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 stayed Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid, The common pass Where, clear as glass, All must descend Not to an end, But quick’ned by this deep and rocky grave, Rise to a longer course more bright and brave. Dear stream! dear bank! where often I Have sat, and pleased my pensive eye; 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? 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? O useful element and clear! My sacred wash and cleanser here; My first consigner unto those Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes! 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 quick’ning love. 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. O my invisible estate, My glorious liberty, still late! Thou art the channel my soul seeks, Not this with cataracts and creeks.
In “The Waterfall” by Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), a stream’s sudden surge and plummet over a precipice followed by a calm, continued flow is a picture of the soul’s passage into eternity—the continuation of life after death.
The speaker addresses the stream and its retinue of waters, who “murmur” and “chide”—that is, make incessant noise (in the word’s archaic sense). The waters move with increasing momentum toward the brink and hesitate just before but then take the plunge. Briefly brought under, in their “deep and rocky grave” they are “quickened,” made alive once more, as they rise back up to the surface and course smoothly onward, no longer in a state of agitation. After a momentary crash, serenity.
Vaughan represents this action visually with an alternation of groups of long lines and short lines, which give the impression of water tumbling over ledges of rock. The lines then steady out into a uniform column, signifying the water’s becoming sedate.
“Why,” the speaker wonders, “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?” Death is benevolent, merely a drop-off along the route and then reconstitution to the whole. Just as the stream that has fallen returns to the vast ocean from whence (via the cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation) it came, so, too, does the soul return to God, its origin.
In the final stanza the speaker muses on water as sacrament—baptism, he says, is our “first consigner unto those / Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes” (see Rev. 7:17; cf. Isa. 49:10). In other words, our baptism gives us over to God, to the New Eden. If baptism is our first consigner, then death is our final consigner, bringing us at last to the One to whom we belong.
The profound mystical truth hidden in something as natural as a waterfall is discerned only by those whom the Spirit reveals it to—that same Spirit who hovered over the waters at Creation (Gen. 1:2) “[a]nd hatched all with his quick’ning love.”
I write this in memory of my husband Eric’s grandfather, who died Sunday. I’m consoled by the image of him as a water droplet whose plunge does not mean a cessation of being but rather a flowing into God, into “glorious liberty.” When water plunges down, it sends ripples toward the bank, Vaughan writes, but then settles into stillness and is imperceptibly carried away to a destination out of view. So Grandpa Jones is now on “a longer course more bright and brave,” flowing toward “a sea of light.”