In 1980, Robert Bly, a leading American poet, compiled an unusual poetry anthology titled News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. It is a substantial book comprising over one hundred and fifty poems, ranging from the eighteenth century to the present day and over a number of different cultural traditions. One of the poems Bly selected was Wendell Berry’s ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things.’’ The premise of the anthology is that there had been a development in poetry over the previous two hundred years that reflected a profound change in how people viewed nature and their relationship to it. In what Bly calls the ‘‘Old Position,’’ which was well established in European culture in the eighteenth century, human reason was held to be the highest quality, and humans believed that because they possessed reason and nature did not, they were therefore superior to everything else in nature. They were of the view that ‘‘nature is defective because it lacks reason.’’ Bly points out that when seventeenth and eighteenth-century poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope described nature they did it in general terms that were often vague and inaccurate and suggested that they had hardly bothered to look at the object they were describing.
According to Bly, the Old Position created a split between self and world, subject and object; consciousness was held to reside only in humans, and the relationship between man and nature was one of domination and subjugation. This rigid separation began to break down in German, French, and English literature of the romantic period, from about the 1790s to the early 1830s. In German poets such as Novalis and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Bly writes, ‘‘The ancient union of the day intelligence of the human being and the night intelligence of nature become audible, palpable again.’’
When Bly examines poetry written since the end of World War II, he sees more instances of poems of ‘‘twofold consciousness’’—poems that acknowledge nature as an equal of man, and see nature as possessing a consciousness that interacts with human consciousness as a kind of partner, creating a mysterious sense of wholeness and union that transcends human reason and even makes reason seem irrelevant. However, Bly still regards these kinds of poems as outside the poetic mainstream of the time, exceptions rather than the rule. He contrasts poems of ‘‘twofold consciousness’’ with the work of the so-called confessional poets of the 1960s and 1970s such as John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and others who were concerned with intimate self-revelation—their subjects were themselves and the frequently agonized workings of their minds and emotions; they had little interest in the human interaction with nature.
One of Bly’s poems of ‘‘twofold consciousness’’ is ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ and in the anthology it is grouped with other work by poets such as Gary Snyder, William Everson, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, and Galway Kinnell. This grouping gives an interesting perspective on where Berry belongs in contemporary poetry. He is sometimes linked to a long list of other poets, including, in the opinion of Andrew Angyal in his book Wendell Berry, the Agrarians, also known as the Southern Fugitives, of the 1930s, such as John Crowe Ransom, Allan Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Angyal also finds in Berry’s work stylistic echoes of Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats, as well as Snyder. Bly’s grouping extends the list of Berry’s kindred spirits, poetically speaking.
Angyal also observes that thematically, ‘‘Berry’s poems are noted for their quiet attentiveness to the surroundings, almost as though the speaker tried to make himself part of his habitat,’’ a description that is close to what Bly means by ‘‘twofold consciousness.’’ In ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ the poet is closely attuned to what Bly refers to as the ‘‘night intelligence’’ in nature, which has its own validity, its own consciousness that reaches out, embraces, and soothes the poet who is tormented, not enlightened, by his human reason (the quality that supposedly, in the ‘‘Old Position,’’ lifts humans above nature). It is the poet’s restless mind that during the night gives him all kinds of things to worry about, as it projects into the future and envisions possible disasters.
Bly’s choice of ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ as the sole poem by Berry to be included in News of the Universe was a good one. This poem is typical of Berry’s poetic enterprise, so much of which is concerned with finding the right relationship between man and nature, with rooting himself in the great rhythms of the natural world, with seeking out and being receptive to that indefinable spiritual connection between humans and nature that alone can make a person feel whole.
Other poems in Openings, the 1968 collection in which ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ first appeared, reflect a similar perspective. In ‘‘The Want of Peace,’’ significantly placed immediately before ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ the poet reflects on his own turbulent mind and longs to be part of nature’s life, the life of the earth, which is unself-conscious in its simplicity—a desire that is amply fulfilled in the poem that follows. ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ is also an answering poem to ‘‘To My Children, Fearing for Them,’’ in which the poet explains how he thinks with fear of the troubles to come on earth because of the way humans have abused it. In ‘‘Grace,’’ the poet creates a picture of the perfection, the flawlessness of the woods on one particular morning when he observes them. The woods have arrived at this moment in their being at a perfectly measured pace, neither too hurried nor too slow, and in that lies a message for humans, if they are able to hear it. In ‘‘The Sycamore,’’ the poet again finds a kind of perfection in nature, in this case in the form of an old sycamore tree, and he meditates on the fact that he and the sycamore come from the same earth. He sees the great tree guided by the same orderly life force that he, the poet, wishes to recognize and submit to.
Berry’s essay ‘‘A Native Hill,’’ written during the same period as ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ and published in his collection of essays The Long-Legged House in 1969, also reveals a remarkably similar perspective on man and nature as that which informs the poem. The hill Berry is referring to is a ridge near his home in Henry County, Kentucky, and the essay records his thoughts and feelings as he walks in the vicinity. As in the poem, he describes in ‘‘A Native Hill’’ how, when troubled by his thoughts about the long disaster of human history, and ‘‘this human present that is such a bitterness and a trial,’’ he goes to the woods, and this transforms him:
“I enter an order that does not exist outside, in the human spaces. I feel my life take its place among the lives—the trees, the annual plants, the animals and birds, the living of all these and the dead—that go and have gone to make the life of the earth.”
He continues, in almost a paraphrase of what happens to the speaker in ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ ‘‘My mind loses its urgings, senses its nature, and is free.’’ He takes note of the ‘‘peacefulness in a flock of wood ducks perched above the water in the branches of a fallen beech’’; he intuits the joy of a great blue heron as it does ‘‘a backward turn in the air, a loop-the-loop.’’ The scene is almost like a prose commentary on the poem, and in a passage that suggests in a nutshell what Bly tries to convey about the necessity of acquiring a twofold consciousness, Berry writes, ‘‘One has come into the presence of mystery After all the trouble one has taken to be a modern man, one has come back under the spell of a primitive awe, wordless and humble.’’
It can therefore be seen that ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ together with the whole body of Berry’s work in poetry as well as in essays such as ‘‘A Native Hill,’’ is a vision of right relations restored between humans and nature. Man’s arrogance, his belief that he is separate from and superior to nature, has come to an end as he learns to absorb the spirit that lives within nature, which gives to his life a grace, a depth, and a serenity that it otherwise lacks.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Wendell Berry, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.