‘Under the Waterfall’ is the last poem in the collection ‘Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries’ that was published in November 1914. Although the poem isn’t included in Poems of 1912-13 Veteris Vestigia Flammae, it seems a fitting prologue to them, rather than being the epilogue of Satires of Circumstance. Most reviewers, writes Tim Armstrong, ‘found the volume melancholy in tone.’ Lytton Strachey, a famous critic of the time, wrote ‘what gives Mr. Hardy’s poem their unique flavor in their utter lack of romanticism, their common, undecorated presentation of things.’ The poet Laurence Binyon wanted to ask ‘why he seems so insistently, as with a morbid absorption in the theme, to harp on that familiar note of the implanted crookedness of things and the inbred malignity of chance.’
‘In her memoir, Some Recollections, Emma Hardy writes, “often we walked down the beautiful Vallency Valley to Boscastle harbor where we had to jump over stones and climb over a low wall by rough steps, to come out on great wide spaces suddenly, with a sparkling little book into which we once lost a tiny picnic tumbler.” Hardy sketched Emma searching for the glass.’ (York Notes)
Under the Waterfall Analysis by Thomas Hardy
The poem is in speech marks, and is written as if being spoken. It is obviously spoken by a woman, presumably Emma. Just for four brief lines another speaker enters. The woman says that whenever she plunges her arm into a basin of water, it always reminds her of the hot August day when she and her lover had a picnic by a little river. She dropped the picnic glass into the water, and she plunged her arms into the river to try to retrieve it. But she was unable to find it.
From the beginning, her memory of this happy picnic is bittersweet. Plunging her arm into a basin of water always reminds her of
” The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.”
The memory is ‘sweet sharp’; the day of happening was ‘fugitive’; she fetches the reminiscence from a past that is mistily gray and is in a ‘shroud’ with all its deathly associations. This mix of happy past memory that is only fleeting, that has a sense of sharpness in it, for all its sweetness, and is fetched from a past with associations of death, is already poignant with a sense of not lasting long. This impression is intensified by the word ‘smart’ a few lines later. The only memory that leaves no sting, she says, is the purl of a little waterfall that has flowed thus all through the ages. The description of the little waterfall is full of liquid ‘l’ sounds in the word ‘purl’, ‘little’, ‘valley’, ‘fall’, ‘runlet’, ‘hollow’.
The next four lines come from a different voice, a colder voice that questions the first speaker’s feelings. ‘Why give this…….. why does plunging your arm…..?’
The woman answers, and her answer takes up the rest of the poem. She explains that the drinking glass they had used at their August picnic lies just under the waterfall. It is now the color of an opal, after many years’ movement of water over it. On the day of the picnic ‘my lover and I/Walked’ in a landscape of bright colors- blue and green. These colors suggest the color and life of this happy day, which years later can only be revisited through a ‘shroud of gray’. The language is consciously feminine, pretty and poetic: ‘a leaf-wove awning of green’. This happy picnic was shared: ‘we placed our basket of fruit and wine/ by the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine.’ ‘..we had drunk from the glass together’. It’s almost as if the glass was a chalice of love, and the wine gives a sense of their being intoxicated by their love, ‘lover’s wine’. Then
“I held the vessel to rinse in the fall, where it slipped, and sank, and was past recall.”
Neither could their happy love. The ‘cascade’s rhyme’ seems an image of the harmony of their love; she later refers to it as ‘the rhyme of love.’ And the tiny picnic tumbler of Emma’s diary entry has become a ‘chalice’, a symbol of their love:
“No lip has touched it since his and mine in turns there from sipped lovers’ wine.”
The tone of the poem is poignant: she keeps repeating the incident, re-telling this moment of happiness.
The tone of the poem is poignant; she keeps on repeating the incidents, re-telling the stories. Written in 1914, “Under the Waterfall” is one of the less familiar love poems. It’s an overtly personal lyric, and the strong emotion is channeled by Skippy tetrameter rhythms and simple paired rhymes. In fact, while Hardy doesn’t proclaim it as such, “Under the Waterfall” is an eclogue. From the opening speech- marks, and casually demonstrative “like this”, we understand there’s a second presence in the room, listening eagerly to the teller of the tale.
Theme and Central Idea:
Memory is very important in relation to Thomas Hardy’s poem as he has a very limited amount of themes which he uses. Although he wrote thousands of poems, his themes are limited to those of death, regret, love, nostalgia, reminiscence, and missed opportunities. All these themes are related with his memories, and his past. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a growing discord between him and his wife Emma. They had met at Cornwall when Hardy was an architect. He stayed for several days at the place where Emma lived and they walked and rode together. Four years later they fall in love and get married. At first the marriage seemed to be a success, but as the year unfolded, Emma became increasing jealous of Hardy’s success. When they both moved into Max Gate, a house which Hardy had designed, they were living separate lives under the same roof. At the end of 1912, when Emma suddenly died, Hardy was shocked and stricken with remorse, and this resulted in his outpouring of poems soon after this time. Under the Waterfall seems quite a happy and joyous poem by Hardy’s standards. There is a change of discourse in this poem which makes it stand out from his other poems from the same time period. The poet discusses happy times which he is remembering, when he and Emma were much closer.