Analysis of Poem "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry and The Peace of Wild Things
The Peace of Wild Things focuses on the personal reaction of an individual to the future state of the world brought about by current anxieties which can only be quelled by a visit to wild nature.
- The main theme then is the human world versus the natural world, the here and now against the future. Humans are a part of the natural world yet apart in the sense that they are the only animal which appears to worry about the future. Wild things seem not to have this capability.
- Another theme is healing, the therapeutic effect that the wilderness can have on people.
- And thirdly, escapism, relief from the stresses of society and the high pressure life.
Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, essayist and environmental muckraker, has been exploring the relationship between humans and the environment for decades.
This poem was written at a time when people were first starting to think seriously about the ecological effects of such things as DDT (used as a pesticide but now banned), population growth and environmental damage. Other events of the time, the Vietnam war and assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, added to the confusion.
Published in Openings: Poems in 1968 the poem has remained a popular anthology piece and is often quoted by those championing green issues and a more spiritual approach to life.
There are clear influences from past poets - note the W.B. Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree :
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow
William Wordsworth, the romantic, believed in the moral and spiritual regeneration of life through nature. He experienced nature as a teacher full of peace. Certain lines in the Prelude and other poems reflect the deep feelings he had for the mysterious force that 'rolls through all things'.
There's no doubt Wordsworth and the romantic movement inspired future poets to take an interest in nature, seeing in it opportunities for spiritual renewal and healing.
Wendell Berry's poem is romantic in the sense that an escape is made into nature from the harsh realities of human life, and feelings of peace and freedom are experienced and articulated.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Analysis of The Peace of Wild Things
The Peace of Wild Things is essentially a message of hope from a troubled speaker who is perturbed by the goings on in the world, who fears for the future safety of his family.
To alleviate this anxiety he seeks the solace of nature. He cannot sleep because of this gnawing insecurity and goes out to get some peace. The only place he knows that will provide such stillness is by a stretch of water. Here there is a wood drake (a wild duck) resting. This is also where the heron hunts.
Tranquility is the cure for these worries. It's a curious thought but as intelligent and inventive as humans are, we're the only animal that seems to fret about the future state of things. This might happen. That may happen. There's foreboding. Anguish sets in even before anything wrong has occurred.
What if it turns out a disaster? Are we all going to perish in a nuclear war next year? What about the safety of my kids?
We may have complex brains and boast an imagination that's off the scale but we still cannot control our feelings and thoughts when it comes to remaining calm about the future.
- The speaker is saying that, for him, only nature can heal these psychological wounds. Wild creatures do not appear to fret about the future. They live in the moment, they know nothing of the moment, they just are.
Towards the end of the poem there is a widening of scope. The speaker takes in the stars and the cosmos. The stars are in their right place, everything is in order. This sense of security brings a new found freedom, albeit temporary, and the anxiousness disappears - the nature therapy seems to have worked.
Rhyme and Meter in The Peace of Wild Things
The Peace of Wild Things is a free verse poem, a single stanza of 11 lines. In total there are five sentences, the first five lines being the longest and the last line the shortest.
This reflects the change in the speaker's disposition - initially fearful because of potential complications - and then calmed.
There is no set rhyme scheme but several lines do rhyme, almost by accident:
The first and last are full rhymes, the speaker at first full of despair but by the end a temporarily 'free' person, so perhaps this brings closure to the poem, binding the inner lines in the process.
Meter (metre in British English)
There is no set consistent meter in this poem but there are several lines containing anapaests and iambs, unusually rhythmic in nature. For example:
and I wake / in the night / at the least / sound
I go / and lie down / where the wood / drake
I rest / in the grace / of the world, / and am free.
So the voice tends to rise as the stressed syllable/word is reached, giving this poem a prayer-like quality in places.
In line 8 there is an allusion to a biblical line which reads: 'He leads me beside still waters and makes me lie down in green pastures (Psalm 23) This may be an indirect connection because the speaker of the poem makes no reference to a divine being.
The word grace in the final line also suggests a religious (Christian) connection.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey