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Wendell Berry


By Margaret Boelter


    Born and Raised on a farm in Henry County, Kentucky Wendell Berry is the epitome of an agrarian writer. Both families of his parents had farmed in Henry County for over five generations. After attending University of Kentucky in the late 1950s, he published his first novel in 1960. He returned to to Henry County and purchased a farm and began growing corn and small grains. To this day he still farms and writes on his homestead in Kentucky which he has maintained for more than 40 years.

    Wendell Berry is a well-known environmental author who was most active in the mid-to-late 20th century. “He has been one of our most eloquent and persuasive advocates for the health of this world” (Taylor). While he was a leader of the environmental movement, his themes stretched far beyond that. He advocates an alternative tradition that stresses community over individual, stewardship over-exploitation, and long-term sustainability over short-term gain.

    Wendell Berry was active in many revolutionary movements including environmentalism and opposition to the Vietnam War. He leads a humble life that emphasizes the importance of traditional, family values and many Christian themes reveal themselves in his work. Berry's poetry rarely follows a metrical style, he more frequently uses a traditionalist kind of free verse.

    One of Berry's short poems “Prayers After Eating” exemplifies his connection with Christianity and his appreciation for the natural world.

I have taken in the light that quickened eye and leaf. May my brain be bright with praise of what I eat, in the brief blaze of motion and of thought. May I be worthy of my meat (Berry 169)

    He gives the first clue to the nature of the poem in the title. “Prayer” suggests the story unfolding within the poem. The first two lines have other worldly connotations. “Light” is often associated with God and Heaven. In addition, this light mentioned in line 1 gives life to leaves (photosynthesis) and allows eyes to see. While this light may just be sunlight, it is still symbolic of Enlightenment, knowledge, and holiness (God’s power to create).

    Lines 3 and 4 use lots of alliteration (as seen with “may my”, “brain be bright” and “brief blaze”) and rhyming (as seen with “praise” and “blaze”) to create a lyrical tone that gives life to the poem. Prayers, especially those said at the dinner table (called Grace), are often known by heart and are recited in the same rhythm each time. In these two lines and line 5, the speaker is trying intensely to honor what they eat in the brief moments while saying Grace. The intensity of their reverence is revealed through the use of words like “bright” and “blaze” in lines 3 and 4 whose alliteration also multiplies their effect.

    The final line summarizes the purpose of the poem. The speaker ends their prayer in a manner unique to religious pleas. Many Christians ask whether or not they are worthy of Christ's love either in a rhetorical or philosophical level. In this poem, it asks a similar question: are humans are worthy of anything they take from the Earth or the Heavens?

    “The Want of Peace” and “The Peace of Wild Things” were written and published in the late 1960s when the Vietnam War and social upheaval were prevalent. It's easy to see why someone living in the 1960's would feel despair for the state of the world and have that reflect in their writing. Around the same time the environmental movement was gaining steam and Wendell Berry was a huge figure in it.

    “The Want of Peace” is about the fate of the human race and of the Earth's ability to sustain life:

All goes back to the earth, and so I do not desire pride of excess or power, but the contentments made by men who have had little: the fisherman's silence receiving the river's grace, the gardner's musing on rows. I lack the peace of simple things. I am never wholly in place. I find no peace or grace. We sell the world to buy fire, our way lighted by burning men, and that has bent my mind and made me think of darkness and wish for the dumb life of roots (Berry 78).

    The title of this poem and the first line argue that every action, decision, and consequence anything or anyone makes affects the Earth. The speaker reveals that they only seek simple contentments like those that a fisherman or Gardener has. The use of “receiving” in line 7 puts the fisherman in the subordinate position to the river and elevates the idea of letting nature decide the state of the world.

    Despite the speaker's appreciation for the simple pleasures, they have yet to experience “the peace of simple things” mentioned in line 9. At this point the tone shifts from positive to negative. The speaker notes the reality of the world as materialistic and destructive in line 12. In response the speaker is depressed and wishes for ignorance in these hours in the last two lines of the poem.

    “The Peace of Wild Things” reflects the hopeless despair many were feeling during the turbulent 1960s, especially in lines 1-3:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free (Berry 79).

    The poem does not express a direct solution to the roots of the despair nor does it explicitly state what those roots are but it shows a way to mediate the despair by visiting nature. This poem promotes cooperation between humans and nature because nature can provide tranquility from the chaotic and ugly human world. In line 6, the speaker comes “into the peace of wild things” as they enter nature. The juxtaposition between “peace” and “wild” acknowledges how absurd it is to find peace in something as unpredictable as nature but it also unites the two. The next line, line 7, is an argument for why wild things are so peaceful. Animals other than humans have little concept of the future and therefore do not worry about it like the speaker does. There is also a paradox in this relationship. Humans who have the ability to control their world end up feeling more helpless than animals who have little control of their world.

    In line 8, the still water the author stands next to provides for their comfort. It also alludes to a well-known biblical phrase from the Psalm 23: “he leads me beside still waters.” In addition, “come[s] into the presence of still water” in line 8 echoes the same Psalm. The poem suggests that nature can have the same comfort as God does for a religious person. This allusion and the ambiguity created when the speaker doesn't explicitly state their problems expands the application of the poem beyond the time period it was written in.

    “In Extremis: Poems About My Father” is a poem in 12 parts written in memory of Barry's father. At the end of the sectional poem about his father, part XII, Berry reminisces the impact his father has had on him. His father taught him how to farm, how to act, and how to feel. Most importantly, he taught him how to appreciate the good in simplicity, farming, and nature.

What did I learn from him? He taught the difference Between good work and sham, Between nonsense and sense
The first line lets the readers know that this philosophy Berry is inherited from his father gets back from his grandfather and perhaps further.
"Look. See that this is good. And then you won't forget." I saw it as he said, And I have not forgot (Berry 334).
The scene Berry’s dad wants to him to remember as a simple scene of cattle grazing as the sun sets in an earlier stanza. Berry has lots of reverence for an agrarian lifestyle particularly because it was so dear to his dad. It also explains why Berry believes that simple pleasures like farming and basic needs like food and water are all anyone needs to be content in life.

    The poem also explores what life after death is. What does someone leave behind and how are they remembered after death? Berry’s poem shows that the impact anyone has on another allows that person's memory and ideals to survive after death. Wendell Berry was able to synthesize themes of community and stewardship throughout his diverse works. His pieces provide insight into a world city-folk are not familiar with.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. New Collected Poems. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012. Print. Deneen, Patrick J. "Wendell Berry and the Alternative Tradition in American Political Thought." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 393, Gale, 2016. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 6 Dec. 2016. Originally published in Wendell Berry, edited by Jason Peters, UP of Kentucky, 2007, pp. 300-315. Taylor, Henry. "'All Goes Back to the Earth' The Poetry of Wendell Berry." Southern Cultures, vol. 7, no. 3, 2001, p. 31. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 6 Dec. 2016. The New Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Henry Wansbrough. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Print.

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