Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Not Just Any Land

I was overjoyed when my Bookman gave me a copy of Vita Sackville-West's The Land not long ago. I have wanted this book for so long but it was out of print and I despaired of ever reading this long poem. But The Land was reprinted in 2004 by Frances Lincoln. They have also reprinted several other of Sackville-West's books for which I am grateful. The Land is a long, rather formal poem written mostly in blank verse but it sometimes breaks out into rhyming couplets. It was originally published in 1926 as a "didactic hymn to the Kentish countryside." The poem was quite popular, selling over 100,000 copies. It also won the Hawthornden Prize. The poem is broken up into four sections according to the seasons beginning with winter. As the poem makes its way through the year it tells of the people who live off the land, the farmers and the shepherds, orchard men and bee keepers. It tells of their work which seems never ending from lambing and plowing to making hay and harvesting and then getting ready to do it all over again. The beginning sounds a bit Whitman-esque:

I sing the cycle of my country's year, I sing the tillage, and the reaping sing, Classic monotony, that modes and wars Leave undisturbed, unbettered, for their best Was born immediate, of expediency.
Shortly after the opening stanzas the poem loses this quality but keeps a bit of Romanticism in it I think. However Romantic the poem may be, it certainly does not give the peasants a lighthearted or sentimental gloss. It describes hard work and barely mentions any pleasures that might be had. Sackville-West even chides those who sit in comfort with their "book-learning," thinking they know better and are better off:
The faith within him still derides the pen, Experience his text-book. What have they, The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats, Known of December dawns, before the sun Reddened the east, and fields were wet and grey? ... Book-learning they have known. They meet together, talk, and grow most wise, But they have lost, in losing solitude, Something,--an inward grace, the seeing eyes, The power of being alone; The power of being alone with the earth and skies, Of going about a task with quietude, Aware at once of earth's surrounding mood And of an insect crawling on a stone.
If you are wondering at this point what the heck Vita Sackville-West, a woman from the aristocracy and definitely a person with book-learning, knew about farming, well, she knew quite a bit. According to Nigel Nicolson, her son, though she was not a farmer, she owned a working farm and leased it. She would frequent the farm year-round and watch and ask questions and learn. What she didn't learn she supplemented by consulting the Encyclopedia of Agriculture. There are some wonderful lines in the poem that suddenly grabbed me and practically sparkled. One of my favorites was this one: "And women still have memories of woods,/Older than any personal memories;/Writhen, primal roots, though heads be fair..." This long poem should appeal to all Sackville-West fans. If you are a Virginia Woolf fan you might like it too since Sackville-West was friend and lover to Woolf. I will leave you now with a few more lines, these come from spring:
There were so many days that I was given. But whether of this spring or that? they merge As travelling clouds across my permanent heaven. My life was rich; I took a swarm of bees And found a crumpled snake-skin on the road, All in one day, and was increased by these. I have not understood humanity. But those plain things, that gospel of each year, made me the scholar of simplicity.