The Riparian Muse
This week Meuse Press have launched Guide to Sydney Rivers, Ed., Susan Adams and Les Wicks, Meuse Press, 2015. This wonderful anthology of poems about Sydney rivers is available here for free. I have a couple in including Stepping into the Cooks River.
Addresses (apostrophes) to a water source—springs, fountains, rivers—are an ancient convention. The Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.), whose influence on English poetry has been immense, begins one of his Odes: “O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro . . . ” (“O fountain of Bandusia, more brilliant than crystal . . “) Equally ancient is the metaphor of rivers as the life-giving veins of the earth . . . Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher (fl.500 B.C.), famously said: “You can never step into the same river twice.” After the Romantics, we can never step into the same poem twice. In Celtic mythology rivers were female deities.
For the Romantics, the river is a powerful emblem of the workings of the mind—springs are associated with inspiration, waterfalls (cataracts) with the abyss, meanders with recollection as the mind rounds on itself. Running water is inherently life-giving and invigorating (it releases ions into the air). The river is simultaneously an emblem of flux and of stability (“Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide . . . “) The river is also a metaphor for life, rising in a dark cavern, wandering through a varied landscape, and disappearing into the ocean of eternity.
Wordsworth and Coleridge loved to trace rivers to their sources. Wordsworth began Tintern Abbey, the great announcement of Romantic poetry in English after crossing the Wye, as a stream of consciousness in his head, scribbled down several days later on reaching Bristol. Shelley’s “Alastor” “was composed after an expedition up the Thames.
Rivers are associated with melancholic recollection. Wordsworth in despondency casts around for an anchoring image to convey the depth of his past, it is the “voice” of the River Derwent that sends him triumphantly on his way: “Was it for this/ That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved/ To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song, / And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice/ That flowed along my dreams?”
TS Eliot – The Dry Salvages part I, written 1940 during air-raids on London
– from Four Quartets where he reaches after a Christian understanding:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.