Still Waters

Tiefer Stille herrscht im Wasser,

Ohno Regung ruht das Meer,

Und bekuemmert sieht der Schiffer

Glatte Flache rings umher.

Keine Luft von keiner Seite!

Todesstille fuerchterlich!

In der ungeheuern Weite

Reget keine Welle sich.

Thus does Goethe, in this little poem of two verses, with a

masterly ease that carries conviction, su
gest to us the subtle

power of a calm at sea. The mountain tarn, alone with the sky,

has a charm that is all its own. The shining levels of the lake, in

the lower hollows of the hills; the quiet reaches of a river where

the stream seems to pause and gather strength for its onward

course; even the still pool that hides in the meadows among the

alders and willows: each of these has its own peculiar charm--a

charm which is hard to analyse but almost universal in its range

of appeal. But potent above them all is this Meeresstille, this

calm at sea--when, as Bowring finely translates Goethe's second


"Not a zephyr is in motion!

Silence fearful as the grave!

In the mighty waste of ocean

Sunk to rest is every wave."

Turner, in his "Liber Studiorum," attempted to depict a calm at

sea. The picture is not one of his most successful efforts: but so

great an artist could not fail to seize on the essential features of

his subject. The sun is heralding his advent by flinging upward

athwart the mists and cloudlets a stream of diffused light which

fills the scene with a soft pervading glow. The surface of the

water is glassy, not much more substantial than the haze which

floats above it. But deep as is the calm, old ocean cannot quite

forget his innate restlessness; he gently urges onward a

succession of slow risings and fallings, with broad ripples to

mark their boundaries, and to tell of spent billows and

far-heaving tides. The movement of the waters is, as it were,

subconsciously felt rather than perceived; or, if perceived, it is

lost in the pervading sense of placid spaciousness. The boats

and their occupants, so far from disturbing the sense of calm,

are made to enhance it. And the unruffled surface of the water is

rendered palpably impalpable by the magic of reflections.

Morris has given us a word-picture of similar import.

"Oh, look! the sea is fallen asleep,

The sail hangs idle evermore;

Yet refluent from the outer deep

The low wave sobs upon the shore.

Silent the dark cave ebbs and fills

Silent the broad weeds wave and sway;

Yet yonder fairy fringe of spray

Is born of surges vast as hills."

Jefferies gives us a companion picture of a calm sea in full

sunshine. "Immediately in front dropped the deep descent of the

bowl-like hollow which received and brought up to me the faint

sound of the summer waves. Yonder lay the immense plain of

the sea, the palest green under the continued sunshine, as

though the heat had evaporated the colour from it; there was no

distinct horizon, a heat-mist inclosed it, and looked farther away

than the horizon would have done."

In each of these seascapes, the same essential features find a

place--the calm expanse without any defined boundary--the

silence--the play of delicate colour--the suggestions of rest after

toil, of peace after storm--and chiefest of all, the strangely

moving contrast of power and gentleness, the suggestion of

hidden strength. Doubtless we have in these the secret of much

of the mystic influence of the mighty ocean in its serenest

moods; doubtless we have in these the manifestations of

immanent ideas which have subtle power to subdue the human

soul to pensive thought and unwonted restfulness.

Not unlike them in general character and function, save for the

element of vastness, are the influences immanent in the calm of

evening or night landscapes. Goethe has an exquisite fragment

which is a fitting pendent to his Meeresstille:

Ueber alien Gipfeln

Ist Ruh,

In allen Wipfeln

Spuerest du

Kaum einen Hauch;

Die Voegelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

Ruhest du auch.

Thus translated by Bowring:

"Hush'd on the hill

Is the breeze;

Scarce by the zephyr

The trees

Softly are pressed;

The woodbird's asleep on the bough.

Wait, then, and thou

Soon wilt find rest."

Who does not sympathise, in the measure possible to him, with

Wordsworth's interpretations and premonitions?

"It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

The gentleness of heaven is on the sea."

And a less well-known passage:

"Thine is the tranquil hour, purpureal eve,

But long as godlike wish, or hope divine,

Informs my spirit, ne'er can I believe

That this magnificence is wholly thine!

--From worlds not quickened by the sun

A portion of the gift is won."

Yes, the nature-mystic might well be content to rest his case on

the influences of a calm at sea or a peaceful sunset. These will

maintain their power as long as there are human eyes to see and

human emotions to be stirred.

Not the least of the charms of still water is one which was

mentioned in the description of Turner's picture--the charm of

reflections. And here we discover a fresh vein of Nature

Mysticism. As Hawthorne says, there is "no fountain so small

but that heaven may be reflected in its bosom." Nay, as painters

well know, the very puddles in a country lane, or in a London

street, may be transfigured by thus reflecting lights and colours,

and become indispensable factors in a composition.

The phenomena of perfect reflection are often of exceptional

beauty. How perfect the effect of Wordsworth's lines:

"The swan on sweet St. Mary's Lake

Floats double, swan and shadow."

And, more generally, of another lake:

"The mere

Seems firm as solid crystal, breathless, clear,

And motionless; and, to the gazer's eye,

Deeper than ocean, in the immensity

Of its vague mountains and unreal sky."

So on the broad, slowly moving waters of peaty rivers, the

reflections of sky and landscape seem almost to exceed the

originals in lustre and delicate detail. Some of the Tasmanian

rivers possess this reflecting quality in an exceptional degree.

Nor are the phenomena of broken reflections inferior in beauty

and suggestion. Instead of motionless repetition of given detail,

there are flickering, sinuous, mazy windings and twistings of

colour, light, and shadow--a capricious hurrying from surface to

surface. Knowledge of optics cannot rob them of their marvel

and their glamour. And if such be their effect on the modern

mind, what must it have been on that of primitive man! No laws

of reflection came within his ken. He looked down on the still

surface of tarn, or pool, or fountain, and saw, sinking

downwards, another world, another sky, losing themselves in

mystery. Mere wonder would yield place to meditation. Ah!

what secrets must lurk in those crystal depths, if only one could

surprise them--wrest them from the beings who inhabit that

nether realm! Possibly even the world-riddle might so be

solved! And thus it came to pass that most water spirits were

deemed to be dowered with prophetic gifts.

The Teutonic water-gods were "wise"--they could foretell the

future. In classical mythology, Proteus, the old man of the sea,

presents himself as a well-developed embodiment of this belief.

Old Homer knew how to use the material thus provided, and

Virgil, in his choicest manner, follows the lead so given. In the

fourth book of the Georgics, Aristaeus, who had lost his bees, in

despair appealed to his mother, the river-nymph, Cyrene. She

bids him consult Proteus, the old prophet of the sea. He follows

her counsel, captures Proteus, and compels him to tell the cause

of his trouble. "The seer at last constrained by force, rolled on

him eyes fierce-sparkling with grey light, and gnashing his teeth

in wrath, opened his lips to speak the oracles of fate."

Once more the transient must be allowed to fall away, and the

central intuition be recognised and grasped. The sense of a

secret to be gained, of a mystery to be revealed--of a broken

reflection of some fuller world--has been nurtured by the

reflections of form and light and colour in nature's mirror. The

older, simpler impressions made by such phenomena persist

with deeper meanings. The "natural" emotion they stimulate

affords the kind of sustenance on which Nature Mysticism can

thrive. Longfellow, in his poem, "The Bridge," strikes the

deeper note. The rushing water draws the poet's reflections

away from a world of imperfection to the sphere of the ideal.

"And for ever and for ever,

As long as the river flows,

As long as the heart has passions,

As long as life has woes;

The moon and its broken reflection

And its shadows shall appear,

As the symbol of love in heaven

And its wavering image here."

And thus the mountain tarn, the placid lake, the quiet river

reaches, the hidden pool, and the ocean at rest, have each and all

their soul language, and can speak to man as a sharer of

soul-nature. Well might the Hebrew psalmist give us one of the

marks of the Divine Shepherd--"He leadeth me beside the still