"The Farmer Speaking of Monuments" From the Perspective of a Farmer

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

This Poem by Wendell Berry is important to me.

"The Farmer, Speaking of Monuments"

Always, on their generation's breaking wave,

men think to be immortal in the world,

as though to leap from water and stand

in air were simple for a man. But the farmer

knows no work or act of his can keep him

here. He remains in what he serves

by vanishing in it, becoming what he never was.

He will not be immortal in words.

All his sentences serve an art of the commonplace,

to open the body of a woman or a field

to take him in. His words all turn

to leaves, answering the sun with mute

quick reflections. Leaving their seed, his hands

have million graves, from which wonders

rose, bearing him no likeness. At summer's

height he is surrounded by greens, his

doing, standing for him, awake and orderly.

In autumn, all his monuments fall.

A farmer's reading:

The first sentence of this poem is one of my favorite. In it the poet is speaking of the active and powerful men in any generation. He is not talking about all of mankind, old-timers, or the youth. He is talking about men, who are “on [...] generation’s breaking wave”. The image is beautiful--generations of men all following each other like waves drifting on the ocean. The breaking wave is the one that is currently peaking but has not yet begun to fall. Similarly the particular group of men the poet is speaking of are the ones that are nearing the top of their rise, but HAVE NOT begun to fall and decline. They are the rising stars.

About these rising men, Berry claims they “always...think to be immortal in the world, as though to leap from water and stand in air were simple for a man.” Here the water imagery is continued. A second idea is also introduced in this line. In this thought, Berry connects mortality with the more physical element of water and immortality to the airy element. This is a very traditional association. Moving from mortality to immortality is likened to moving from water to air. Of course the reader is aware of the impossibility of the physical action of leaping from water and standing in air, and is therefore also keyed into the absurdity of becoming immortal. Berry’s phrase “as if” almost has a touch or scorn. Not only does he accuse them of an impossible thought, but for assuming this dream were simple.