In 1985, Wendell Berry gathered poems from his eight previous collections which he cared to have “reread” and assembled them into Collected Poems, 1957-1982. In an author’s note, Berry described the book as “a collection, but it is not ’complete.’ I have left out some work that I think least good.” Amply represented were two collections, A Part (1980) and The Wheel: Poems (1982), which contain the formal, stylistic, and substantive seeds for Sabbaths. In Sabbaths—his first volume of verse following his Collected Poems—Berry attains yet greater mastery of contemplative lyric which he honed so well in A Part and The Wheel, fashioning a lean but richly textured poetry.
For his epigraph to Sabbaths, it is not surprising that Berry chooses a verse from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, one of the loftiest and most poetic books in the Bible: “The whole earth is at rest, and is/ quiet: they break forth into singing” (14:7). Isaiah is the book which contains such memorable phrases as “scarlet letter,” “swords into ploughshares,” “Prince of Peace,” and “a child shall lead them”; George Frideric Handel’s The Messiah is taken from Isaiah. The poems in Sabbaths are grounded in Berry’s reading of—or certainly his awareness of—Old Testament poetry, for in Sabbaths Berry achieves a form and style highly reminiscent of the best of Old Testament literature. Berry’s work here emulates more than it imitates, for Berry has always been a truly original voice, eschewing fad and style. Over the years, his poetry has responded to its own evolving form, which seems more organic than reactionary or responsive to literary trends. Because of this, he has been viewed as one of the steady, reliable voices in contemporary American poetry.
Prescribed by Mosaic law, the Sabbatical year—the seventh year—was a time when the land was to remain untilled and that all debtors and Israelite slaves were to be released. Hebraic law (the Fourth Commandment) held that the Sabbath was a time to take stock of the six days’ work and give thanks to God—a time for rest and renewal, both physical and spiritual. The collection is about singing the “’primal Sabbath hymn,” a recurring phrase throughout the book, which hints at the purpose and reason for these poems.
From his hillside study in Henry County, Kentucky, where he has lived and worked for more than thirty years, Berry composed these forty-six lyrics over seven years of Sabbaths between 1979 and 1987. Those familiar with Berry’s work will recognize the same clarity and simplicity of language, the same directness of speech, and the same deeply wrought sentiment which characterize his poetry. In Sabbaths, Berry pushes his lyric to new heights, heights only hinted at in A Part and The Wheel.
From the opening stanza of the first poem, a sense of quietude and holiness sets the tone and mood pervading the collection:
I go among trees and sit still.All my stirring becomes quietaround me like circles on water.My tasks lie in their placeswhere I left them, asleep like cattle.
The mandala image of the third line—the “circles on water”—seems an appropriate image to open the collection and welcome the reader. A centering device, the mandala—Sanskrit for “circle”—is at once an image of cosmic and human wholeness. Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung called the mandala a “path to the center, to individuation.” The image in the first stanza suggests a kind of inner tranquillity, a centering of self within soul. The meditative mood that follows allows the speaker in the poem to confront what he is afraid of: “What it fears in me leaves me,/ and the fear of me leaves it./ It sings, and I hear its song.”
In his awakened presence, the speaker hears his “song at last, and I sing it.” As the stillness and quietness return, “the day turns, the trees move.” Zen-like in its apprehension of the moment, the poem is a tiny evocation of the soul awakening to consciousness.
(The entire section is 1774 words.)