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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 January 2024

Malcolm Guite tries to find words to describe the complexity of a waterfall

RECENTLY, Maggie and I had the chance to gaze again on High Force, the spectacular waterfall through which the River Tees plunges 70 feet over a sheer precipice into a surging, boiling cauldron pool, itself more than 60 feet deep, the pool surging and swirling and flinging its spray high into the air. It was even more impressive on the day we saw it, the last day of the old year; for the river was swollen with all the rain of December, and surged so strongly and in such fullness that the rarely seen second cascade, to the right of the main fall, was also in full spate.

It’s hard to express the full multi-faceted fascination of waterfalls. It’s something about the combination of so much turbulence and movement, with a kind of fullness, almost stillness, of form. For all the torrent that surges through it, for all that water giving way to gravity at last and falling freely, the waterfall itself remains a still, single form, containing all that motion, standing like a white column or tower with the dark water above and behind it, and the spray and foam like a cloud at its feet, a monumental permanence in the midst of so much flow.

Coleridge was very struck by this paradox, and observed in one of his letters: “What a sight it is to look down on such a Cataract! — the wheels that circuminvolve in it — the leaping up & plunging forward of that infinity of Pearls & Glass Bulbs — the continuous change of the Matter, the perpetual Sameness of the Form — it is an awful Image & Shadow of God & the World.”

It is a very Coleridgean move, from image to idea, from physics to metaphysics; but he is right: there is something very suggestive, in the waterfall itself, suggestive of the form that holds us, and holds our identity, in the midst of a world in which, in one sense or another, everything flows.

The atoms of the world, the miraculous molecules that make up life, may not be passing through me at quite the rate at which water plunges through High Force, and in its passing makes the permanence of the fall; but, nevertheless, so I am told, by the time seven years have passed, the whole physical composition of my body has been lost and renewed: the matter has changed; the form remains the same (give or take a few extra inches after Christmas).

It had been more than seven years since we had last seen High Force. Of course, the water flowing through then was not the water flowing through now; and yet here was High Force itself, as vigorous as ever, living up to its name.

And what of us? All the atoms in our bodies were different on that December day from what they had been on a summer’s day so many years before, or even further back, 40 years ago, when Maggie and I came to see the falls on our honeymoon; and yet here we were again — different of course, matured a little, I hope, but still the same people.

Some force, some forming Mind, quite distinct from the force and flow of matter, was holding us together, informing our form, sustaining us as persons through all the changes and chances that fleet through us. I thought, as Coleridge might have been thinking, of that astonishing verse in Colossians: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

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