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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

29 September 2023

Navigating the Monmouth and Brecon Canal, Malcolm Guite is surprised by Henry Vaughan

THERE is a special pleasure in encountering poetry in situ, in its natural habitat. To read “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” in view of the Abbey itself, in the magical Wye Valley, as I did recently (18 August), gives the poem fresh intensity. My reading of “Tintern Abbey” in situ was planned and much hoped for; but I had an unplanned poetic encounter, an encounter with the added frisson of surprise, in another enchanted Welsh valley: the valley of the Usk.

We were taking a few days on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal, “the Mon and Brec”, as boaters affectionately call it. The canal proceeds sublimely, almost precariously, clinging to the hillsides, following the high contours, and the Usk itself is largely hidden or an occasional glimpse of water far below. Our expedition was chosen with the Brecon Beacons in mind; so I had not realised, until we got to Talybont-on-Usk, that we were in Henry and Thomas Vaughan’s valley of vision.

Happily, at our little mooring, there was an excellent noticeboard celebrating the poet, quite rightly, as “The Swan of the Usk”, and suggesting a walk, along which passages of his poetry had been posted.

Alas, the limited time that we had with the boat prevented me from doing the full walk; but, as we floated on, at less than a walking pace, we came to where, a little to the side and below the canal, we could see a fine waterfall; and then I began to recall Vaughan’s poem “The Water-fall”, a poem in its place:

With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth

Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid. . .

“Transparent, cool, and watery wealth” was just what the Mon and Brec had bestowed on us; for it, too, was in places cool and clear as glass. Vaughan, of course, is contemplating more than the fall of water; for, in that flow and fall, he sees the passage of time and our mortality:

The common pass
Where, clear as glass,
All must descend

But, happily, the poem does not end on “descend”; for Vaughan sees, in the whole cycle of river, and cloud and rain, in the renewal of rivers at their source, an emblem of resurrection:

All must descend
Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

The poem continues as a kind of hymn to water itself, and takes us from the contemplation of a single waterfall to the image of our eternal home as a “sea of light”:

Why, since each drop of thy quick store
Runs thither whence it flow’d before,
Should poor souls fear a shade or night,
Who came, sure, from a sea of light?

After many rains, the sun broke through that evening, and transfigured the water on which we travelled into an almost unbearably bright stream of golden light. I could almost have echoed Vaughan’s most famous line: “I saw eternity the other night.”

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