Like the lens of a camera, poetry can put reality into sharper focus and prod us to see the world with fresh eyes. The following poems written by three famous poets are about water, a subject many people tend to take for granted. They are notable for their effective use of rhythm, diction and imagery to deliver a philosophical message. A brief analysis (in itals) follows each of the poems.

Water, is taught by thirst.

by Emily Dickinson (American, 1830–1886)

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land — by the Oceans passed.
Transport — by throe —
Peace — by its battles told —
Love, by Memorial Mold —
Birds, by the Snow.

Dickinson enumerates six things that have passed but are made palpable by what is present. She begins by juxtaposing water and thirst and ends with the touching image of birds and snow. It is a play in opposites. The poem may seem simple, but it expresses a deep psychological insight: the capacity of human beings to remember and treasure the past. — BU


By Ralph Waldo Emerson (American, 1803–1882)

The water understands
Civilization well;
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,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

The poet personifies water to show its various facets. Water understands the needs of humans: “It wets my foot, but prettily, / It chills my life, but wittily.” But just like humans, it can be driven to anger and destruction if abused: “In perfect time and measure/ With a face of golden pleasure / Elegantly destroy.” The ultimate lines of the poem remind us of the beauty and power of the sea and even rivers. — BU

The Old Men Admiring Themselves In the Water

by William Butler Yeats (Irish, 1865–1939)

I heard the old, old men say,
‘Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.’
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say,
‘All that’s beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.’

The title calls to mind the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection in a stream and pined away. The difference is that the water in Yeats’ poem does not mirror the beauty of youth but the ugliness of old age. The imagery is powerful: hands “like claws” and knees “twisted like the old thorn-trees”. Unlike Narcissus, Yeats’ old men have become wise. They realise that life is transient and beauty fades. — BU

~ Barista Uno

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