The Water-fall

A mystical nature poem

This is an excellent example of Vaughan's mystical nature poetry. At times, it sounds almost as if it had been written by a Romantic poet, but in its development, it becomes more like an emblem poem, where Vaughan finds symbolic biblical meaning in the details of the waterfall.

The rhythm of falling water

Waterfall, photo by Hubert Stoffels, available through Creative CommonsIt consists of three stanzas of unequal length, the last two stanzas being iambic tetrameter couplets, the form used at times by a number of metaphysical poets, such as Crashaw and Marvell. The first stanza, however, is quite remarkable, in that its rhythms imitate the movement of a waterfall. The short lines represent the drop of the water, when the water can seem almost suspended in space. The Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson achieves a similar effect in his poem The Lotus-Eaters.

The symbolic meaning is suggested in this first stanza:

All must descend
Not to an end

Suggesting its application to human life, which does not end at death. Rather, the rush of the waterfall ‘quickens' the water. Here, Vaughan employs a pun, using it in a way no longer current. The alternative meaning of ‘quick' in the seventeenth century was ‘alive'. So the water actually makes us alive and

Rise to a longer course more bright and brave

If we have already read other Vaughan poems, we will know he means the life of the soul after death. Another Christian poet, like George Herbert, might have talked of a physical resurrection, but Vaughan is rather more Platonic, and sees the soul separating from the body, any sort of body, at death.

Water used as a symbol

This hints that maybe the water itself is used symbolically. After all, water is associated in Christian theology with baptism, which is a sign of Regeneration, the title of another of Vaughan's poems. So the ‘grave' could be a metonymy for death or for baptism.

More on baptism: see Jordan I by George Herbert

Clearly, however, this is a specific waterfall in a particular place, so, whatever the symbolism; Vaughan actually enjoyed it as a real natural object. He addresses it directly in the second stanza: ‘where oft I have sate'. He thinks emblematically of the drops of water as human souls. Just as there is a cycle of water eventually returning the drops to the stream, so there is a cycle of the soul. It starts from ‘a sea of light', that is, heaven. Surely then it will return again: ‘Why should frail flesh doubt any more?'


The second stanza sees the water as cleansing from sin and spiritual blindness. Vaughan refers to Revelation 7:17, where Christ is the Lamb, and the water points to the Holy Spirit, who is presented as the essential guide to truth: ‘Unless that Spirit leads his minde' (echoing 1 Corinthians 2:10-14). This is the same Spirit that ‘hatch'd all' at the Creation (Genesis 1:2).


However the poet notes that at the base of the waterfall, the water ‘In streaming rings restagnates all' as it ripples out to the banks and loses all momentum. His final prayer, then, is to be washed along by God's ‘Channel', so that he himself does not fall victim to stagnation.

Investigating The Water-fall
  • Read through Vaughan's The Water-fall
  • Compare this poem with his The Retreate.
    • What similarities in thought do you notice?
    • What differences do you see in the way it is expressed?
    • What is ‘My glorious liberty'?
    • How might he stagnate?
  • Can you unpack the symbolic meaning of the last few lines?
  • Have you noticed any other emblems or symbolic meanings?
  • Can you identify with seeing meanings in everyday objects or features of nature?
  • What strikes you most in the poem?

(see Themes and significant ideas > The Transience of Life).

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