The Riparian Muse

(Latin: ripus, a river bank)

Page references to Duncan Wu: Romanticism: An Anthology (Blackwell, 1998).

Addresses (apostrophes) to a water source—springs, fountains, rivers—are an ancient convention. The Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.), whose influence on English poetry has been immense, begins one of his Odes: "O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro . . . " ("O fountain of Bandusia, more brilliant than crystal . . . ").

Equally ancient is the metaphor of rivers as the life-giving veins of the earth . . .

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher (fl.500 B.C.), famously said: "You can never step into the same river twice." After the Romantics, we can never step into the same poem twice.

For the Romantics, the river is a powerful emblem of the workings of the mind—springs are associated with inspiration, waterfalls (cataracts) with the abyss, meanders with recollection as the mind rounds on itself. Running water is inherently life-giving and invigorating (it releases ions into the air). The river is simultaneously an emblem of flux and of stability ("Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide . . . ") The river is also a metaphor for life, rising in a dark cavern, wandering through a varied landscape, and disappearing into the ocean of eternity.

Wordsworth and Coleridge loved to trace rivers to their sources, and associate the "tints" and sounds of rivers with their earliest experience (the Otter and the Derwent). The great projected philosophical poem Coleridge was always exhorting Wordsworth to write was initially going to be called "The Brook."

In Jungian psychology, crossing water, especially crossing a river, is dream symbolism for a major transformation of experience. Notice that Wordsworth "began [Tintern Abbey] after crossing the Wye", and it was created in Mozartian fashion as a stream of consciousness in his head, not written down until several days later on reaching Bristol. (See page 265).

The river, along with winds/breezes and clouds, is one of the central images in The Prelude (see the "Glad Preamble," page 329). He describes his mind as "a rock with torrents roaring", and asks: "Who shall point as with a wand, and say, / This portion of the river of my mind/ came from yon fountain?"

Most crucially, when Wordsworth in despondency casts around for an anchoring image to convey the depth of his past, it is the "voice" of the River Derwent that sends him triumphantly on his way: "Was it for this/ That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved/ To blend his murmurs with my nurse's song, / And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice/ That flowed along my dreams?" (See page 300)

Notice that rivers are associated with melancholic recollection (water under the bridge), and sometimes compared with the river in Hades, the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, thus becoming streams of unconsciousness.

Rivers are also great arteries of trade and patriotism. Sir John Denham addresses the Thames in the 1660s as a symbol of national greatness as well as a source of inspiration:

"O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream/ My great example, as it is my theme."

Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, brilliantly puns on all the rivers in the world: ("MissusLiffey")—here marrying the Liffey with the Mississippi—while also making the point that in Celtic mythology rivers were female deities. And the narrative becomes the voice of the River Liffey itself—Anna Livia Plurabelle—as it slips away into the sea:

"I'm passing out. O bitter ending! I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moanamoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms."

Shelley's "Alastor"  "was composed after an expedition up the Thames . . . and the river is a constant presence in the poem; as the central character pursues the winding of the cavern, travelling downstream to the sea, he is also engaged in another kind of journey towards the origins and longings of the human imagination. The river journey, Yeats wrote, as 'an image that has transcended particular time and place, becomes a symol, passes beyond death, as it were, and becomes a living soul.'" (See page 819-20)

When I published a sonnet sequence [Climbing Croagh Patrick, (Oolichan Books, Lantzville, British Columbia, 1998)], I included a sonnet addressed to rivers. It quotes Denham, uses the vein metaphor, ends with an Irish proverb, and is really a prayer for inspiration:

                                      Anna Livia
Plurabelle: Joyce's dear, dirty Liffey;
Yeats's Garavogue, foaming through the weir
At Sligo, peat-tinctured water like stout.

Rivers of Ireland, meander through me,
Recollect my scattered pebbles, polish
With your gravitational momentum

Those multiple-hued, submerged glimmerers.
From what hidden mountain springs do you come,
Taming your timeless gurgling energies

On the frozen plains of my upsilted veins?
There is no tributary lost. Avon
Mor and Avon Beag, Avoca, Dargle,

Blackwater, Nore—"O, could I flow like thee!"

Frost, ice, and snow are nothing but water.