The Human World versus the Natural World
The poem contrasts the turbulence of the human world, and the workings of the human mind, with the peace of the natural world. Human life is chaotic and dangerous. People are unable to live at peace with one another, and the news always seems to be bad. The poem was published in 1968 when the Vietnam conflict was at its height, and in the United States, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It is perhaps not surprising that someone writing during those turbulent times should sink into despair regarding the human condition. The poet cannot separate himself from the larger fate of the world, which he fears may eventually touch him and his children personally. It is notable that he seems most worried about something that has not yet happened but may happen in the future, and this is why he cannot sleep at night, or is frequently awakened and immediately starts to worry. In this capacity to envision and worry about the future, something that does not in fact exist, human beings separate themselves from the natural world of which they remain a part, since no other living creature has the capacity to imagine the future, let alone worry about it.
The poet is deeply aware of this dichotomy between the human and the natural world, and when he is besieged by his own human capacity for worry, foreboding, and despair, he knows what the solution is, albeit a temporary one. He must allow nature to work on him, to fill him with its own kind of peace as an antidote to the restlessness that has come to dominate his mind. In other words, although humans can separate themselves from nature due to the ceaseless activity of their minds, they also have the capacity to be one with it; they can allow nature, which is always present in the moment, to pour out a balm on the troubles that they invent for themselves concerning an imagined future (or, although this is not a feature of this poem, a regretted past that, like the future, does not exist). The movement of the poem is therefore from fear and agitation— characteristics of the human world—to the peace that exists in the natural world. The presence of the water, the birds, and the stars, to name only the three things explicitly mentioned in the poem, is enough to restore the poet to himself, to his right mind, at peace with the world in which he lives, free from the thoughts that otherwise trouble him.
The Paradox of Human Complexity
At the heart of the poem lies a paradox: the human mind, for all its intelligence and sophistication, and human civilization, for all its ingenuity and vast achievements, have not led human beings to self-mastery; they have not enabled humans to acquire the peace and contentment that would allow them to live without fear. The pursuit of happiness may lie behind a great deal of human endeavors, but the desired happiness is rarely attained for long, if at all. For example, in ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ the poet’s mind is so much on tenterhooks that the slightest thing awakens him from sleep and leaves him awash in a sea of worry. In contrast to this, the wild things in the poem—wild in the sense of growing and living uncultivated, in their natural state, outside the reach of human civilization—live in peace, driven only by instinct, which can never lead them to feel at odds with their environment or with the innate conditions of their being. The paradox is that humans, who have so much more capacity to control their world and that of other living creatures than do the animal, bird, or plant kingdoms, often end up feeling more powerless, more at the mercy of circumstances than those other, simpler creatures who have no power to argue with the laws that govern their existence. The poem uses this paradox to present its theme of the complex (human) world finding what it needs in the simple world (uncultivated nature).
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Wendell Berry, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009