|Where the Forest Murmers
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
Is it because the wild-wood passion of Pan still lingers in our hearts, because still in our minds the voice of Syrinx floats in melancholy music, the music of regret and longing, that for most of us there is so potent a spell in running waters? We associate them with loneliness and beauty. Beauty and solitude . . . these are still the shepherd-kings of the imagination, to compel our wandering memories, our thoughts, our dreams. There is a story of one snatched from the closing hand of death, who, when asked if he had been oppressed by dark confusion and terror, answered that he had known no terror and no confusion, but only an all-embracing and intensifying silence, till at the last, deep within it as in a profound chasm, he had caught the low, continuous sound of running waters. That I can well believe. At the extremes of life thought naturally returns to the things that first communicated to the shaken mind of childhood the sense of mystery, the summons and the elation of that which reveals in beauty and utters the vibration of wonder. The first coming of snow, the noise of wind in trees, the gathering murmur of the tide heard in the night's darkness and silence, music or songs borne across water, the first falling meteors with their terrifying suggestion that all these familiar stellar fires may likewise at any time be blown abroad by some obscure and awful wind, the furtive whisperings and inexplicable confused speech of running waters, of such are these primitive and unforgettable experiences.
The burn, the brook, the rivulet, what memories of them are possessed by those whose childhood has not been wholly spent in towns, or at those thronged seaside resorts where the bounteous green life of Nature is even more absent than in many cities, at least in those which have their wooded parks, in which there may be flowing or still waters, where the cushat may be heard among the cedars or beeches, and where, above the tall elms, the noisy coming and going of rooks seems to the exile the very voice of the countryside. The linn of brown foaming water, the amber surge of the hill-stream, the stealthy if swift rush of the brown flood beloved of the salmon, or the curve and sweep of the grass-green river flowing between meadows and under alders and past rocky fastness and linking green valleys as a winding snake barred with emerald, what memories these suggest to every lad or lass, to every man or woman who has ever thrown a cast or trailed a line, or, for that matter, who has lain on their leaning banks, book in hand, or lost in dreams, or wandered the dewy ways at dusk. Does not the very mention of torrent and cataract and waterfall evoke happy memories? One can hear the tumultuous surge between heather-held banks, and see the rock-rooted bracken shake with the ceaseless spray: can see the wild leap and foaming collapse, so habitual, so orderly in disorder, that the ring-ousel flies heedlessly from her fragile eggs which a handful of this whirling water would crush and sweep away: can recall, as in dreams the mind rebuilds the phantoms of natural imagery, the long, white, wavering smoke down the sheer slope of some mountain-bastion, or the filmy yet motionless veils of delicate gauze hung high oil the breasts of silent and remote hills.
What differences there are in these running waters. We hear much of "blue" rivers, of the silver flood of azure, and so forth. But few rivers or brooks or burns are blue. Their azure colour is a mirage wrought by distance and the angle of vision, affected by the play of wind, by the quality of light, by the blueness of the sky. Every German poet has sung of the blue Danube, the blue Rhine. These rivers have no quality of blueness, save by reflection from above, at a distance, and at a certain angle of vision. Waters flowing from the Lake of Geneva and from the Lake of Lucerne are blue even on grey days and if looked at on the shadow-side of a bridge. We have many grey-blue and blue-white and azure-shadowed running waters, but we have more that are grass-green and far more that are dappled hazel and nut-brown and goldenbrown and amber-shot black-brown. It is not easy to say which of these running waters one loves best: nor need one, nor should one try. It would be like thinking of a garden-close filled with wallflower and mignonette, carnations and sweet peas, dark violets and yellow pansies and blue love-in-a-mist, white tulips and lilies-of-the-valley and white roses, damask rose and the flusht morning-glory and the pink moss-rose and brier and eglantine, and saying which is best of these, which loveliest, which the most dear to the mind as well as to the eyes. But, still, we have doubtless each some happy choice, some hidden predilection. That will depend on memories and associations. I read somewhere recently that a certain traveller could not anywhere find, could nowhere recall, any stream or river for him so poetical, so lovely in quiet beauty as the Yorkshire Ouse. My knowledge of that river is restricted to a brief intimacy at and near York, and my recollection of it is of a broad turbid stream between muddy banks. But that does not interfere with the giving full credit to that traveller's loyal affection. He would remember the Ouse among the sands of Egypt, or by the yellow flow of the Hooghly, or perhaps by the surge of some great river as the Mississippi ; and it would flow through his mind in a serene pastoral beauty, bluer than any river which ever flowed in our grey North, and in a changeless light of May or June, with calling cuckoo and thridding swallow unmindful of seasons that come and go, and with green flag and tufted reed and trailing willow-branch as unfailing as the memories to which they are for evermore wed. It would not be the Ouse that you or I look at from the muddy banks on a dull November day, or catch a glimpse of as the North Express whirls by. It would be the Ouse of boyhood and youth and the heart filled with a sweet trouble, perplext by a strange ache. It would be the Ouse at its loveliest, on a rare day, in an hour of the hours, flowing in midsummer-air fragrant with meadow-hay and wild-roses. It would be an Ouse more beautiful still: it would be subtly Present in "the quiet waters" of the Psalmist, wherever the painter limned that delicate unrest, wherever the poet sang of the Stream's Secret. It would be, for him, the archetype of the flowing stream: the river.
And so, each will have his preference, if it be only one of temperament rather than of sentiment. The deep, broad, swirling river has its incalculable fascination. Its mysterious volume, so great a flood from perhaps so insignificant a source, from mayhap some shallow pool among stagnant marsh-lands with nothing of stir or motion but the hovering dragon-fly, the wheeling and wailing lapwing, and the slow, voiceless passage of wayfaring cloud: its devious way, like an interminable procession or the continuous winding column of an army seen from a great height: its arrivals and departures at quiet towns and noisy and defiling cities: its destiny, its ultimate blending with the devouring tide and overrunning wave all this has become the commonplace of the poet and the romancist. Thames filled with every craft possible to be seen betwixt the Nore and Oxford; the Forth, winding in still loops under the walls of Stirling and grey Cambuskenneth; the Clyde, running past the hills of Dumbarton and Argyll, already salt with the sea-flood pouring in by the oceangates of Arran and Ailsa; the deep flood of Tay or Shannon; these, and others, will always have a host to praise and magnify. But many of us will dream rather of chalk-streams in Devon, of the rippling amber-yellow flood of Derwent in the Peakland valleys, of Tweed and Teviot, of slow streams among woods and bright rivers going like cold flame through wide straths and lowlands: of small narrow Waters whose very names are wedded to beauty and to "old, unhappy, far-off things," Otterbourne, the Water of Urr, the Water of Quair, Allan Water. Above all will some of us think of those peat-stained bracken-dyed burns, that leap and dance and sing down the steep ways of rock and heather in the Scotland of our love.
For my own part I find myself in so great agreement with a friend, who expresses better than I can do the love and haunting spell of the brown hill-water (which is neither a river nor exactly a stream nor yet a rivulet, but with something of each and more of what in the lowlands is a brook and in the highlands a burn, yet than the one is swifter and than the other is less debonair and impetuous) that I have been constrained to ask leave to let it appear here as a natural close of running waters at the end of this brief paper on a theme in whose very title lie old music and dream and subtly incalculable spell.