You should know as you read this poem that the poet, Wendell Berry, is also a farmer and a long-time outspoken advocate of small farming and local economies. His book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture,” describes the many destructive aspects of modern, mechanized agribusiness.
So, in his poem, when the speaker feels despair for the modern world, how do the wood drake and the heron help? Are birds peaceful? Not really — they fight, they defend their territory, they scrabble for food, they get injured and die.
Maybe “peace” has another connotation here.
The creatures don’t “tax their lives with forethought / of grief.” That’s it. They “rest in the grace of the world.” Which brings up another question: This world of struggle and grief—what’s “graceful” about it?
I don’t get the feeling that the poem wants to deny trouble or even exactly escape from it.
But to see it as it is, working its own way out simply step-by-step, opening itself to each moment.
When trouble comes, well, it comes. But also, this is a world of still water, and stars are waiting till night to reveal their light.
Many people say, “I don’t know how to read poetry.” Read slowly, I tell them.
Come to the poem the way the speaker in this one comes to the wild things.
Leave behind preconceived notions of what you think the poem will be like. Leave behind ideas of what poetry is.
Read slowly enough not to miss “day-blind stars,” to notice that we’re the ones who are blind to the stars, in daytime. They keep shining.
Enter the last line and let the word “free” stay with you for a while.
We throw that word around with abandon in this “land of the free.” What, exactly, does it mean here, or anywhere? In what way is the speaker “free”?
It seems to be a far deeper “free” than just being able to escape for a few minutes to a peaceful moment. He’s seeing how the wild things live, fully present in their moment.
The poem imparts its peace to us in its language. “I go,” “I come,” “rests,” “feeds,” all are gentle words. Try substituting “I hike,” “I stretch out,” “paddles,” and “stabs little fish”. Almost every line has its own way of quieting us down. The harshest word in the poem is “tax,” which is what we don’t need to do.
I’ve written so many words here about a simple little poem. You could just read the poem and skip my words. Sometimes, though, when I hear someone talk about a poem, it slows me down more, helps me to take the poem in, in some ways I hadn’t considered. When I hold the poem with me a little longer, it becomes a part of me.
How can we get away with this kind of slowness in the morning newspaper, where everything seems urgent and quick? Quick, skim the headlines, quick, dip in and out of stories like a heron after a fish. Nothing wrong with that.
But there’s a stopping that allows for wisdom. That’s what Wendell Berry’s poem offers us.
Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.
The Peace of Wild Things
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.
— Wendell Berry (from The Selected Poems of Wendell
Berry, Counterpoint Press, 1998.)