Clear and Gentle Stream by Robert Bridges

‘Clear and Gentle Stream’ by Robert Bridges is one of Bridges’ most popular poems and since his death has been set to music. It is a four stanza piece that is divided into sets of twelve lines. These lines follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABBACDCDEFAA, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. 

Repetition is an important element of this piece and it is quite evident through the use of a refrain. The refrain (a repeated phrase) appears in the first and last lines of the first and last stanzas. They cap off the speaker’s lyrical description of his connection to the river. They also play into the content of the poem, due to the fact that they make it seem more like a song meant to be heard aloud. 

In regards to the meter, the poem is almost entirely consistent. Each line, except for a select few, contains five syllables. Those that diverge from this pattern are in the third stanza, lines one, eleven and twelve (all of which rhyme). These three different lines are only one syllable longer than those which come before and after them. This does not impact the overall feeling of the poem in any significant way. 

 

Summary of Clear and Gentle Stream 

‘Clear and Gentle Stream’ by Robert Bridges describes a speaker’s experience when he returns to a special place by a stream from his boyhood. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is back in a spot he used to know very well. It is beside a stream, under the boughs of a tree. He sits where he used to sit, and looks at all the familiar sights. It is as if he has returned to his youth, he is even inspired to engage with his old dreams. 

In the next lines he takes note of the fish, swans, and overall peaceful ecosystem around him. The third stanza focuses on the coming on of evening. Just like he did when he was young, he has idled his time away on the stream’s banks. The shadows of evening are creeping up beside him. It is not a bad sight though, as he has the brightening moon to see by. 

The speaker wants to increase the peaceful nature of the scene even more. He decides to sing aloud his “old lament,” the same song he sung many years past. It contained all his hopes and dreams. Now, it is a way of engaging with one of the most important themes of the poem, nostalgia, on the deepest level possible.

 

Analysis of Clear and Gentle Stream 

Stanza One 

Clear and gentle stream ! 

Known and loved so long, 

That hast heard the song, 

And the idle dream 

Of my boyish day ; 

While I once again 

Down thy margin stray, 

In the selfsame strain 

Still my voice is spent, 

With my old lament, 

And my idle dream, 

Clear and gentle stream! 

In the first stanza of ‘Clear and Gentle Steam’ the speaker begins by exclaiming over the stream referenced in the title. It is clear from the start that he has a great deal of appreciation for it. He goes on to refer to the stream as a thing he has known for a long time. As long as he has known it, he has also loved it. The emotions he directs at the stream can be traced all the way back to a “boyish dream.” 

Now, many years have passed since these days of his youth, but he has found himself going down that same “margin” along the edge of the river. He “stray[ed]” there. This suggests that he wandered along and ended up there rather than going there with a plan. He goes on to state that now his “voice is spent.” 

He is dwelling on the same old “lament” of his boyish days. The stream is just as much a part of the “idle dream” now as it was then. Bridges adds the refrain at the end of this line as well. It is as if the speaker is in ecstasy over the stream and what it brings back into his mind. 

 

Stanza Two

Where my old seat was 

Here again I sit, 

Where the long boughs knit 

Over stream and grass 

A translucent eaves: 

Where back eddies play 

Shipwreck with the leaves, 

And the proud swans stray, 

Sailing one by one 

Out of stream and sun, 

And the fish lie cool 

In their chosen pool. 

In the second stanza this speaker makes his way to place that he always loved the most. His “old seat.” Now, after the passage of many years, he is sitting there again. There is a convergence of the past and the present that makes the experience all the more moving. 

While sitting, the speaker looks around and recognizes all the sights he used to love as boy. There are the “long boughs” of branches which are “knit” together over the “stream.” When he looks into the water he can see the “eddies” playing. They create shipwrecks out of the leaves. 

There are also swans in this scene. They are “stray[ing]” just like the speaker did, finding their way to, and up, the stream. He goes on to speak on how the swans are in line, making their way past him, sailing in the stream. Lastly, he mentions the “fish.” They are in the cool water, each within its “chosen pool.” There is an overwhelming sense of belonging in this place. The speaker is clearly comfortable here and he can look around him and understand the comforts the ecosystem brings to its inhabitants everyday. 

 

Stanza Three 

Many an afternoon 

Of the summer day 

Dreaming here I lay; 

And I know how soon, 

Idly at its hour, 

First the deep bell hums 

From the minster tower, 

And then evening comes, 

Creeping up the glade, 

With her lengthening shade, 

And the tardy boon, 

Of her brightening moon. 

In the third stanza of ‘Clear and Gentle Steam’ the speaker goes back to reminiscing on what his life was like when he was young. He thinks about the afternoons of summer he spent “Dreaming” and laying where he is now. At the same time as he remembers visiting the spot by the stream, he recalls being made to leave by the bells “From the minster tower.” 

The speaker idled away his time when he was young, indulging himself in the peace at the stream’s edge; just as he is now. Also, as when he was young, the evening begins to creep in. It comes “up the glade.” The shadows stretch out and at the same time the moon begins to brighten in the sky. This is another equally peaceful scene that to the speaker can only be experienced in the same way in this particular place. 

 

Stanza Four 

Clear and gentle stream ! 

Ere again I go 

Where thou dost not flow, 

Well does it beseem 

Thee to hear again 

Once my youthful song, 

That familiar strain 

Silent now so long : 

Be as I content 

With my old lament, 

And my idle dream, 

Clear and gentle stream! 

In the final stanza of ‘Clear and Gentle Steam,’ the refrain is used twice more, once at the beginning and again at the end. He makes the decision, before leaving his spot by the stream, to let it hear his “youthful song” once more. This is likely the “lament” referenced in the first stanza. It is tied together with his dreams and the love he feels for the place. 

He wants the stream to hear from him again as it did when he was a boy. The speaker hopes that the addition of his song to the scene will complete his memory. He will fully return to the times of his youth and the stream will be as content as he plans to be. 

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