‘Under the Waterfall’ by Thomas Hardy was written in 1914 and included in the collection Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries. It is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains 16, the second, four; the third twenty-six; and the fourth, six. Hardy chose to give this piece a very consistent rhyme scheme.
It follows a pattern of AABBCCDD and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. This simple rhyme scheme increases the romantic quality of the memories described. It is clear the speaker is recalling them wistfully, she is nostalgic for moments such as those detailed in ‘Under the Waterfall.’ In regards to the meter, there is no consistent pattern. The lines range greatly in length, some containing only four or five syllables, other stretching out past ten.
The most important themes of ‘Under the Waterfall” are clear by the time one finishes the first stanza. Hardy was concerned with topics of love, loss, and the power of memory. They show through in the speaker’s preoccupation with one pure, powerful memory of a simple picnic. When she is confronted with certain stimuli it is like time reverses and she’s taken back to the moments she is so nostalgic for. At the same time, there is a pervasive feeling of loss as there is no way for the speaker to make her way back to this time again.
Speaker and Tone
A reader will immediately notice upon beginning this piece that it is written within quotation marks. This makes it clear that it is being spoken; someone is speaking aloud, relating a memory. The speaker is likely a woman, and perhaps Emma Hardy, the poet’s first wife.
Hardy’s speaker’s tone is fairly consistent throughout ‘Under the Waterfall.’ There are moments in which she seems to sink into melancholia but for the most part she is enjoying indulging in the details of the long lost picnic and the symbolic glass. She speaks wistfully about this time and relishes the moments in which she is mentally and emotionally taken back to the waterfall.
Summary of Under the Waterfall
‘Under the Waterfall’ by Thomas Hardy relays a speaker’s memories of a time long past in which she and her lover picnicked beneath a waterfall and lost a glass.
The poem begins with the speaker telling an unknown listener that she is always brought back to one special memory whenever she puts her arm into cold water. It is a pure memory, one that does not bring her any pain. This alludes to the fact that there is some pain in her past, not all memories are like this one.
In the next lines the listener speaks and asks the woman why this memory is so special. This person’s tone is somewhat disbelieving. They do not really think one could be brought back so entirely to the past by cold water. The speaker is ready with an answer and in the next two stanzas describes why she loves this particular memory and how it is associated with cold water in a bucket or basin.
She tells the listener that there was one day she and her lover went to picnic underneath a small waterfall. While there, they ate fruit and drank wine. At one point during their outing she was washing the single glass they both drank from in the falls and she dropped it. It fell into a “crease” in the stone and was lost. They tried to revoker it by sticking their arms into the abyss but were unsuccessful. This is the reason why submerging her arm in cold water brings back one of her happiest memories.
In the last stanza she celebrates the fact that no matter what else happens in the world the glass will always be there. It is a symbol of the purity of their love in that moment. Even if they are no longer together today, their intact “chalice” of love lives on as a secret part of the waterfall.
Analysis of Under the Waterfall
‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
Hence the only prime
And real love-rhyme
That I know by heart,
And that leaves no smart,
Is the purl of a little valley fall
In the first lines of ‘Under the Waterfall’ the speaker begins by relating a sensory experience. It is meant to trigger in the reader something similar to what she was feeling at the time. The speaker describes sticking her arm into “a basin of water.” The action brings to mind other emotions, those associated with one specific day she spent with her love. It was a “fugitive day,” meaning that it was quick to disappear. It comes back to her from the “shroud of gray” that symbolizes the past and death.
The speaker is happy to be bought back to these times but is unable to escape from the fact that she’ll never really be there again. There is one memory she likes the most as it “leaves no smart,” it brings her nothing but pleasure. In this memory there is a “purl of a little valley fall.” This is the waterfall that the title refers to. The word “purl” is used in relation to the swirling motion of water.
About three spans wide and two spans tall
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’
The waterfall she is remember is “About three spans wide and two spans tall.” A “span” is a disused form of measurement that refers to the length a man’s hand. The waterfall the speaker remembers is quite small, and situated “Over a table of solid rock.” A single “runlet” of water moves down the rock. It never stops running and symbolizes the everlasting presence these memories have in her mind. As well as her desire to return to, and live within them.
She continues on to describe the impact this one stream of water has on her. She knows that no matter what happens in the larger world, whether there are wars or everlasting peace, the waterfall is always going to be there. The water speaks in its “boiling voice” and will continue to do so for the rest of time. She thinks back to when the landscape was just forming. The water was speaking way back then, when there was no “turf” on the peaks.
‘And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?’
The second stanza is the shortest of ‘Under the Waterfall’ at only four lines. The quatrain comes from a different speaker. This person asks the female speaker why she feels the way she does. Why, this person wonders, does this memory make her feel so good? And, why is it the only pure, harmless one she can return to? The voice speaking these lines has a very different tone than the female from the first stanza. This person is doubtful and perhaps scornful of the woman for giving so much meaning to a simple waterfall. After this stanza the second speaker is not heard from again.
‘Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though precisely where none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized,
Is a drinking glass:
For, down that pass
My lover and I
Walked under a sky
Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green,
In the burn of August, to paint the scene,
The third stanza of ‘Under the Waterfall’ is the longest. It contains the first speaker’s answers to the second speaker’s questions. First, she tells the questioner that deep within the “crease of the stone,”where no one could ever see it, is a “drinking glass.” No one but the speaker and her love knows it’s there, only increasing its importance to her.
The glass is connected to the parts of the memory that are as pleasurable and everlasting as the waterfall is. In the next lines the speaker relays the details of the time she and her “lover…Walked under a sky / Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green.” The two came to that exact location to have a picnic. The speaker recalls the day as being perfect. The trees made an “awning of green” above their heads that protected them from the August sun.These colours are bright, pure, and untinged by the passage of time. It is likely she is romanticizing the past, but at this point that does not matter. Her memories are the truth.
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
By the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and it sank, and was past recall,
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
In the next lines the speaker describes how the two sat and ate beside the waterfall. They had a “basket of fruit and wine.” It was there “By the runlet’s rim” that they spent the day. Eventually, after drinking from the glass referenced in the previous lines, the two rinsed the glass out in the water falling off the rock.
There was an accident and the glass slipped from the speaker’s hands. It fell and “sank, and was past recall.” There was no way the two could reclaim it. They tried though, by plunging their arms into “the little abyss.” This is where the memory connects back to the action of plunging one’s hand into a bucket or basin of water. To this day the glass remains somewhere in the “crease” of the rock.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in a basin or bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass we used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.
The speaker goes on to state that this is why when she thrusts her “arm… / Cold water in a basin or bowl” she is retuned to the picnic and the waterfall. Her past emotions are awoken by the actions and time is reversed. She can clearly see the “glass [they] used” and the “cascade’s rhythm.” This is as close as she’s ever going to get to returning to the waterfall with her unnamed lover.
Just to make sure the listener understands, she adds that the basin becomes the pool beneath the waterfall and the edge of the bowl becomes the “brook-side ledge.” The china of the basin she is thinking of, and the patterns it is decorated with, even relate to the “hanging plants” near the water’s edge.
‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies intact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’
The last stanza of ‘Under the Waterfall’ contains six lines and continues the narrative of the lost glass. The speaker connects the glass to the memory itself. It is as impossible to retrieve the glass as it is now a permanent part of the past.
She takes the listener back to something she said about the glass before, that its always going to be there through war and peace. Now, she states that it will remain whether the sun “shines or lours.” It might be sunny one day, and stormy the next, the glass will remain. The speaker also believes that their “chalice” is “intact.” Although it fell out of their reach, it is whole. This symbolizes the way she views the relationship, there is something still there between the two.
With the glass entombed beneath the waterfall, it adds to the “rhyme of love” sung by the water. The place becomes more important due to its presence. There is a purity to the glass now as well. This is due to the fact that “No lip has touched it since” the speaker and her lover’s.
What is never made clear in the text is the state of the relationship today. If one considers the speaker to be Hardy’s first wife, then one can assume the two are no longer together. Or, are at the very least separated. But, with the chalice comment in line two of the fourth stanza, one might assume that some emotion still exists between them. Alternatively, the intact chalice might now only represent emotions of the past that will never die or change.