One poet’s poem can serve as a commentary on another poet’s poem, allowing us insights into the minds of both.
After last week’s discussion on Robert Frost and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, ” I started reading Wendell Berry’s recent collection, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. One of the included poems, first published in 1979 and collected in The Timbered Choir in 1999, is untitled but generally known by its first line, “The bell calls in the town.”
I read a first line like that, and I’m immediately reminded of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (“His house in the village though”). As it turns out, both poems used the woods as an important element, perhaps the important element. Both use the idea of a journey or pilgrimage. And both offer a contrast between natural and man-made or man-created, faint as it might be in the Frost poem.
I put the two poems side by side and notice the most obvious difference—the Berry poem is longer. And yet it’s almost as if Berry had the Frost poem in mind or in front of him when he wrote “The bell calls in town.” Here’s the poem in its entirety:
The bell calls in town
The bell calls in the town
Where forebears cleared the shaded land
And brought high daylight down
To shine on field and trodden road.
I hear, but understand
Contrarily, and walk into the woods.
I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.
I climb up through the field
That my long labor has kept clear.
Projects, plans unfulfilled
Waylay and snatch at me like briars,
For there is no rest here
Where ceaseless effort seems to be required,
Yet fails, and spirit tires
With flesh, because failure
And weariness are sure
In all that mortal wishing has inspired.
I go in pilgrimage
Across an old fenced boundary
To wildness without age
Where, in their long dominion,
The trees have been left free.
They call the soil here “Eden”; slants and steeps
Hard to stand straight upon
Even without a burden.
No more a perfect garden,
There’s an immortal memory that it keeps.
I leave work’s daily rule
And come here to this restful place
Where music stirs the pool
And from high stations of the air
Fall notes of wordless grace,
Strewn remnants of the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
And I remember here
A tale of evil twined
With good, serpent and vine
And innocence of evil’s stratagem.
I let that go a while,
For it is hopeless to correct
By generations’ toil,
And I let go my hopes and plans
That no toil can perfect.
There is no vision here but what is seen:
White bloom nothing explains.
But a mute blessedness
Exceeding all distress,
The fresh light stained a hundred shades of green.
Uproar of wheel and fire
That has contained us like a cell
Opens and lets us hear
A stillness longer than all time
Where leaf and song fulfill
The passing light, pass with the light, return,
Renewed, as in rhyme.
This is no human vision
Subject to our revision;
God’s eye holds every leaf as light is worn.
Ruin is in place here:
The dead leaves rotting on the ground,
The live leaves in the air
Are gathered in a single dance
That turns them round and round.
The fox cub trots his almost pathless path
As silent as his absence.
These passings resurrect
A joy without defect,
The life that steps and sings in ways of death.
Reading makes the differences apparent. In Frost’s poem, the narrator is driving a horse-drawn wagon through the woods. In Berry’s, the narrator chooses to leave the town behind and walk through the woods. The Frost poem uses the woods to frame the journey; the Berry poem uses the woods as the journey. The difference is subtle, but I think important. For Frost, the woods are something there, something to be gotten through; for Berry, the woods are something to be almost celebrated, a contrast with the town or village left behind.
Both poems, however, quietly note the house in the village, Frost citing it directly and Berry by referring to the bell in the town. For Berry, God’s house in effect is the woods, a kind of natural cathedral that men have cleared to bring “the daylight down.” The poem’s narrator doesn’t want the daylight down, noting that he thinks contrarily and intends to tell a different story, the story of where the daylight remains up as it was originally created.
Frost’s poem is simpler, more compact. Berry’s poem is perhaps more ambitious, linking the woods to a life most of us have turned our backs on, or didn’t even know existed to turn our backs on, to the original creation story.
This isn’t unusual in any of Berry’s writing, including poetry, prose and fiction. What he writes is all of a piece, reflecting his ideas of community, faith, progress, industrialization, and agriculture. The woods are something of a haven, but Berry recognizes they are also part of the fall of man. Nature, too, reflects and expresses that “tale of evil / twined with good, serpent and vine / And innocence of evil’s stratagem.”
To place the two poems side by side is to see two generations, two understandings, and two philosophies, and how they relate and differ.
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