Brooks And Streams

There is a striking passage in Tylor's "Primitive Culture" which

will admirably serve as an introduction to this chapter and the

one which is to follow, on "Rivers and Waterfalls." "In those

moments of the civilised man's life when he casts off hard dull

science, and returns to childhood's fancy, the world-old book of

nature is open to him anew. Then the well-worn thoughts come

back fresh to him, of the stream's life t
at is so like his own;

once more he can see the rill leap down the hill-side like a child,

to wander playing among the flowers; or can follow it as, grown

to a river, it rushes through a mountain gorge, henceforth in

sluggish strength to carry heavy burdens across the plain. In all

that the water does, the poet's fancy can discern its personality

of life. It gives fish to the fisher, and crops to the husbandman;

it swells in fury and lays waste the land; it grips the bather with

chill and cramp, and holds with inexorable grasp its drowning

victim. . . . What ethnography has to teach of that great element

of the religion of mankind, the worship of well and lake, brook

and river, is simply this--that what is poetry to us was

philosophy to early man; that to his mind water acted not by

laws of force, but by life and will; that the water-spirits of

primeval mythology are as souls which cause the water's rush

and rest, its kindness and its cruelty; that lastly man finds, in the

beings with such power to work him weal or woe, deities with a

wider influence over his life, deities to be feared and loved, to

be prayed to and praised and propitiated with sacrificial gifts."

Tylor has here given a masterly resume of a large group of

facts, and has viewed them from a particular angle--not quite

that of the nature-mystic, though not so far removed as might

appear. He does not make it appear that there was any organic

connection between the phenomena and the mythology, nor

even between the phenomena and the feelings which the

modern man, in certain moods, feels stirring within him at their

prompting. These myths are simply "fancies"; the "feelings" are

simply those of "the poet." The wider view adopted by so many

philosophers and scientists (as was shown in the chapter on

animism) does not seem to have won his adherence--perchance

was not known to him. And yet in sentence after sentence he

hovers on the brink of genuine Nature Mysticism. His sympathy

with the leaping rill and the rushing river is deep and

spontaneous; he is evidently well pleased to open afresh "the

world-old book of nature," and to read it in the light of

"childhood's fancy." The nature-mystic avers that what he

deemed a recurrence of meaningless, if pleasant, "well-worn

thoughts" was really an approach to the heart of nature from

which an imperfect understanding of the place and function of

science had carried him away. Not that the old forms should be

perpetuated, but that the childlike insight should be cherished.

Water in movement in brooks and streams! Have we discovered

the secret of it when we tell of liquids in unstable equilibrium

which follow lines of least resistance? It is a valuable advance

to have gained such abstract terms and laws, so long as we

remember they _are_ abstractions. But it is a deadly thing to

rest in them. How infinitely wiser is Walt Whitman, in his

address to a brook he loved, than the man who coldly analyses,

with learned formulae to help him, and sees and feels nothing

beyond. "Babble on, O brook" (Walt Whitman cries), "with that

utterance of thine! . . . Spin and wind thy way--I with thee a

little while at any rate. As I haunt thee so often, season by

season, thou knowest, reckest not me (yet why be so certain--

who can tell?)--but I will learn from thee, and dwell on thee--

receive, copy, print, from thee."

Is this to indulge in vague anthropomorphic fancies--though not

of the cruder sort, still of subjective value only? The

persistence, the vividness, and the frequency of such

"imaginings" prove that the subjective explanation does not tell

the whole tale. How natural, in the simplest sense of the word,

is Coleridge:

"A noise like of a hidden brook

In the leafy month of June,

That to the sleeping woods all night

Singeth a quiet tune."

How earnest is Wordsworth as he opens out glimpses of

unknown modes of being in his address to the Brook:

"If wish were mine some type of thee to view

Thee, and not thee thyself, I would not do

Like Grecian artists, give the human cheeks

Channels for tears; no Naiad shouldst thou be,--

Have neither limbs, feet, feathers, joints, nor hairs;

It seems the Eternal Soul is clothed in thee

With purer robes than those of flesh and blood,

And hath bestowed on thee a safer good;

Unwearied joy, and life without its care."

Again, what natural feeling declares itself in the delightful

Spanish poem translated by Longfellow:

"Laugh of the mountain! lyre of bird and tree!

Pomp of the meadow! mirror of the morn!

The soul of April, unto whom are born

The rose and jessamine, leaps wild in thee!"

How deep, once more, the note sounded by Brown in his lines

on "The Well":

"I am a spring--

Why square me with a kerb?

. . .

O cruel force,

That gives me not a chance

To fill my natural course;

With mathematic rod

Economising God;

Calling me to pre-ordered circumstance

Nor suffering me to dance

Over the pleasant gravel,

With music solacing my travel--

With music, and the baby buds that toss

In light, with roots and sippets of the moss!"

The longing for freedom to expand the dimly realised and

mystic elements in his soul-life was stirred within him by the

joyous bubbling of a spring. To kerb the artless, natural flow is

to "economise God"--so the limitations and restrictions of the

life that now is artificialise and deaden the divine within us.

There is more than metaphor in such a comparison; there is the

linkage of the immanent idea. His emotion culminates in the

concluding lines:

"One faith remains--

That through what ducts soe'er,

What metamorphic strains,

What chymic filt'rings, I shall pass

To where, O God,

Thou lov'st to mass

Thy rains upon the crags, and dim the sphere.

So, when night's heart with keenest silence thrills,

Take me, and weep me on the desolate hills."

There are indeed but few with any feeling for nature who have

not been moved to special trains of thought, the outcome of

characteristic moods, by the babblings and wayward wanderings

of brooks and rivulets. The appeal, therefore, is to a

wide experience. Can we be satisfied to join with Tylor in his

sense of disillusionment? Or shall we strive to get yet nearer to

the heart of things? If we cling to the deeper view, to us, as to

the men of old, the running stream will sing of the soul in