Week 463: Under The Waterfall, by Thomas Hardy

Bit of an odd one this week. On the face of it this is a rather decorous, even slightly naïve poem about two Victorian lovers enjoying a picnic by a waterfall, yet it portrays the event with a sensuous precision that borders on the erotic, and while the last thing I would want to do is get all Freudian about a beautiful poem, I can’t help wondering if Hardy, with a knowing twinkle in his not-so-innocent Victorian eye, was not well aware of certain symbolic possibilities in the poem. This is after all the man who in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ gives us such a dazzling account of Sergeant Troy’s swordplay in ‘the hollow amid the ferns’. But never mind all that: as always with Hardy, any other theme is subordinate to the passage of time, the transience of human happiness and the bittersweetness of memory.

Under the Waterfall

‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
      Hence the only prime
      And real love-rhyme
      That I know by heart,
      And that leaves no smart,
Is the purl of a little valley fall
About three spans wide and two spans tall
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’
‘And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?’

‘Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though where precisely none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized,
      Is a drinking-glass:
      For, down that pass
      My lover and I
      Walked under a sky
Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green,
In the burn of August, to paint the scene,
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
On the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and sank, and was past recall,
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in basin or bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass both used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies intact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’

Thomas Hardy

1 thought on “Week 463: Under The Waterfall, by Thomas Hardy

  1. A strange poem I felt. It is highly charged with emotion isn’t it, whether that’s nostalgia or regret or thanksgiving or whatever. Somehow all those rhyming couplets seem to bounce it along in too jolly a mood, at any rate for my taste. It probably reads well aloud in the drawing room!

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