Nothing is more surprising than the indifference of Southerners to their rivers. Where, for instance, throughout its course do you ever hear the Thames spoken of as “Thames”—as if it was a person, which no doubt it is? In the North you talk of Lune and Leven, Esk and Eden:
Tweed said to Till,
What gars ye run so still?
Scotland shows the same respect. Do you remember when Bailie Nicol Jarvie points out the Forth to Francis? “Yon’s Forth,” he said with great solemnity. That was well observed by Scott. In Italy—notably in Tuscany—a river is always spoken of without the definite article. It may be the case in Devonshire too; but it is never done here in South Wilts though we have five beautiful streams ministering to our county town. Indeed Wiltshire people are nearly as bad as the Cockneys, who always call their Thames “the river,” which is as if a man might say “the railway.”
Beautiful how Burns personified his rivers! More, he individualised them. The same verb won’t do. You have:
Where Cart rins rowin’ to the sea,
Where Doon rins wimplin’ clear;
And Dante says, or makes Francesca say,
Siede la terra dove nata fui
Sulla marina dove Po discende
Per aver pace co’ seguaci sui.
Per aver pace: a lovely phrase. And that brings me to Michael Drayton.
That was a poet—author also of one lovely lyric—who treated our rivers after the fashion of his day, which ran to length and tedious excess. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis is by pages too long; but that is nothing to Drayton’s masterpiece. With the best dispositions in the world I have never been able to get right through the Polyolbion. His anthropomorphism is surprising, and a little of it only, amusing.
Here is an example, wherein he desires to express the fact that an island called Portholme stands in the Ouse at Huntingdon.
Held on with this discourse, she—[that
is, Ouse]—not so far hath run,
But that she is arrived at goodly Huntingdon
Where she no sooner views her darling and delight,
Proud Portholme, but becomes so ravished with the sight,
That she her limber arms lascivious doth throw
About the islet’s waist, who being embraced so,
Her flowing bosom shows to the enamour’d Brook;
and so on.
That will be enough to show that one really might have too much of the kind of thing. In Drayton you very soon do; every page begins to crawl with demonstrative monsters, and there is soon a good deal more love-making than love. But you may read Drayton for all sorts of reasons and find some much better than others. He describes Britain league by league, and is said to have the accuracy of a roadbook. In thirty books, then, of perhaps 500 lines apiece, he conducts you from Land’s End to Berwick-on-Tweed, naming every river and hill, dramatising, as it were,