Friday, April 10, 2009

`Have, Get, Before It Cloy'

After living 20 miles from it for almost a year we finally visited Snoqualmie Falls. First you hear it, a dull drone like a billions bees as the water drops 268 feet, then you see the shifting clouds of spray far below. Wordsworth’s description of a falls in The Prelude is rooted in close observation:

“Of woods decaying, never to be decayed
The stationary blasts of water-falls…”

The falling water appears motionless, a liquid column driving two power plants, generating 41,990 kilowatts of electricity. Impressive – but the “woods decaying, never to be decayed” even more so. The half-mile trail to the base of the falls passes through a forest of conifers carpeted with moss the color of duckweed and fresh avocado. The mossy trees resemble enormous growths of coral. The air is scented with rot, confirmation of spring’s coming: “Nothing is so beautiful as spring.”

The line in Hopkins’ sonnet I most value is “Have, get, before it cloy, / Before it cloud…”: a glimpse of Eden and an entreaty to savor it mindfully. Elizabeth Bishop used Hopkins’ opening line -- “Nothing is so beautiful as spring.” – as the epigraph to her poem “A Cold Spring.” She notes the “Greenish-white dogwood,” which we saw in the forest near the falls, and I remembered as a kid reading a book about medicinal plants that noted traces of quinine in the bark. The Indians used it to treat malaria. The petals of the tree’s flowers, Bishop writes, appear “burned, apparently, by a cigarette butt.” They look flawed, and that enhances their beauty.


Nige said...

In Julia Strachey's novella An Integrated Man, Ned Moon, who has just decided that he is 'that fabulous beast, "an integrated man"' uses Wordsworth's waterfall as an image of the 'tranquility in motion' that is happiness: 'A happy man is like Wordsworth's "stationary blast of waterfalls". From a distance only this motionless white thread in its niche in the scenery - apparently harmless enough. Even turning a mill wheel perhaps... Yet you put your ear to the ground, and (if you are a Red Indian) you will become aware of a murderous cataract of violences quaking the land for miles around. There you have your waterfall - and your happy man.' Poor Ned - he is not to stay happy, let alone 'integrated', long...

Patrick Kurp said...

Thanks, Nige. I didn't even realize others had noticed that lovely line in Wordsworth. Nor am I familiar with Julia Strachey. Thanks for adding another layer of meaning. Patrick