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.”
So when they bury Abel, there is no veil
between her grief and her love. And there he stands,
so like his father, his cities yet unbuilt.
His father cuts open earth with bare hands,
leaving plough and shovel, the sharp edges
and the heavy handles, apart in furrowed field.
She calls each animal he resembles: mole, badger, fox.
He named them, once, and now she names him:
father unfathered, sonless, one son less. The sun hangs
round and clear, apple-red, above the dark tree line.
Once, when Cain was the only child in the world,
their fields withered and arrows flew fruitless.
Dull-eyed by the empty fire, beside the windless cedars,
he wailed at the dry breast. Much later,
after thunder dumbed the stars,
they faced the barren, muddied vale together. Adam said,
God made paradise, and we made this—
this is all we have to give him. He struck his staff
upon the seedless ground. Cain made two tiny fists.
Abel she cannot unsee as a splintered spear
of red lightning, reduced to kindling
on the perfumed grass, the churned earth
weeping red mud. Loss escapes her in a hiss
of distant fear: this time, the choice
for death has been made for her,
despite that it was life she’d sent into the world.
Her voiceless throat swells tight, dry as scales.
Her hair is short and stiff and gray. The world is young.
There will yet be other sons, and daughters more;
the seed of man must multiply. But this grief is older
than she knows, its gaze fixed far ahead
on what, someday, must be done. The wind’s voice
keens a long lament, a parent loss,
the form of sons’ deaths yet to come.
LeighAnna Schesser’s poem “After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” explores parental grief following the death of a child—in particular, that of our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, who mourn the loss of their second-born son, Abel. Genesis 4:1–16 recounts how Abel was murdered by his older brother, Cain, in a fit of jealousy. This is the first human death in the Bible, and it was the direct result of sin.
The poem starts with the title, which flows with unbroken syntax into the first line: “After the fig leaves, Eve cuts her hair so when they bury Abel, there is no veil between her grief and her love.” The cutting of hair in response to death in the immediate family is a ritual practiced by women in many Native American tribes and Aboriginal people groups, where the act of severing, and the subsequent absence of, a cherished part of your self serves as a stark physical reminder of your loss. Similarly, after 9/11, many non-Native women in the US cut their hair as a sign of shock and sadness at the immense loss of life; one woman said, “I felt so different internally, I wanted something to express it externally.” Schesser imagines Eve taking part in some form of this ancient mourning ritual, wanting to leave her crying face exposed.
This is “after the fig leaves,” euphemistic shorthand for that landmark event earlier in her life in which she stole fruit from an off-limits tree and then, feeling shame for the first time, went to cover her nakedness with the first available foliage. The title/opening line, between that prepositional phrase and the first clause, skips over quite a long period of time—from the Genesis account, it sounds like at least two decades passed between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and the murder of Abel. But these two events are life-defining for Eve, so the chronology is collapsed.
“And there he stands / [. . .] his cities yet unbuilt.” The “he” here refers to Cain, who, after being confronted by God, went into exile “east of Eden,” to the land of Nod (Gen. 4:17). In his later life he built up the world’s first city, Enoch.
Like the burrowing species of animals he named, Adam digs into the earth with his bare hands—elemental. For this, the making of his son’s grave, he leaves aside plow and shovel as a sort of penance: he wants to feel directly the hard dirt, his body’s full labor and sweat, the effects of the curse he brought upon the world, which he feels implicates him in his son’s death. As he digs, the sun hangs above him “round and clear, apple-red,” a taunting reminder of his former trespass.
In the third stanza the speaker goes back to the time that’s elided in the poem’s opening, back to when Adam and Eve left God’s teeming garden and entered a dead world. They struggled to secure food for themselves. Eve gave birth to a baby boy, but soon her breast milk dried up. It was then that they resolved to get down to business and fight for a life in this inhospitable land. Even baby Cain expressed defiance against the odds with little fists as Adam broke new ground.
Snapping back to the present, Eve observes Abel’s limp body, bloody and broken and reddening the earth. “The churned earth / weep[s] red mud”—an arresting poetic image to match God’s in Genesis 4:11: “The ground . . . has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand,” he tells Cain. We are taken back again to the Fall through more figurative language, this time evoking the snake: fear “hiss[es]” in the distance; Eve’s throat is “dry as scales.” Eve, God’s child, chose death in the Garden, and now her child (the one to whom she gave life) has chosen death too. She now has a taste of the horror, disappointment, and sadness God must have felt.
“Though the world is young,” the poem continues, “this grief is older / than she knows.” Older, even, than God’s grief at the Fall. For another child of God, his “only begotten son” (John 3:16), was destined to die millennia later—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). In his foreknowledge God saw this death and mourned it immensely. His is the oldest grief.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting The First Mourning shows the lifeless body of Abel sprawled out over Adam’s lap, and he and Eve ridden with grief. Adam clutches his broken heart, and Eve buries her face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. The only color in the bleak landscape is from the puddle of blood on the ground. In the background, smoke rises from an altar, mixing with the storm clouds in the sky; this is the remnant of Abel’s offering going up to God, the cause of Cain’s resentment that led him to commit murder.
By the time Bouguereau painted this scene in 1888, three of his five children had died of illness. (A fourth child of his would also die within his lifetime—twelve years later, at age thirty-two.) He knew the sorrow that accompanies such a traumatic event as seeing your kids leave this world before you do.
The iconography he uses is closely related to that of the Pietà, an image type that shows a grieving Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, on her lap following his crucifixion. The connection is intentional, as death—which Abel was the first person to experience—will ultimately be undone by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says that “the sprinkled blood [of Jesus] speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24), because Christ’s blood is redemptive, bringing us back to the Garden that we lost through sin.
Call to artists: I’d love to see you interpret Schesser’s poem visually: Eve shorn inside and out (her hair “short and stiff and gray”), wearing her grief openly; Adam animalistic, digging a grave by hand; Cain looking on; and the wind bearing their lament forward to the cross. If you pursue this suggestion, do let me know!
LeighAnna Schesser is a Catholic writer and a homeschooling mom of four from Kansas, whose forthcoming book of poetry, Struck Dumb with Singing (out in May), “meditates on family, devotion, divine mysteries, and their rootedness in place.” Visit Schesser at her website, https://acanticleforhomestead.com/, where you will find, among other things, links to some of her other published poems and articles.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and second poet laureate of the United States Richard Wilbur died on October 14. In memoriam, I provide the following walk-through of his poem “The Proof,” followed by some of his reflections on the influence his Christian faith has had on his work.
“The Proof”by Richard Wilbur
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But thinking I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
I am a proofreader by trade, so Richard Wilbur’s witty, eight-line poem “The Proof” delights me much. Filled with wordplay, it imagines God as the Cosmic Author, reviewing a set of book proofs (the typeset version of a manuscript; a still unfinal phase of production), considering a particular edit: there’s a word that’s discordant with the whole—delete it, or not?
Creative control is God’s to exercise over his manuscript of life, whose first chapter was conceived with the utterance “Let there be . . .”—light! Sky! Water! Land! Vegetation! Animals! And finally, “Let there be humankind.” Let there be Susie. Let there be Sal.
Our names belong to God’s story. He established us as characters at the very beginning. And yet he also made us “free subjects,” imbuing us with free will, with the power to follow his script or not. We decided NOT. Playing fast and loose with his “grammar” (his system of principles that make for right functions of and relationships among parts), we looked for life in all the wrong places. We introduced chaos, suffering. Now mired in this mess, we question whether or not “to be”—to exist—is a blessing or a curse.
The word “subject” in line 4 has a double meaning. First, it identifies us as being under God’s authority, as the word “rule” in the next stanza stresses. Maybe “free subject” sounds like an oxymoron, because how is it possible to be both free and subject to? Actually, our status as “free subjects” in relation to the divine has been amply teased out by moral philosophers like Kant. And before that, in the realm of politics, the term was used (without contradiction) to describe members of a state—people who submit themselves to the sovereign laws of the land, all the while possessing civil liberties. (“Citizen” has since replaced the term “free subject” in popular parlance.)
Second, a “subject” is a part of speech, an integral element of basic sentence structure. In grammar, the subject is the doer of the action. In his poem, Wilbur suggests that when we free humans do, we often do wrong. We jar God’s creation—wrench it out of harmony, destabilize it. We stammer—are repetitious in our sin. This displeases God, our author, who wonders whether, to preserve the integrity of the whole, he ought to remove us.
But God is a merciful author; he allows us to remain. In our imperfection he loves us. Even though we mar his work, he recognizes that we do add value to the story—in part, because we magnify his grace.