Poems 52: The Peace of Wild Things (Wendell Berry)
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.
This drove me slightly crazy in memorising because I had the flu and the lines don’t scan. The syllable count for each line varies without structure and the sentences are all variable lengths and there are barely any internal assonances or repeated or linked phrases so in the end, it feels much more like a prose paragraph that has been cut at random. Spoken aloud, the lines have the rhythm of someone speaking plainly and not reciting.
I am glad to have it finally stuck in my head. The first line that did was And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light because I have when looking at the day sky thought often that the stars are there, only out of sight. The poem has an odd tension about anthropomorphising the natural world, where ‘forethought of grief’ is not felt. He doesn’t deny a state of emotion to nature, because the wood drake rests, the stars wait, but rather the anxious creation of emotion to an uncertain future.
I read Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims last week, and one line struck me in consternation: “Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.”
Imagination, fantasy and analysis are terms I use easily for very good things: the act of creating a story with people and inhabiting them, of creating new ideas from different scattered parts, of looking at a multitude of voices and accounts and drawing out a deeper understanding.
It seemed strange, almost hypocritical to urge people to flee those things, when Fr Hopko’s writings certainly involved them.
But in Berry’s poem, it isn’t fear that counters peace, but despair and fear of what lies ahead, what might be. Animals certainly experience fear, but they do not sacrifice a part of their present emotional experience for future worries.
And that’s what I think is meant by Hopko too. To create and to understand, yes. But to take the present and pull it apart out of fear and uncertainty with our own anxious imaginings and worried fantasies, in pursuit of a false sense of control rather than acceptance, is to rob ourselves.
In this poem, the narrator goes to nature and comes into a place to rest. There’s a sense of movement towards a still point, waiting, resting and being free. There is no action and time pauses. He does not need to do anything with the animals or to change them, simply to be there.
I’ve put one of his books, The Long-Legged House, on order at our library. I haven’t read many naturalist essays for a long time.
I used to leave the house as a child and wander around the garden or neighbourhood at night because it was so quiet and peaceful. Now, when I walk through a park or by the canal near our house, I stop at the flight of an egret and there is no need to do anything but watch the bird glide over the water and remember the day-blind stars waiting with their light.