Wendell Berry, Seeds of Hope, and the Survival of Creation

By Bush, Harold K., Jr. | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Wendell Berry, Seeds of Hope, and the Survival of Creation


Bush, Harold K., Jr., Christianity and Literature


Poets have commonly speculated about the purposes and effects of their works. Perhaps most famously, the British Romantics posited a version of the poet as prophetic mouthpiece of God. In Percy Bysshe Shelley's memorable formulation, "Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.... the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" ("Defense" 1087). In America, this lofty concept of the poet was taken up by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

   [The Poet] stands among partial man for the complete man.... The
   poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a
   sovereign, and stands on the centre.... whenever we are so finely
   organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is
   music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them
   down. (242, 244)

Walt Whitman took seriously Shelley's and Emerson's pronouncements, audaciously claiming, "American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people.... His spirit responds to his country's spirit.... he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes" (713). Although Victorian types like the Fireside Poets, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, were somewhat more restrained, they still saw their poetic works as contributing to both the democratization and ethical progress of America--and the world.

Opposed to these nineteenth-century tendencies was a more archly modern view, which tended to dismiss romantic ideas about art. Instead, modernists attempted to create what Richard Poirier once called a "world elsewhere," meaning in part that properly modernist poets were uninterested in the moral effects of their writing. Art and poetry constituted activity separate from the mundane world. As Archibald MacLeish memorably put it, poems "should not mean, but be." W. H. Auden summed up this position in his poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":

   For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
   In the valley of its saying where executives
   Would never want to tamper; it flows south
   From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
   Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
   A way of happening, a mouth. (94)

In recent days, there has been a resurgence, it seems, of certain romantic ideas about how art should be focused on this world and attempt somehow to legislate a proper view of culture and society. Much of this movement arose in the so-called protest poetry of the sixties era by the likes of W. S. Merwin and Gary Snyder. Certainly Merwin and Snyder have strong affinities with earlier pastoral poets. In addition, however, the work of "ecopoets" goes beyond the somewhat more naive speculations of the Romantics. Leonard M. Scigaj has noted, for instance, that ecopoetry is deeply conversant with contemporary ecological sciences, and as a result it "persistently stresses human cooperation with nature conceived as a dynamic, interrelated series of cyclic feedback systems" (Sustainable Poetry 37). According to J. Scott Bryson, ecopoetry, "while adhering to certain conventions of romanticism, also advances beyond that tradition and takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues" (5). Bryson identifies three primary characteristics that take ecopoetry beyond earlier forms: a focus on the interdependent nature of the world, an imperative toward humility regarding the natural world, and an intense skepticism about rationalism and technology (5-7). The upshot is a movement convinced of its ability to shape belief and practice in the modern world but also one largely beyond the naive individualism of earlier romanticisms.

John Gatta, in his impressively comprehensive study Making Nature Sacred, greatly expands and complicates the connection between the ecopoets and the Romantics. …

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