Created by God, days before He created man, after the light had been divided from darkness and the heavens firmly secured, water was gathered on the third day so that the dry land and the living world could appear. Water represents the middle level of the cosmos, right between heaven and Earth. This unifying element becomes the perfect liaison between the spiritual and the material worlds, and its visible connections as well as its mysterious metamorphoses, almost by supernatural means, will never cease to amaze and fascinate mankind from birth to death.
Due to its incredible versatility, water seems to be able to adapt to every circumstance, being one of the most divine blessings and the wisest teacher there is. In only one stanza and 12 lines, the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803- 1882) celebrates the duality of water, its vitalizing force and destructive potential, while also expressing his unconditional admiration and immeasurable indebtedness to “Water”: “It wets my foot, but prettily, / It chills my life, but wittily, / It is not disconcerted, / It is not broken-hearted:/ Well used, it decketh joy,/Adorned, doubleth joy”.
The contrast between its ability to provide happiness and its power to bring about loss and ruin is preceded by the poet’s presumption (in the introductory lines of the poem) that “The water understands / Civilization well”. Playfully personified, the pretty and witty, wholehearted water, even in its cruelest hour, is also capable of grace: “Ill used, it will destroy,/In perfect time and measure/ With a face of golden pleasure/Elegantly destroy.”
To a reader’s mind, the poem “Water” is an invitation to reflection, a persuasive picture of earthly life lived in harmony with nature and also a crystal-clear warning about what might happen if man continues to mistreat the environment and play God.
Influenced by the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson and following into the footsteps of his predecessor, Robert Frost (1874- 1963) imagines a symbolic duality fire-ice and uses strong, convincing images to warn the world about the impact of positive and negative emotions, both on a global scale and on a personal level. Before expressing his own personal views on the final destruction of the world, the poet introduces two rather objective, largely accepted apocalypse scenarios:”Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice.”
The desire of man – and maybe its concrete manifestations embodied by lust, greed, gluttony and other deadly sins caused by excessive behaviour – is thought to be able to become a fatal curse: “From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favour fire.”
On the other hand, the metaphorical equivalent of generalized hatred is capable of unfolding an even more dramatic future in front of our eyes. A frozen perspective, resembling a new ice age, symbolized by the end of love could also bring the fall of the humanity: “But if it had to perish twice,/ I think I know enough of hate/ To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.”
A third American voice paying tribute to the same muse, water, belongs to Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). The same poetess who had previously written that “Water is taught by thirst” (CXXXIII), proving that, ironically enough, the absence of some things teaches us their real value, gives us a few more insightful lessons in poem CXXXIV included in Part Four: Time and Eternity: “We thirst at first, -‘t is Nature’s act; /And later, when we die, /A little water supplicate/ Of fingers going by.”
Dickinson’s sensitivity makes the natural laws of life and death seem to have been written in tears for mankind: thirsty and unfulfilled at first, longing for more thereafter, hopeless and settling for “a little water” later on, on the death bed. Dickinson is aware of man’s tragic fate, and while the natural world, water in particular, has both time and eternity, mankind appears to be denied either.
However, physical thirst, together with a desire for the finer things in life, seems to temporarily quench man’s spiritual thirst for immortality: “It intimates the finer want,/Whose adequate supply/ Is that Great Water in the West/Termed Immortality.”
Living a life of painful deprivation before being condemned to experience a humble death makes man’s sufferings not only unavoidable, but also necessary. After all, the same fingers which built human civilization in Emerson’s poem and will probably sketch the Frostian end of the world in burning shades of fiery red or iced indifference, once signed a contract with the very nature they found on this planet. The fact that these feeble extensions of life will one last day need nothing more than a glass of water makes us reevaluate our choices and our priorities.
The wonders of the natural world are God’s gifts, the present we are supposed to seize without robbing from the future generations. Among these wonders, water teaches us that time and immortality can belong to our species as well, as long as we learn to protect the external world for the sake of our descendants and allow more space in our hearts for love. Just like the water cycle, we should be able to change without losing anything.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson are three poets who used their words to make significant differences in the way we perceive the material and spiritual reality. To save their world, each of them turned to water for inspiration and exemplification and they have been generously repaid. Century after century, an echo of a word of hope or a word of warning will reach us, enlightening our souls and reminding us of how God created our heaven on Earth and why we should not destroy it.