Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 August 2019

During a visit to the Lodore Falls, Malcolm Guite recalls some famous and playful lines

WHILE on holiday in the lakes, Maggie and I made our way to the Lodore Falls. We could hear the rushing sound of the water tumbling over rocks, falling and cascading into pools, sweeping round, or splashing over every impediment, long before the path brought us round to a clear view of the steep and richly wooded chasm over which the water plunges, and is divided into many channels and cascades by the tumbled rocks in the valley, till it reunites and finds its way, at last, into Derwent Water.

There are taller falls in the Lake District, and more spectacular falls in many parts of the world, but there is something deeply attractive, especially on a hot July day, about the way the falls at Lodore seem at once to rush and to loiter. They present a picture of mad, dashing, foaming activity, a constant change and movement of matter, and, at the same time, offer a singleness, almost a stillness, a steadiness; for, even as the torrents of water rush past, indeed because they are rushing past, the waterfall is sublimely, simply, and steadily being itself, remaining constant through change, still there, just as it was when Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey stood where Maggie and I stood, to gaze on it.

It was after his brother-in-law, Coleridge, had left the household that Southey composed the famous and playful lines of “The Cataract at Lodore” for his children. “Tell me in rhyme how the water comes down,” his little boy had asked him, and, rather like the waterfall itself, Southey let rip: it comes down, he said,

. . . gathering and feathering,
And whitening and brightening,
And quivering and shivering,
And hurrying and scurrying
And thundering and floundering;
Dividing and gliding and sliding. . .
 

And so on and on, for many more lines of multiple rhymes, until the poem ends:
 

And so never ending, but always descending,
Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending
All at once and all o’er, with a mighty uproar, —
And this way the water comes down at Lodore.
 

Southey’s children loved it, and ran around the garden later, reciting it madly; and, I too, enjoyed recalling fragments of it as Maggie and I stood there absorbing the whole scene.

It was good to be there, away on holiday, unreachable, free from all interruption, and to contemplate the cataract. But, even as I contemplated, I saw that what made this waterfall so beautiful was, in fact, a series of interruptions and diversions.

Water seeks the shortest course to the lowest point; so, from the river’s point of view, as it were, if it could speak it would be saying: “Oh, no, I’m just trying to get down into the lake, and one damn rock after another is getting in my way,” not knowing that those interruptions and impediments are its very glory; that, like poetry itself, it, as Shakespeare says, “like the current, flies Each bound it chafes”.

Then I saw that the same was true of my own interruptions and diversions. As a chaplain, it is my business to be interrupted, to lay down my current task, and respond freely and fully to that knock on the door. I also realised that some of the best things in my literary life have happened as a result of unexpected interruptions, and that, really, like this waterfall, I should exalt in them.

Mind you, it took a good holiday, free of all interruption, for me to arrive at that insight and accept it.

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