26 July 2012

'Before it's light / the birds waken'—Wendell Berry & The Northern Thebaid

Fresh from hearing Wendell Berry speak at the CiRCE conference in Louisville last week, I was reading one of his poems on the porch yesterday—‘The Handing Down’, which centers around an aging man, his memories of the past and his thoughts of the future. At one point, in section seven, Berry writes: 

He has dreamed of a town 
fit for the abiding of souls 
and bodies that might live forever. 

He has seen it as in a far-off 
white and gold evening 
of summer, the black flight 

of swifts turning above it 
in the air. There’s a clarity 
in which he has not become clear, 

his body dragging a shadow, 
half hidden in it. [1] 

These lines remind me of two accounts of visions from the Lives of the Northern Russian monastic Saints: The Northern Thebaid. Both of these Saints spent a considerable amount of time living a semi-eremitic life in the forests before attracting disciples and founding monasteries that later grew into enormous institutions—really, small cities in the wilderness around which secular cities later developed. Following the order of Berry’s images, I’ll begin with St Cyril of White Lake (Belozersky): 

...Once, when he was singing the Akathist before the Icon of the Theotokos and had reached the eighth kontakion: ‘Seeing the strange Nativity, let us become strangers to the world and transport our minds to heaven’—suddenly he heard a voice: ‘Cyril, go forth from here to White Lake (Belo-ozero); there I have prepared a place for you where you can be saved.’ Together with this voice there shone a great light from the northern side; the Saint opened the window of his cell and saw as if by a finger the place shown to him where now the monastery stands. His heart was filled with joy from the voice and the vision, and all night he remained in prayer; but this night was for him already as most bright day. [2] 

The old man’s vision of a town ‘fit for the abiding of souls / and bodies that might live forever’, which he sees ‘as in a far-off / white and gold evening / of summer’, recalls for me St Cyril’s vision of light indicating a future monastery. The connection works, whether it is the heavenly city itself that the man sees, since the monastery is a type of that city, or another earthly city that, like the monastery, as also only a type. But it was actually ‘the black flight / of swifts turning above it / in the air’ that first reminded me of The Northern Thebaid. In the Life of St Sergius of Radonezh, we read: 

It happened late one night that the Saint was keeping vigil, performing the usual rule and praying for the brotherhood, when he heard a voice calling, ‘Sergius.’ He was astonished, and, after praying, he opened the window of his cell and beheld a marvellous vision. An extraordinary radiance shone in the heavens; the night sky was illumined by its brilliance, exceeding the light of day. A second time the voice called, ‘Sergius! You pray for your children; God has heard your prayer. Behold what a great number of monks has come together in the Name of the Holy Trinity, in your fold, and under your guidance.’ 

The Saint looked and beheld a multitude of beautiful birds flying not only to the monastery, but all around the monastery; and again he heard the voice, saying, ‘As many birds as you see, by so many will your flock of disciples increase; and after your time they will not grow less if they will desire to follow in your footsteps.’...[3] 

In Berry’s poem, there is no clear or necessary connection between the vision of the town and the ‘swifts turning above it / in the air’. They may just be an incidental detail, a touch of nature added to an otherwise otherworldly experience. But for the Saint, the birds clearly signify something. Indeed, the voice he hears tells him outright that there is an analogy between the ‘multitude of beautiful birds’ and the ‘flock of disciples’ that will multiply and fill his monastery. It is an instance of Nature herself turned prophet. 

But is there any reason to believe that Berry’s birds in this stanza may be connected with the town? Are they, like St Sergius’s birds, a symbolic image of souls? Perhaps. Just a little bit earlier in the poem, in section five, Berry writes: 

Before it’s light 
the birds waken, and begin 
singing in the dark trees 

around the house, among the leaves 
over the dampened roofs 
of the still town 

and in the country thickets 
for miles. Their voices 
reach to the end of the dark. [4] 

Now, I think there can be no doubt that these are literal birds. But they may also be fortelling the birds of section seven, indicating, it may be, their function. For this passage, which is essentially about an early morning vigil, reminds me of another poem, but one which continues the connection we see in The Northern Thebaid. In his ‘After the Night Office—Gethsemani Abbey’, Thomas Merton writes: 

Praises and canticles anticipate 
Each day the singing bells that wake the sun, 
But now our psalmody is done. 
Our hasting souls outstrip the day: 
Now, before dawn, they have their noon. [5] 

So the Trappist monks of Kentucky, like the birds, are arising to sing before dawn. Of course, they are inside the abbey church, not outside in the trees. But in the final stanza the poet evokes briefly the image of the land around their monastery, via its buildings: 

But now the lances of the morning 
Fire all their gold against the steeple and the water-tower. [6] 

In Allen Tate’s words, ‘Vision, giving us clear visual objects, through physical sight, moving steadily upward towards its anagogical transfiguration, is the first matrix of the vast analogical structure.’ [7] So perhaps Berry’s birds singing before the dawn suggest something of what the inhabitants of this town ‘fit for the abiding of souls / and bodies that might live forever’ must be up to. For what better preparation can we find for eternal life than doxology? And what else does the pilgrim discover as it rises ‘towards its anagogical transfiguration’ than the throngs of souls and the cœlestial choir singing the praises of the Most High? 

[1] Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (NY: North Point-Farrar, 2001), p. 43. 

[2] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) & Hieromonk Herman (Podmoshensky), eds. & tr., The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North (Forestville, CA: Fr Seraphim Rose Foundation-St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), p. 55. 

[3] Ibid., p. 31. 

[4] Berry, p. 41. 

[5] Thomas Merton, Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, enlarged ed. (NY: New Directions, 1967), p. 48. 

[6] Ibid., p. 49. 

[7] Allen Tate, ‘The Symbolic Imagination’, The Southern Critics: An Anthology, ed. Glenn C. Arbery (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2010), p. 291.


Rebecca said...

I will now be bird-watching in other poetry that I read/reread.

Aaron Taylor said...

Good! One must, of course, always avoid overinterpretation. But I thought that if my reading was at least taken as a discovery of potential resonance, then it was perfectly legit.

Fr. John+ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aaron Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Taylor said...

'Fr' John> You are a sick man with no understanding of Orthodox Christianity whatsoever. You are banned from this blog. I will never publish another comment from you again. May God have mercy on your soul.