Romantic readings: Robert Southey’s The Cataract of Lodore

by Andrew Ray
By the early 1820s Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, was writing serious historical books, reading Montaigne, teaching himself Danish and remarking that ‘my career as a poet is almost at an end’.

Robert Southey, by Thomas Phillips

Robert Southey, by Thomas Phillips

But in 1823 he published ‘The Cataract of Lodore’, a poem that illustrates a more playful side of his personality. He had mentioned a version of the poem in a letter of 1809, referring to his wife and their young son:

‘I hope also you will approve of a description of the water at Lodore, made originally for Edith & greatly admired by Herbert. In my mind it surpasses any that the Tourists have yet printed. Thus it runs – ‘Tell the people how the water comes down at Lodore! – Why it comes thundering & floundering, & thumping & flumping & bumping & jumping, & hissing & whizzing, & dripping & skipping, & grumbling & rumbling {& tumbling}, & falling & brawling, & dashing {& clashing} & splashing, & pouring & roaring, & whirling & curling, & leaping & creeping, & sounding & bounding, & clattering & shattering, with a dreadful uproar, – & that way the water comes down at Lodore.’

Lodore 2
Fourteen years later the published poem began ‘”How does the Water / Come down at Lodore?” / My little boy ask’d me…’ Sadly Herbert, that little boy, had died in 1816, and so the playful tumbling water that ends ‘all at once’ could be read in part as a poignant memory of his son.

‘The Cataract of Lodore’ traces the water ‘from its sources which well / In the Tarn on the fell’, ‘through meadow and glade, / In sun and in shade’, until ‘it reaches the place / Of its steep descent.’ There, the second part of the poem describes the cataract itself in onomatopoeic rhymes. Southey seems to have had a feeling for the music of landscape: he was able to mimic the sounds of birds and animals to entertain his children. If you converted the rhythms and rhymes of this poem to music, you might hear echoes of the water’s turns and twindles as it pours over rocks and stones. The singer Nick Drake carefully wrote the poem out in one of his school notebooks and it is intriguing to wonder whether he ever thought of it later in connection with his own music. One of his most admired songs, ‘River Man’, evokes in its unusual time signature and fluid guitar the nature of flowing water.
Southey’s poem may still be encountered at school as an exercise in style but it should also provide a vivid introduction to ideas of soundscape and the rhythms of nature. In recent years there have been two competing book-length editions for children produced by American illustrators – Mordicai Gerstein (best known for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, one of many recent accounts of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk) and David Catrow (author of the award-winning She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head!) Southey’s lines naturally lends themselves to being printed in creative ways – you can, for example, turn Gerstein’s book sideways so that the cataract falls down a long double-spread. Presumably future e-books will offer further possibilities.

… flowing and going,
And running and stunning,
And foaming and roaming,
And dinning and spinning,
And dropping and hopping,
And working and jerking,
And guggling and struggling,
And heaving and cleaving,
And moaning and groaning;
And glittering and frittering,
And gathering and feathering,
And whitening and brightening,
And quivering and shivering,
And hurrying and scurrying,
And thundering and floundering,
Dividing and gliding and sliding,
And falling and brawling and sprawling,
And diving and riving and striving,
And sprinkling and twinkling and wrinkling,
And sounding and bounding and rounding,
And bubbling and troubling and doubling,
And grumbling and rumbling and tumbling,
And clattering and battering and shattering;
Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,
Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,
Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling,
And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,
And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,
And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,
And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;
And so never ending, but always descending,
Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending,
All at once and all o’er, with a mighty uproar,
And this way the water comes down at Lodore.

The poem as it was originally written has a visual pattern that is easy to see in the lines reproduced above. It is not a purely visual poem like Simon Armitage’s, ‘Waterfallwater’ (1996), which consists of only one repeated word, ‘water’, cascading down the page. I tried erasing Southey’s words entirely and superimposing an image of the Lodore Falls – the shape below is formed from the full 71 lines describing the cataract. This photograph appears on the Footless Crow site, where it accompanies the text of a letter Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to Sara Hutchinson in 1802. ‘Lodore’, he says, ‘is beyond all rivalry the first and best thing of the whole Lake Country.’ It is ‘broad and wide, and from top to bottom it is small waterfalls, abreast, and abreast’; so, not actually like the picture below at all… In fact, to convey a visual impression of the falls, the poem would need several columns of text cascading down the page, joining and dividing at various points. But Southey’s goal was to trace the water’s course rather than capture it in a sketch, and if there is music in the words it is not the sound of the falls at one particular place, but the noises the water makes on its journey down the rocks: moaning, groaning, rumbling, tumbling, clapping, slapping and ending in a mighty uproar.

Andrew Ray