Thursday, May 22, 2014

`Wind's Word, Apple-Heart, Haven of Grasses'

No, Thoreau didn’t get his dates confused. This is what he writes in his journal 161 years ago today, on May 22, 1853: “It is clear June, the first day of summer.” One month early he celebrates the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In New England, it’s easy to forgive seasonal impatience. The first snow falls in October, the week before Halloween, and black mountains of it are still melting in parking lots in May. The spring of 1853 in Concord must have been generous. Thoreau continues: 

“The rye, which, when I last looked, was one foot high, is now three feet high and waving and tossing its heads in the wind. We ride by these bluish-green waving rye-fields in the woods, as if an Indian juggler had made them spring up at night. Why the sickle and cradle will soon be taken up. Though I walk every day I am never prepared for this magical growth of the rye. I am advanced by whole months, as it were, into summer.” 

Rye is a little exotic to my native-Midwestern eyes. (Go here to see a field of rye in early May in the Midwest.) I’m more accustomed to fields of corn, soybeans and grasses for hay. In East Texas it’s rice. Thoreau likens the appearance of the fast-growing grain to the moves of an Indian juggler, bringing Hazlitt to mind. Using one of his favorite words, the Englishman lauds Sir Joshua Reynolds: “his grace, his grandeur, his blandness of gusto” – a fair description of wind riffling a field of grain. This recalls a poem by a native New Yorker who has apprenticed himself to New England – Richard Wilbur’s “Apology” (Things of This World, 1956): 

“A word sticks in the wind’s throat;
A wind-launch drifts in the swells of rye;
Sometimes, in broad silence,
The hanging apples distill their darkness. 

“You, in a green dress, calling, and with brown hair,
Who come by the field-path now, whose name I say
Softly, forgive me love if also I call you
Wind’s word, apple-heart, haven of grasses.” 

Wilbur evokes a Yankee thwartedness: “A word sticks in the wind’s throat” in the first line, “Wind’s word” in the last. The enjambment of lines six and seven – “say / Softly” – is a soft choking. Thoreau and Emerson in their lives, despite the mythology we’ve been handed, are the picture of priggery and snobbery. Only in prose could they, occasionally, break the bonds. Thoreau is an easy worse poet than his Concord neighbor. We know Thoreau made bread from rye and cornmeal while living at Walden Pond (Guy Davenport reminds us that, among his other accomplishments, Thoreau invented raisin bread), though he was likelier to eat beans and rice. In Walden he notes, wryly, “It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India.”

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

So many lovely glimpses in this one... And yes, Thoreau and Emerson needed prose to be forgetful and be carried away--yielding to the wind.