The Cataract Haunted Me Like a Passion

Ansel Adams, Yosemite FallsAnsel Adams, Yosemite Falls         

Julia, Toby (our youngest son) and I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time last week, and I am still vibrating from the stunning rock faces and gorgeous waterfalls.  It was remarkable to see what seemed, at a distance, to be thin, almost delicate, streams of water pouring from great heights—and then to get closer and discover they were powerful torrents that drenched one with their spray.

The experience brought to mind a passage from William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey  (actual title: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798):

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite . . .

Wordsworth is describing here the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of his earlier days.  Now that he is older and has experienced suffering, however, he has become more meditative.  Just as the rush of nature is not as intense as it once was, the rush of the water has become milder, a “soft inland murmur”:

FIVE years have past; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a soft inland murmur. — Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.


I can report that Yosemite’s waterfalls, at least this spring, are not rolling with a soft murmur.  But then, the Sierra Nevada Mountains are a fairly young (and therefore high) mountain range, not like the southern Appalachians, which I know much better.  Streams in the Tennessee Cumberlands are more likely to run with a soft murmur.  It’s as though we start as the Yosemite waterfalls and mellow into  quieter mountain streams.


As I rapidly approach 60, I’ve been thinking about this mellower self.  When younger, I suppose I was a bit like the figure that Wordsworth remembers being when he visited the Wye River five years before:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.

Energetic but unsettled?  Passionate but reactive?  More familiar with dread than with peace?  Yes, that sounds like youth.

I’ve often wondered whether, in this poem and others, Wordsworth is simply rationalizing.  Is he trying to talk himself into feeling okay about getting older?  After all, he seems to return to the theme obsessively, most famously in this poem and in Intimations of Immortality.

But even if he is rationalizing, he presents a pretty good case.  He goes on to say that, for his loss, “other gifts have followed,” for which he has received “abundant recompense.” Instead of animal interaction with nature, he now sees within nature, and within humanity as well, a spiritual presence that, like the powerful streams, “rolls through all things”:

                                   That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. 

To be sure, Wordsworth wrote these lines when he was 28, not 59, as I am.  Then again, he had aged a lot in those years, what with witnessing France’s reign of terror and being separated from an illegitimate child by the French Revolution.  A quiet peace sounds pretty good from that vantage point.  As one who has gone through his own turmoil and who now feels calmer and more at peace, I can testify to the advantages of aging.  It lacks the adrenaline rush of dread, but that’s all right.

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