition into heaven: death. Later, in line seventeen, the long "o" sounds in "Should poor souls" aid in the establishment of an image which is discussed in the final section: Vaughan's opinion that life on earth is a corrupt bondage.6 The elongated sound adds weight to the words, making them darker and heavier, not unlike life away from heaven, according to Vaughan.
The second half of the second section rephrases the same question that is asked in lines fifteen through eighteen using much of the same imagery:
Or since those drops are all sent back
So sure to thee, that none doth lack,
Why should frail flesh doubt any more
That what God takes He'll not restore? (lines 19-22).
Lines nineteen and twenty again present the water cycle image by describing the fact that every droplet of water returns to the sky, from whence it came. The metaphor of a drop of water for each individual fits the second question well because Vaughan asks why mortals should question whether they will return to God, or pass into the afterlife. In lines twenty-one and two, Vaughan invokes an image of God sending souls to live on earth and then returning them, at the end of their mortal lives, to the realm of heaven. It may also be that Vaughan is commenting, in these four lines, on the finality of death in respect to mortal life. The use of the image of the water cycle in the poem as a metaphor for the journey of the soul gives rise to a certain degree of ambiguity, since it is difficult to discern where the cycle begins. This ambiguity manifests itself especially in lines nineteen through twenty-two. However, the quality of a poem may sometimes be "measured" by its elusiveness, or by the inability of any interpretation of certain lines or images to be absolutely correct. The vagueness associated with the water cycle only contributes to the multiplicity of the images in the poem.
After describing the images associated with the waterfall and its surroundings and the soul's journey to and from paradise, Vaughan expresses his appreciation for the water and stream and for the revelations they led him to have, in the beginning of the third section. He gives a synopsis of his feelings toward water in the first line of the section: "O useful element and clear! (line 23)." Vaughan praises the water for being useful, and for also being clear. "Clear" may refer to waters purity as well as the fact that the image of the waterfall and water led Vaughan to discover the true meaning of death, resurrection and paradise. Vaughan discusses both of these ideas in the lines that follow. In lines twenty-four through twenty-six, his view that water serves as a "useful element" becomes clear:
My sacred wash and cleanser here,
My first consignor unto those
Fountains of life where the Lamb goes! (lines 24-26).
Vaughan personifies the water by giving it the role of his caretaker, or a consignor, who is someone by whom goods are sent or entrusted.7 This is precisely how Vaughan views the water. Since his Baptism in it, water has been assigned the task of guiding Vaughan through life, almost like a guardian angel, so that he may eventually reach paradise. Line twenty-six is a reference to a biblical passage which describes the Lamb, here likened to the water, leading people or souls to paradise:
`For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes...' (Revelation vii. 17).8
This biblical passage also marks another insight into Vaughan's view of the temporal world. It hints at what will eventually be demonstrated as Vaughan's longing for paradise and for an escape from the bondage of the mortal world.
What sublime truths and wholesome themes
Lodge in thy mystical deep streams!
Such as dull man can never find
Unless that Spirit lead his mind
Which first upon thy face did move,
And hatched all with his quickening love (lines 27-32).
Here Vaughan demonstrates why he considers water to be "clear (line 23)." Because of the revelation he receives in his vision of a waterfall, Vaughan expresses his feelings that the water itself housed, or contained "truths" concerning life and more importantly, the afterlife. As the lines continue, Vaughan's opinion that in order for man and, in this case, for him to uncover these hidden "truths," a divine guidance or providence is necessary. To express this view in the poem, Vaughan utilizes another biblical passage:
`And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters...' (Genesis i. 2).9
As the third section progresses, Vaughan's longing for heaven and disdain for earth becomes increasingly evident. Without God, who created all, and his guidance, Vaughan feels that "dull man" could never interpret or discover his destiny, or more accurately, the destination of his soul. The passage in the poem that contains the biblical quotation may also be a statement of gratitude directed toward God for granting Vaughan the ability to see His ways.
The remaining segment of the third section seems to be devoted to the expression of Vaughan's yearning for paradise. Lines thirty-three through thirty-six seem to be a metaphor for the brevity of life:
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 (lines 33-36).
The caesura in line thirty-six is particularly effective because it allows the reader to pause and assimilate the image presented in the previous lines, and then to read on and to make the connection between the short duration of the ripples of water in the stream below the waterfall and the brevity of life. This image may connect the previously mentioned image of the universality of death, and due to this universality, the idea that death should not be feared. Individual lives are most likely represented by the individual ripples of the surface of the stream below the waterfall, and since all of the ripples disappear upon reaching the bank, no one should fear death, but rather accept it as a natural transition into heaven. And, after the "rings" pass, the water behind each one is still, or stagnant, for a brief period until the next ripple passes by. This symbolizes the finality of death and the mortality of the body as opposed to the immortality of the soul, which lives on in paradise like water particles continue to exist in the sky after evaporation. Quite possibly, Vaughan may be trying to communicate in these lines, his feeling that one must lead some sort of "good life" in order to reach the Kingdom of God, because the mention of the brevity of life may imply that something must be accomplished during that brief time. This feeling may also be detected in the final lines of the poem.
Expanding the notion that death is not something to be feared, the following two lines depict Vaughan's yearning for the afterlife: "O my invisible estate / My glorious liberty, still late! (lines 37-38)." Not only does Vaughan not fear death, he looks forward to it as a release from the earth. In line thirty-seven, he cries out to his soul in an exclamation of his anguish over the bondage of mortality that his soul is experiencing. The next line clarifies this image through an allusion which demonstrates Vaughan's feelings. The phrase "glorious liberty (line 37)," refers to a biblical passage through which Vaughan's longing for paradise and his discontent for the temporal world are most clearly demonstrated:
`Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God...' (Romans viii. 21).
Vaughan views death as a passage from a stifling, corrupt world, into a gloriously free one, in the realm of God.
The final lines of "The Waterfall" represent what the author and the reader should determine from the vision of the waterfall: the fulfillment of the soul, through its passage into heaven, should be the goal of one's mortal life, not contentment derived from the worldly realm of the physical or material. The word "channel (line 39)" itself is a pun because it can refer to the natural course of a stream or a narrow stretch of water, or path, between two larger bodies of water. The relation of "channel" to the waterfall and stream is obvious, but "channel" could also refer to death, or more accurately, the passage of the soul from this world to a better one.
The effectiveness of the poem, or its ability to move the reader, is a true testament to the quality of "The Waterfall." The fact that Vaughan uses images, such as the water cycle, that fit the ideas presented in the poem like a glove, becomes even more astounding when the fact that he devotes so few lines to each image is taken into account. In only forty lines of verse, Vaughan invokes countless, interwoven images to express his revelation concerning the soul, death, and paradise. Through the many images and ideas presented, the author successfully communicates his tone of awe to the reader, and instills in him a sense of revelation, as well as awe, in respect to the majesty of the waterfall and its creator, and to the "truths (line 27)" they contain. These clarion images, coupled with his masterful use of sound devices and structure, elevate Henry Vaughan's "The Waterfall" to a true level of excellence.
Allison, Alexander W., etal. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition. New York City: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1983.
"Vaughan, Henry." Compton's Encyclopedia, 1985 ed.
"Vaughan, Henry." Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985 ed.
Cayne, Bernard S., etal. The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, Encyclopedic Edition. New York City: Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1987.