Rivers And Death

The world of fact, no less than the world of abstract thought, is

full of contradictions and unsolved antinomies. Here is one such

contradiction or antinomy. Moving water, it has been shown, is

suggestive of life. But over against it we find a suggestion of

death. Indeed there has been a widely diffused belief in a river

of death--a striking foil to the inspiring mysticism of the river of

life. The old-world mythology
aught, in varying forms, but

with underlying unity of concept, that there is a river, or gulf,

which must be crossed by the departing soul on its way to the

land of the departed. Evidently the extension of the original

thought to cover its seeming opposite has a basis in the nature

of things. Its most elaborate presentment is in the ancient myths

of the nether regions and of the seven streams that watered

them--from Styx that with nine-fold weary wanderings bounded

Tartarus, to where

"Far off from these, a slow and silent stream,

Lethe the river of oblivion runs."

Nor has Christianity disdained to adapt the idea. Bunyan, for

example, brings his two pilgrims within sight of the heavenly

City. "Now I saw further that between them and the gate was a

river; but there was no bridge, and the river was very deep. At

the sight therefore of this river, the pilgrims were much stunned;

but the men that went with them said, you must go through or

you cannot come at the gate."

What suggestive power has the river to induce this more sombre

train of reflection? Surely that embodied in the old proverb--

Follow the river and you will come to the sea. Clough, in his

little poem, "The Stream of Life," concludes with a note of

sadness, almost of despair:

"O end to which all currents tend,

Inevitable sea,

To which we flow, what do we know,

What shall we guess of thee?

A roar we hear upon thy shore,

As we our course fulfil;

Scarce we divine a sun will shine

And be above us still."

The rushing rapid and the plunging waterfall have an influence

all their own in rousing intuitions of more than human life and

power. The dazzling and dashing rainbows of spray appeal to

the sense of sight--the internal rhythmic sound from the lighter

tones which are flung around like notes from a Stroem Karl's

magic harp, or the alluring song of a Lorelei, to the thunder of a

Niagara, nature's diapason sounding the lowest note that mortal

ears can catch, appeal to the sense of hearing--and underlying

all is a vague sense of irresistible power. How touching, how

profoundly true, the story in "Eckehard" of the little lad and his

sister who wandered off until they came to the Rheinfal. There,

gazing at the full sweep of that magnificent fall the little fellow

throws into the swirling emerald of the waters at his feet a

golden goblet, as an offering to the God whom he felt to be so

near. Unconsciously he was a natural mystic. Movement, sound,

and colour combined to produce in him, what it should produce

in all, a sense of immanent Reality, self-moving, self-sustained.

And yet even a waterfall may suggest far other thoughts--a

downward course from the freshness of the uplands of youth to

the broadening stream of manhood declining towards old age

and the final plunge. The fall itself would thus convey vague

feelings of loss of power and vigour--a loss that gathers speed

as it approaches the end. So in Campbell's well-known "River

of Life":

"When joys have lost their bloom and breath

And life itself is vapid,

Why, as we reach the Falls of Death,

Feel we its course more rapid? "

If so sad a train of reflections can be stimulated by the rapids

and the falls of rivers, how much more so by their ending in the

ocean! Old age and death can hardly fail to assert themselves in

the minds of those who sail down some noble river and


"As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea."

Granting that the river's merging in the sea suggests the close

of life as we know it here, must we also grant that the

natural-mystic must give way to a partial, if not an absolute,

tendency to pessimism? That a natural-mystic should be a pessimist

would seem to be an anomaly. For he holds that he can hold

living communion with the Real; and such communion would

carry with it, surely, a strong hope, if not a conviction, that

change in material form cannot affect the inner being, call it the

spiritual essence, of which that form is a particular

manifestation. Deny that nature has a soul and optimism

becomes a ghastly mockery. Believe that nature and man are

linked together as kindred forms of spiritual existence, and then,

though there will not indeed be formal proof of immortality,

there will be intuitive trust in the future. What the implications

of such a trust may be is for the various philosophies and

theologies to determine; but taken at its lowest value, it would

secure a man from pessimism.

In the light of these general observations, let us consider the

particular case now presented. The river is merged in the sea--it

is absorbed--its existence as a river is terminated. But the

"substance" of its being remains; diffused in a vaster whole, but

not lost. What is this vaster whole? If we regard it as an

Absolute, there may perchance be ground for pessimism. If,

with certain scientists, we stop short at the conservation of

energy, there is nothing ahead but a blank. But if we hold to the

conservation of values, as at least a parallel to this conservation

of energy, we are impelled to hold also to the conservation of all

that is ultimate in individualities. For values imply modes of

being which can allow of the experience of values as such. And

the Nature-Mystic's direct communion with his environment is

seen to be one mode by which the individual centre of life

learns to live increasingly in the life of the Whole--the total

Reality. There is, then, no absorption where values are

conserved, but an ever richer content of experience, an ever

deepening insight into its significance, and an ever keener

enjoyment of the material it affords.

As a specific case of an optimistic creed based on an intuition of

the essential kinship of all things, it is profitable to study the

poetry of a Sufi mystic of the thirteenth century. How delicate

the thought enshrined in the following lines:

"When man passed from the plant to the animal state,

He had no remembrance of his state as a plant,

Except the inclination he felt for the world of plants,

Especially at the time of spring and sweet flowers."

What is this but an anticipation of Wordsworth's "Daffodils," or

even of his "Ode on Immortality"?

The concepts and phraseology of the transmigration theory are

merely temporary forms in which a deep thought clothes itself:

at any rate, they are not necessary adjuncts of the thought; nor

do they preclude sympathy with the following condensed

statement of this same mystic's world-philosophy:

"I died from the mineral and became a plant;

I died from the plant and reappeared as an animal;

I died from the animal and became a man.

Wherefore then should I fear? When did I grow less by


Next time I shall die from the man

That I may grow the wings of angels.

From the angel, too, I must advance.

All things shall perish save His face."

With an insight like unto this, a mystic need not fear because

the river flows into the sea! In spite of appearances, the idea of

life can still reign supreme. The river of death embodies a true

insight--but of a transition only, not of an abiding state. We die

to live more fully.

This sense of continuity in the flow of the stream of life, and of

the abidingness of its existence through all vicissitudes has been

strikingly expressed by Jefferies. He is sitting on the

grass-grown tumulus where some old warrior was buried two

thousand years ago, and his thought slips back over the interval.

"Two thousand years being a second to the soul could not cause

its extinction. . . . Resting by the tumulus, the spirit of the man

who had been interred there was to me really alive, and very

close. This was quite natural and simple as the grass waving in

the wind, the bees humming, and the lark's songs. Only by the

strongest effort of the mind could I understand the idea of

extinction; that was supernatural, requiring a miracle; the

immortality of the soul natural, like the earth. Listening to the

sighing of the grass I felt immortality as I felt the beauty of the

summer morning, and I thought beyond immortality, of other

conditions, more beautiful than existence, higher than


Let Morris sum up the thoughts and emotions aroused by the

mystical influences of water flowing onward to join the ocean.

"Flow on, O mystical river, flow on through desert and city;

Broken or smooth flow onward into the Infinite sea.

Who knows what urges thee on?

. . .

Surely we know not at all, but the cycle of Being is eternal,

Life is eternal as death, tears are eternal as joy.

As the stream flowed it will flow; though 'tis sweet, yet the

sea will be bitter;

Foul it with filth, yet the Deltas grow green and the ocean is


Always the sun and the winds will strike its broad surface

and gather

Some purer drops from its depths to float in the clouds of the


Soon these shall fall once again, and replenish the

full-flowing river.

Roll round then, O mystical circle! flow onward, ineffable