November 18, 2018

Wendell Berry: “The best of human work…”

The best of human work defers
always to the in-forming beauty
of Nature’s work. But human work,
true to the nature of places
as it should be, is not natural
and is not a mirror held up
to nature. At best it is
the gift of the Heavenly Muse
to the farmer’s art or the poet’s,
by endless learning learned,
forever incomplete.

It is only the Christ-life,
the life undying, given,
received, again given,
that completes our work.

Wendell Berry
A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014

Comments

  1. For my entire working life, I’ve worked at jobs (not a career) in which I’ve found none of what Berry describes in this poem. The poem is about the “best human work”, but the work I’ve put my shoulder to has not been the best. Rather, it’s been the rest of human work, the kind that many, or perhaps most, of the human race has experienced: drudgery, alienating, painful, graceless. The kind of work that you do to survive, and try your best to survive. Has another great poet written a a great poem about this kind of work? That would be a poem about work that might resonate with my experience.

    • I’ll take that as an assignment, Robert.

    • Clay Crouch says:

      Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” comes to mind.

    • Hello Robert F.
      Those poems are out there
      . . . the only ones I could never bear to quote were about an animal slaughterhouse, but even there the pathos and pain were lifted knowing that animal lovers at risk of prosecution would sometimes attempt to give water to thirsty animals on their way to slaughter and to ask us to look into the eyes of those animals for a moment . . . .

      Here are a few samples of what must be thousands upon thousands of examples not limited to any specific cultures but found universally among humankind.
      Such poems are always better if there is some kind of ‘hope’ remaining, even the faintest chance of it being expressed:

      “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. ”
      (Henry David Thoreau)

      “The world is too much with us; late and soon,
      Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
      Little we see in Nature that is ours;
      We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
      This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
      The winds that will be howling at all hours,
      And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
      For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
      It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
      A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
      So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
      Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
      Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
      Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”
      (Wm. Wordsworth)

      “Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
      “Can you describe this?”
      And I said: “I can.”
      Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”
      (excerpt from “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova”)

    • From “The Duty of Delight: The diaries of Dorothy Day”…

      “Listen to these wise words of Gandhi’s: ‘Whether you wet your hands in the water basin, fan the fire with the bamboo bellows, set down endless columns of figures at a desk, labor in the rice field with your head in the burning sun and your feet in the mud, or stand at work before the smelting furnace, as long as you did not do all this with just the same religiousness as if you were monks praying in a monastery, the world will never be saved.”

    • Robert try this-

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LycS4Av5K8

      I dig a ditch, I shape a stone
      Another battlement for his throne
      Another day on earth is flown
      We’re all working for the Pharaoh

      Call it England, call it Spain
      Egypt rules with the whip and chain
      Moses free my people again
      We’re all working for the Pharaoh

  2. concerning Wendell Barry’s words:
    “The best of human work defers always to the in-forming beauty of Nature’s work.”

    comes to mind this loving tribute to the season from Keats:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr1qiKoMyQ8

  3. Robert F. Excellent point , the only people who love “work” are many of my friends who have never “worked”. I find it funny when an Ivanka Trump, Megan Kelley or any well known well paid person who lives in a bubble considers her or him self a “working” Mom or Dad, baby sitter/24/7 Nanny, driven around or massive support compared to 90 percent who actually work at jobs not positions. This is not class envy it is just reality. I appreciate your honesty. Do not have an answer except that work is good and hopefully people do move up the ladder. I abhor the wage gap in the USA today that needs to be closed and quickly.

    As usual low brow John Barry only knows “It ‘s a Five O Clock World” by the Vogues, I think or Well Respected Man by the Kinks , check them out , they are from working class British 1960 groups and no body more officially class conscious than the British.

    There is dignity in good honest work and I think that in USA we take the working class for granted as they are the backbone, the fuel of our economy for sure. i know that coming from my lower working class social , economic background gives me such a different perspective than many of my peers. They will never get it any more than I would ever get a legacy scholarship to Yale or even Miami Dade Junior College.