Liberty Hyde Bailey – Poet and Prophet for Our Times

March 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

 

Page 2: Liberty Hyde Bailey – Poet and Prophet for Our Times

These three virtues are, of course, embodied in the poems of Wind and Weather.  One gets the sense that these poems were composed out in the midst of the fields and the forest, and indeed the poems reflect Bailey’s keen observational skills as a trained biologist.  In form, there is a refreshing rawness to these poems, a syncopated rhythm here, a stretched rhyme scheme there, and yet the freshness and tenacity of Bailey’s poems seems ideally suited for a series of reflections upon nature.  There is a youthful exuberance here, in both form and content, which is particularly surprising, since Wind and Weather was published (if not written) after Bailey’s retirement from academic life in 1913.  This child-like joie-de-vivre is captured best in poems like “Miracle”:

 

Yesterday the twig was brown and bare;

To-day the glint of green is there

To-morrow will be leaflets spare;

I know no thing so wondrous fair

No miracle so strangely rare.

I wonder what will next be there!

 

or “Marvel”:

Ah, the wonders I have seen

At dawn and sunset and between!

The ocean beach on wild midnights

Deep steaming swamps and northern bights

The cirrhus clouds in high moonlights

 

For our church communities today, however, perhaps the most striking part of Bailey’s understanding of poetry is his notion that “poetry is prophecy” (OTN 32).  There are, of course, many ways in which the term “prophecy” is used.  Bailey describes the function of prophecy as helping humanity in the effort of “acquiring a stronger hold on aspirations that are simple and elemental and universal” (OTN 32-33).  Such a return to the simple, elemental and universal, parallels Bailey’s description of the prophetic, in his book The Holy Earth: there he notes that prophecy is rooted in a vision of the eschatological reconciliation of all things, especially the reconciliation of humankind with nature.  Thus, Bailey’s poetry is prophetic, first and foremost, because it points to a vision of an inter-connected creation that is reminiscent of the scriptural eschatology of shalom, “the reconciliation of all things.” This vision of harmony in creation flows throughout the poems of Wind and Weather, but is most poignantly expressed in poems like “Here”:

Where I shall fall there let me lie,

From end to end the earth is mine

For kin with me are the land and sky

and ev’ry spot is home benign.

or “Brotherhood”:

I am the bird in its nest of straw

And I abide by my time and law,

I am the tree standing night and day,

And I am the plant that fades away;

And men grow green and the men grow brown,

And life rises up and death drops down;

And men, and life, and the things that be

They flow on and on unceasingly.

I am the wind that blows to the sky,

And ageless cloud that goes floating by;

I am the rain and the river flow,

I am the seasons that come and go;

I am the dusk and the morning light,

The call of day and the voice of night;

And I pass out to the silent sea,

Flowing and flowing eternally.

 

Bailey’s poems herein stand as firm reminders that art (written, visual or otherwise) plays a key, prophetic role in the life of the Church, by helping us imagine and keep before our minds the end of creation, the reconciliation toward which all history is flowing.  Bailey emphasizes this point in The Holy Earth: “[The biblical prophet] Isaiah proclaimed the redemption of the wilderness and the solitary place with the redemption of man, when they shall rejoice and blossom as the rose, and when the glowing sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water” (THE 11-12).  Thus, for Bailey, the nature poet today functions in a similar way, reminding his listeners that their salvation is bound up with that of all nature.

With such an eschatological vision in mind, Walter Brueggemann observes in his classic work The Prophetic Imagination that “the task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (3).  I would contend that Bailey’s poetry serves prophetically in exactly this way.  Although published almost a century ago, Bailey’s critiques of the dominant consumer culture in poems like “Enough” and “Goods” (“And all my kin may have their goods / For the deep old glooms [i.e., woods, ed.] are mine”), ring as true today as if they were written yesterday.  Another key facet of his poetic critique of the dominant culture is his opposition to the city and all the technological achievements that it represents.  Although there are a few explicit references to this opposition (e.g., in “Wreck”), it is primarily manifested by its notable absence in the landscape that Bailey paints over the course of Wind and Weather.  Bailey emphasizes the intentionality of this omission in his essay on nature poems: “[T]he nature poem of wide reach must be the poem of the man who is free.  Such poetry must spring from the open air; perhaps it must be set to words there – at least outside the city” (OTN 31).  Similarly, in The Holy Earth, he faults the urbanization of human culture for the increasing lack of being “brought into touch with the earth in any real way” (18).

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