A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014 and 2015

Wendell Berry

Book cover

This book is about half poems and half an extended essay called “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World.” The poems are pretty consistent with his earlier “Sabbath poems,” and I can’t say I really got anything incremental out of reading them. (To some extent this sort of seems like the point to me; if you take a cyclical view of nature and life, there can’t be much additional value to reading 10% more poems on the same topic by the same person–maybe better to re-read a smaller number!)

The essay was interesting if not totally compelling to me. It’s different from other WB essays I’ve read (e.g. “The Unsettling of America”) in that it’s basically literary criticism; Berry attempts to trace a certain view of nature (as interdependent with humanity, more or less) through a number of literary sources, starting with the medieval Alan of Lille, through Chaucer and Spenser, and argues that this view disappears from the literary scene with Wordsworth and the Romantics, who start to treat nature as something “apart.” He argues that this view does live on, but only in the views and words of common people who work the land.

WB is certainly a traditionalist and in this case he irked my liberal sensibilities just a little bit. Near the beginning of the essay, he mounts a brief pre-emptive defense of why he is tracing this view through specifically Western/English sources, without looking to canons of other cultures for resonances. Essentially he says that he made this choice because he sees himself as constituted in large part by the culture and tradition in which he was raised, so he wouldn’t be able to connect as deeply to other traditions. Maybe there is some truth to this, but I also feel like once we start getting back to the 1100s (and particularly someone like Alan of Lille who is not broadly accepted as a cultural wellspring, as compared to say Homer), it might as well be a different culture. Anyway, I really don’t begrudge Berry his choice of topic–it’s perfectly fine to write about the Western tradition. I just didn’t really like the essentialist defense he mounted, and would probably have been more satisfied with no defense at all (or simply, “here are some people I’ve been interested in recently; I’m sure there are interesting resonances in other cultures that I haven’t learned about yet”). I guess that is what part of what makes me a liberal and him a conservative.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars