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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘Little Rivers’
By Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)
 
A RIVER is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things. It has a life, a character, a voice of its own; and is as full of good-fellowship as a sugar-maple is of sap. It can talk in various tones, loud or low; and of many subjects, grave or gay. Under favorable circumstances it will even make a shift to sing; not in a fashion that can be reduced to notes and set down in black and white on a sheet of paper, but in a vague, refreshing manner, and to a wandering air that goes
  “Over the hills and far away.”
For real company and friendship, there is nothing outside of the animal kingdom that is comparable to a river.
  1
  I will admit that a very good case can be made out in favor of some other objects of natural affection. For example, a fair apology has been offered by those ambitious persons who have fallen in love with the sea. But after all, that is a formless and disquieting passion. It lacks solid comfort and mutual confidence. The sea is too big for loving, and too uncertain. It will not fit into our thoughts. It has no personality, because it has so many. It is a salt abstraction. You might as well think of loving a glittering generality like “the American woman.” One would be more to the purpose.  2
  Mountains are more satisfying because they are more individual. It is possible to feel a very strong attachment for a certain range whose outline has grown familiar to our eyes; or a clear peak that has looked down, day after day, upon our joys and sorrows, moderating our passions with its calm aspect. We come back from our travels, and the sight of such a well-known mountain is like meeting an old friend unchanged. But it is a one-sided affection. The mountain is voiceless and imperturbable; and its very loftiness and serenity sometimes makes us the more lonely.  3
  Trees seem to come closer to our life. They are often rooted in our richest feelings; and our sweetest memories, like birds, build nests in their branches. I remember, the last time I saw James Russell Lowell (only a few weeks before his musical voice was hushed), he walked out with me into the quiet garden at Elmwood to say good-by. There was a great horse-chestnut tree beside the house, towering above the gable, and covered with blossoms from base to summit,—a pyramid of green supporting a thousand smaller pyramids of white. The poet looked up at it with his gray, pain-furrowed face, and laid his trembling hand upon the trunk. “I planted the nut,” said he, “from which this tree grew. And my father was with me, and showed me how to plant it.”  4
  Yes, there is a good deal to be said in behalf of tree-worship; and when I recline with my friend Tityrus beneath the shade of his favorite oak, I consent to his devotions. But when I invite him with me to share my orisons, or wander alone to indulge the luxury of grateful, unlaborious thought, my feet turn not to a tree, but to the bank of a river; for there the musings of solitude find a friendly accompaniment, and human intercourse is purified and sweetened by the flowing, murmuring water. It is by a river that I would choose to make love, and to revive old friendships, and to play with the children, and to confess my faults, and to escape from vain, selfish desires, and to cleanse my mind from all the false and foolish things that mar the joy and peace of living. Like David’s hart, I pant for the water-brooks; and would follow the advice of Seneca, who says, “Where a spring rises, or a river flows, there should we build altars and offer sacrifices.”  5
  The personality of a river is not to be found in its water, nor in its bed, nor in its shore. Either of these elements, by itself, would be nothing. Confine the fluid contents of the noblest stream in a walled channel of stone, and it ceases to be a stream; it becomes what Charles Lamb calls “a mockery of a river—a liquid artifice—a wretched conduit.” But take away the water from the most beautiful river-banks, and what is left? An ugly road with none to travel it; a long ghastly scar on the bosom of the earth.  6
  The life of a river, like that of a human being, consists in the union of soul and body, the water and the banks. They belong together. They act and react upon each other. The stream molds and makes the shore: hollowing out a bay here and building a long point there; alluring the little bushes close to its side, and bending the tall slim trees over its current; sweeping a rocky ledge clean of everything but moss, and sending a still lagoon full of white arrow-heads and rosy knot-weed far back into the meadow. The shore guides and controls the stream: now detaining and now advancing it; now bending it in a hundred sinuous curves, and now speeding it straight as a wild bee on its homeward flight; here hiding the water in a deep cleft overhung with green branches, and there spreading it out, like a mirror framed in daisies, to reflect the sky and the clouds; sometimes breaking it with sudden turns and unexpected falls into a foam of musical laughter, sometimes soothing it into a sleepy motion like the flow of a dream.  7
  And is it otherwise with the men and women whom we know and like? Does not the spirit influence the form, and the form affect the spirit? Can we divide and separate them in our affections?  8
  I am no friend to purely psychological attachments. In some unknown future they may be satisfying; but in the present I want your words and your voice, with your thoughts, your looks and your gestures, to interpret your feelings. The warm, strong grasp of Great-heart’s hand is as dear to me as the steadfast fashion of his friendships; the lively, sparkling eyes of the master of Rudder Grange charm me as much as the nimbleness of his fancy; and the firm poise of the Hoosier Schoolmaster’s shaggy head gives me new confidence in the solidity of his views of life. I like the pure tranquillity of Isabel’s brow as well as her
              “—most silver flowOf subtle-pacèd counsel in distress.”
The soft cadences and turns in my Lady Katrina’s speech draw me into the humor of her gentle judgments of men and things. The touches of quaintness in Angelica’s dress—her folded kerchief and smooth-parted hair—seem to partake of herself, and enhance my admiration for the sweet odor of her thoughts and her old-fashioned ideals of love and duty. Even so the stream and its channel are one life; and I cannot think of the swift brown flood of the Batiscan without its shadowing primeval forests, or the crystalline current of the Boquet without its beds of pebbles and golden sand, and grassy banks embroidered with flowers.
  9
  Every country—or at least every country that is fit for habitation—has its own rivers; and every river has its own quality: and it is the part of wisdom to know and love as many as you can; seeing each in the fairest possible light, and receiving from each the best that it has to give. The torrents of Norway leap down from their mountain homes with plentiful cataracts, and run brief but glorious races to the sea. The streams of England move smoothly through green fields and beside ancient, sleepy towns. The Scotch rivers brawl through the open moorland, and flash along steep Highland glens. The rivers of the Alps are born in icy caves, from which they issue forth with furious, turbid waters; but when their anger has been forgotten in the slumber of some blue lake, they flow down more softly to see the vineyards of France and Italy, the gray castles of Germany, and the verdant meadows of Holland. The mighty rivers of the West roll their yellow floods through broad valleys, or plunge down dark cañons. The rivers of the South creep under dim arboreal archways heavy with banners of waving moss. The Delaware and the Hudson and the Connecticut are the children of the Catskills and the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, cradled among the forests of spruce and hemlock, playing through a wild woodland youth, gathering strength from numberless tributaries to bear their great burdens of lumber, and turn the wheels of many mills, issuing from the hills to water a thousand farms, and descending at last, beside new cities, to the ancient sea.  10
  Every river that flows is good, and has something worthy to be loved. But those that we love most are always the ones that we have known best,—the stream that ran before our father’s door, the current on which we ventured our first boat or cast our first fly, the brook on whose banks we first picked the twin flower of young love. However far we may travel, we come back to Naaman’s state of mind: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”  11
 
 
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