Updated: Jan 24
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.
The next sentence begins with “But”. A pivot is articulated. Berry is moving on to something different. “The farmer” is his new subject and clearly Berry is speaking of a farmer who does not belong to the category of rising men that he was referring to earlier. The next sentences proceed rapidly and simply. Words and sentence structures are short and direct. The farmer “knows” that he cannot become immortal and stay here. (Notice that his “knowing” is unlike the “thinking” of the previous men.) Furthermore, the farmer “remains in” which is unlike the previous men who sought to “leap from”. And not only is he not escaping his condition or thinking about escaping, but serving it. And this service is in direct contrast to the idea of immortality by the fact that he vanishes and becomes something new. He is taking the opposite road to permanence. His road is mutability and changing-ness.
In the next line, Berry brings up the concept of language stating that “[the farmer] will not be immortal in words.” Instead Berry suggests the language of the farmer, like the farmer himself, is geared towards service. What the words and actions of the farmer serve is a concept that Berry returns to again and again in his work. It is called “an art of the commonplace” and what follows is a list of things that the words and actions of the farmer do. For instance, they (through service) “open the body of a woman or a field to take him in”. The idea of a woman taking in a man and the idea of a freshly plowed field are closely linked to fertility, new life, growth, and planting. These are the things the farmer acts and speaks for.
In the next line, his words become leaves and “answer the sun with mute quick reflections.” Thus Berry describes a man who is responsive and quick and yet mute--like an excellent butler. Also like the outgrowth of the trees, the farmers words are not simply for show or a source of some new light but rather something that answers to a higher light. His words shines the greater light in new directions.
Moving on from the farmers words, Berry next describes the actions of his hands. This series begins with the word “leaving” which cleverly links it to the words in the previous section. The farmers words and hands are in close alignment. Not only does the word “leaving” serve to link the ideas, but it also continues the subtle disassociation from permanence and immortality. This idea is further continued by the seed which is left--seed being something that is almost entirely potential or future oriented. It is meant to sprout and change--not remain permanently unchanged. This switching or jumping from what is left (past) to preparations for the future (seeds) is continued when Berry refers to the planting holes as “graves”. Death, departure, and potential are all things that are apart from the present life and action of a man. This sentence ends with the phrase “...bearing him no likeness”. This phrase subtly links the farmers planted crops to his progeny just as in the earlier line in when the woman’s body is linked to the fertile field. In this case however the farmer’s fruit is unlike him. This is again an assault on permanence and likeness being continued indefinitely.
In the last sentence Berry leaves off describing the words and actions of the farmer and speaks of his mature relation to the work of his hands. Spring time images of seeds, open fields, things becoming leaves, and wonders rising up give way to “summer’s height” in which we see the farmer surrounded by his green crop. Here at last the farmer has a very slight air of dignity and reverence as the crop is said to “stand for him” like subjects standing for a king or citizens standing for a judge. But this respectful and orderly standing does not last, and just as it is articulated, Berry moves one season forward and we see this reverent gesture fall. With just one word Berry links the living crop to the static attempts at immortality erected by countless men. The farmers distinction is in his monuments.
The feeling given to the reader by all these opposing images is somewhat confusing. That is by design.The poem begins with an impossible rising motion, pivots to the farmer and then dances between references to things left behind or effaced and another set of images and ideas that are full of potentiality fertility and future. The farmers present state is a somewhat obscure one. He reflects light. He remains mute quick servant. He plunges into many tiny graves. And though his presence is diminished, his tracks and effects remain--he leaves things that spring up and grow. But true to form, these things are unlike him and thereby continue to deflect attention from the farmer.
The dancing between these two sets of things not only situates the farmer in time as one squarely between past and future, but also follows the progression of the seasons and life generally. It begins with the entrance and conception, proceeds to sprouting and growth and eventually culminates in the fall and death.
The movement comes to a finality in the last line with the reference to monuments. Typically the idea of a monument falling would suggest a kind of disaster. Monuments are erected specifically to remain. Their purpose is to not fall. A monument that falls is a monumental failure. Furthermore, they freeze a greatness and obstinately refuse to let it fade.
And yet, we feel no such horror when the farmers monuments fall. It is appropriate for his monument to fall. Even he would have it no other way. It was planted specifically to be harvested. The goal was the death all along. Any farmer who does not let his crops fall or desires that they remain standing for him forever will be a monumental failure.
The farmer's great work is not historical greatness. He does not seek to break out of this material world and stand like a god in air. He is not seeking an escape from his condition. Instead he is devoted to this life with all of its beginnings and ends. His goal is to fully participate in the changing. His work is to illuminate something other and more true then himself.
He does not shy away from birth and sprouting and future hope. Neither does he fear and resist fading or death. In fact, he knows they are twins--all seeds are born out of graves and the grave contains a new hidden life. His hope is in the continuous change from one into the other.
A longstanding monument goes against everything he stands for.