Springs And Wells

Milton, in his noble "Ode on the Nativity," sings that, with the

advent of the Saviour,

"From haunted spring and dale,

Edged with poplars pale,

The parting genius is with sighing sent."

Is this a statement of fact? Largely so, if the reference is to the

river gods, the Naiads, and water sprites, of classical

mythology. But not true if the vaguer belief in spirits

preside over mossy wells and bubbling springs be taken into

account, or if the faith in the healing or other virtues of the

waters that issue from them be included in the underlying idea.

No, not even in the most Christian countries of to-day is such

faith extinct. One has but to remember the famous well at

Auray, or the sacred fountain in the crypt of the church at St.

Melars, to which whole crowds of pilgrims still resort, to realise

how far this is from being the case. Scotland herself, for all her

centuries of Puritanism, has not wiped her slate quite clean; still

less the countries like Ireland and Brittany, which are so

retentive of the past. Nay, the present age is not content with its

liberal supply of sacred springs, it must be adding new ones of

its own! Let Lourdes be witness. And who shall say how many

more are yet to come?

Very remarkable, both as illustrating Milton's Ode, and also the

persistency of this particular form of superstition, is the story of

the only real spring close to Jerusalem--Enrogel. It is identified

by high authorities with the Dragon's Well, mentioned in a

romantic passage of the book of the patriot, Nehemiah.

Assuming the validity of this identification, we have a glimpse

of times far earlier than the Hebrew occupation of the land.

Primitive peoples often associated serpents with springs and

wells, as incarnations of the spirit of the waters. A link is thus

supplied which carries back the history to the animistic and

mythological periods, in this case, prehistoric.

Retracing our course, we arrive at the time of the Hebrew

occupation of the country. A purer form of religion has rejected

most of the mythological material. But the old name of the

spring remains, and, what is still more pertinent, the old belief

in its healing power. We have evidence of this belief in St.

John's Gospel, which contains the peculiar story of the healing

at the pool of Bethesda, most probably connected with this same

spring. The popular view that at times an angel came to trouble

the water is perhaps an attempted explanation of its intermittent


Now should have come the time, according to Milton, for the

departure of the sighing genius--the dying out of the

superstition. But those who anticipate such a _denouement_

will be grievously disappointed. For the Jews still bathe in its

waters, at the times of overflow, for cure of various maladies.

And on the Christian side of the history, it has gained the name

of the Virgin's Pool!

Similar stories might be found in any part of the globe where

tradition is sufficiently continuous to preserve them, testifying

to the almost astounding persistency of belief in the power of

springing water. No doubt simple faith healing has played its

part--but that part is very subsidiary; the strongest influence has

been that exercised by the movement of the water itself,

suggesting as it does the idea of spontaneous life. Not less

surprising is the hold such springs retain upon the imagination

and affections. Pathetic proof of this meets the traveller at every

turn on the west coast of Ireland. As he tramps the byways and

unfrequented paths of County Clare, his eye is caught from time

to time by an artless array of shelves on the sloping banks of

some meadow spring. On the shelves are scanty votive offerings,

piteous to see. Piteous, not on the score of the superstition

which prompts them--that is a matter to be dealt with

in a spirit of broad sympathy, on its historic and social

merits--but because of the dire poverty they reveal. Even its of

broken crockery are held worthy of a place at these little

shrines; so bereft are the peasantry of the simplest

accompaniments of civilised life.

How thoroughly natural is the growth of such sentiments and

beliefs! Jefferies felt the charm. "There was a secluded spring"

(he writes) "to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water,

lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water,

clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and the

purity of it. I drank the thought of the element; I desired

soul-nature pure and limpid."

Nor has the charm ceased to be potent for the new man in the

new world. Walt Whitman knew it. Here is a delightful

paragraph from his notes of "Specimen Days": "So, still

sauntering on, to the spring under the willows--musical and soft

as clinking glasses--pouring a sizeable stream, thick as my neck,

pure and clear, out from its vent where the bank arches over like

a great brown shaggy eyebrow or mouth roof--gurgling,

gurgling ceaselessly--meaning, saying something of course (if

one could only translate it)--always gurgling there, the whole

year through--never going out--oceans of mint, blackberries in

summer--choice of light and shade--just the place for my July

sun-baths and water-baths too--but mainly the inimitable soft

sound-gurgles of it, as I sit there hot afternoons. How they and

all grow into me, day after day--everything in keeping--the

wild, just palpable, perfume, and the dapple of leaf-shadows,

and all the natural-medicinal, elemental-moral influences of the


If these two passages be taken together, there will be few

elements of mystic influence left unnoted. And how deeply

significant the fact that each author instinctively and

spontaneously associates with the limpid flow of the water the

ideas of life and health! Were the old mythologists so very far

from the truth? Is it so very hard to understand why wells and

springs have had their thousands of years of trust and affection?

Was it mere caprice that led our Teutonic fathers to place under

the roots of the world-tree the three wells of force and life and


A fine example of a more definitely mystic use of the ideas

prompted by the sight of springing water, is found in Dante's

"Earthly Paradise"--an example the more interesting because of

its retention of what may be called the "nature-elements" in the


"The water, thou behold'st, springs not from vein,

Restored by vapour, that the cold converts;

As stream that intermittently repairs

And spends his pulse of life; but issues forth

From fountain, solid, undecaying, sure:

And, by the will omnific, full supply

Feeds whatsoe'er on either side it pours;

On this, devolved with power to take away

Remembrance of offence; on that, to bring

Remembrance back of every good deed done.

From whence its name of Lethe on this part;

On the other, Eunoe: both of which must first

Be tasted, ere it work; the last exceeding

All flavours else."

This passage, say the authorities, is linked on to the old

Proserpine mystery, and is parallel to the Teutonic conceptions

described in the last chapter. Of quite exceptional character, yet

best treated in the present connection, are the "wells" of eastern

lands. Where the sources of springing water are rare and far

distant from one another, the supply of water has to be

supplemented by that from artificial pits, sunk with hard toil,

often into the solid rock, and valued accordingly. Such "wells,"

in the stricter sense, are too directly associated with human

labour in historic times, to allow much mythical material to

accumulate around them. Still, from the simple fact of their

dispensing water in arid and thirsty lands, they possess not

unfrequently a rich store of family and tribal legends. And

further, by reason of their very freedom from the cruder

superstitions, the intuitions they prompted were from the first

transparent and spiritual. Under such conditions the water is

literally "life." And as the conception of life deepened, so did

intuition become more delicate.

We have the early freshness of the feeling stimulated in an

ancient strain, delightful in its naive spontaneity.

"Then sang Israel this song:

Spring up, O well, sing ye unto it:

The well which the princes digged,

Which the nobles of the people delved,

With the sceptre and with their staves."

The deepening of the feeling came rapidly, and took exquisite

form in the prophet's assurance that his people should "draw

water out of the wells of salvation." But here mysticism was

beginning to blend with symbolism, and the later developments

of the idea pass over almost wholly into the sphere of reflective


So far as the nature-mystic is concerned, he emphasises the

continuity of the feeling, from the earliest ages to the present,

that in the phenomena of water gushing from a source we have

a manifestation of self-activity, as immanent Idea and concrete

will. And convinced of the validity of his contention, he is not

surprised, as some may be, at the influence which wells and

springs have wielded, and still do wield, over the human soul.