In college I attended several conferences for student journalists. They were exciting gatherings: we met in cities across the country and listened to prominent journalists and writers present on politics or on writing or on making a career in such fields. But the tone of such gatherings was not just one of excitement; it was also, sometimes, one of pressure, at least from the student attendees. Convene a hundred eager college-age journalists in a room, and they will naturally seek opportunities to network and name-drop. The spirit of LinkedIn is not unique to business and technology students: it pervades many intellectual and creative types, as well.

The kinds of discussions natural to such gatherings of college students were, on the whole, very different from the discussions natural to students at the Christian liberal arts college I attended.

One such class was a class on Wendell Berry, taught by Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro. Our class sometimes met outside on the grass, we once met over lunch, but we always met in a circle to discuss one or two of Berry’s essays, poems, stories, or novels. It was easily the most convivial class of my college career—and a rare class in which note-scribbling rewarded no one, discussion was unsullied by grade-climbers, and not a single exam marked our class schedule. During the time allotted for our final examination, we gathered at the Bilbro abode to share breakfast, along with poems we had memorized and short blurbs about our term papers.

Though all ten to fifteen of us were hard-pressed that morning by other exams, we all came to that final gathering with joy and interest and friendship as we shared some of Berry’s poems and their significance. I believe it was, in part, the conviviality of that final class gathering, and the significance behind the ideas we spoke of, that has allowed the poem I memorized, “Sabbaths 1994, VII,” to root itself in my mind. It is a poem which imparts several lessons about the intellectual life and its purpose—indeed the good life in general—which we may do well to heed.

I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves,
needing to be remembered.
But on the days I am lucky
or blessed, I am silent.
I go into the one body
that two make in making marriage
that for all our trying, all
our deaf-and-dumb of speech,
has no tongue. Or I give myself
to gravity, light, and air
and am carried back
to solitary work in fields
and woods, where my hands
rest upon a world unnamed,
complete, unanswerable, and final
as our daily bread and meat.
The way of love leads all ways 
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest. 

I have reflected often on these words while in college and now out of it. In college, I led and wrote for a student magazine on faith and culture. We published essays about topics such as technology and social media, conservatism, the state of the liberal arts at our college, and more. I felt that the work we were doing was work that needed to be heard and considered in our school’s culture—that the words I was writing were words “needing to be remembered” by my peers or, in the least, myself. As I look back, I’m not sure that need was as pressing as I imagined. Still, I felt the writer’s urgency that Berry describes.

The first part of the poem describes literary work as a work of urgency, a work based on need. Love, fear, passing stories, pressing words, and wakeful nights—these all provoke the writer to write, the thinker to think. It is words and ideas that “come to me,” not the other way around. This life of intellect is, to Berry, an unchosen necessity. Meanwhile, silence is a blessing.

Berry goes on to tell of the gifts of silence. First is union in marriage, which, despite all the poet’s love, is inexpressible, for it “has no tongue.” Berry describes, second, the giving and the gift of physical labor, in which one gives oneself to nature and is then “carried” to work in a world likewise inexpressible, as simple and yet ultimate as the fruit it produces, “daily bread and meat.”

It seems, then, that ultimate things lie untouched by words and intellect, hence the penultimate sentence of the poem: “The way of love leads all ways / to life beyond words, silent / and secret.” The life beyond words is the life of the body, and the life of the body—its joyous union, its daily work, its sustenance—is one of giving and receiving. The life of the intellect is one of wakefulness and necessity that too often forgets the natural joys painted in the second half of the poem.

Why write, then? Why pursue an intellectual life? The question simmers at the end of the poem. Why spend so much time and energy doing that which is secondary to the embodied life Berry describes? Writing, in Berry’s vision here, is a far more passive activity than the physical actions described by the second part of the poem. The life of words and intellect, Berry suggests, would not be chosen or carried out if circumstance did not require it. It is a life followed and received rather than chosen and achieved.

Likewise, the life of the intellect is lonely—notice that although Berry describes the labor of farming as “solitary,” it is not without accompaniment. Natural pattern—gravity, light, and air—accompany he who works in the fields and woods, but he who writes is accompanied only by immaterial things such as time, memory, and emotion. And, perhaps the most striking implication of Berry’s poem, the way of love seems to lead away from words and intellect, even in the opposite direction. However much the poet may be “in love,” the true way of love is one which leads to a quiet life, a life beyond verbal making. Paul’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 comes to mind here: Paul urges the Thessalonians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Live quietly, Scripture says. So, again, the question insists: What is writing for? What are words for?

For me, as for many of us semi-literary folk, this is not merely an academic question: as I look to a future in which, Lord willing, I will work primarily in my home with my children, I question the value of continuing to study and to write. It would be natural for me, too, to question the worth of my English degree if I do not work long-term as an editor or teacher, if I do not do more than scribble an occasional essay. Society lodges these questions into the minds of today’s college graduates, insisting that any study not yielding direct monetary fruit is useless.

But Berry’s final sentence gives an answer to this quandary. In his brief and not altogether satisfying rejoinder to the question, “why write?” Berry says, “To serve that triumph I have done all the rest,” and he ends the poem there. “That triumph” is the triumph of the way of love, the life of silence.

Words, somehow, may serve the triumph of wordlessness, for to write well is to serve the love that is beyond words. Berry’s poem thus does not denigrate the immaterial work of thought and writing, nor does it merely elevate material work over immaterial work. Rather, Berry sets writing and words in perspective: they are indeed secondary. They are not ends in themselves but do serve a higher end: literature serves love. Good literature must by necessity serve something higher than itself. For literature will pass away, but love will not. Again, Paul comes to mind: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”

What does it look like for words to serve this triumph, for dim mirror-sight to serve full face-to-face vision? The poem does not give us an answer to this question, at least not directly. But Berry shows that his priority is the life beyond words—beyond scribbling and publishing, far beyond “platform” and audience, networking and namedropping. Berry’s poem is in itself an example of how words may serve the wordless: with words artfully gathered, Berry points to the given beauties of this life, giving name to and forming an image about that which is impossible to capture in explanatory sentences.

Though very different from Berry in some ways, T.S. Eliot’s work evinces a similar aim: expressing the beauty of the inexpressible through words. Eliot often concerned himself with lamenting the limitations of language and its modern degradation. In “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets, Eliot writes that words, like all art forms, “reach / Into the silence,” searching after the stillness of meaning. They “Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish…/ Will not stay still.” Words are fragile and faulty instruments.

This is why Eliot writes in “East Coker,” the second quartet, that “the poetry does not matter,” at least insofar as one is still engaged in “the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.” Without meaning, poetry does not matter. This meaning may elude our attempts to wrench from words their propositional significance; this meaning may sometimes elude all our attempts at understanding. But Eliot’s enigmatic statement means, in the least, that literature is worthless if it is composed only of artful words; literature and poetry must name some facet of truth. The need for meaning is why much of the writing and publishing industry seems empty to those who scroll through Twitter or browse popular publications: much of today’s literature and journalism does not aim at anything beyond its own production and consumption. Today’s literature and journalism industry institutes publication as an end in itself.

Nevertheless, as Eliot’s Quartets express, poetry can matter. Language may be a “hint” and a “guess” at the aim of all art: the Word himself. As Eliot writes in one of the few triumphant sections of the Quartets, “These are only hints and guesses / Hints followed by guesses,” but “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”

For words to be well used, then, words should serve the way of love, the Word who is himself the Way and Love. The value of writing is grounded only in the reality of this divine Word, the way of love beyond our own making. Otherwise language, too, becomes mere “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” or, to again employ a Pauline reference, the mere “clanging of a cymbal.” Good literature—or the well-pursued intellectual life—will direct people’s attention to the way of love.

The work of love is often silent and obscure, never to be noticed or remembered or captured in a LinkedIn post: pulling weeds, changing diapers, washing dishes, instructing squirmy children, or even laboring over a manuscript. But the ultimate purpose of writing is to serve this way of love.

My experience in humanities classes at a Christian liberal arts college, in particular the aforementioned Wendell Berry class, offered a taste of these goods that word and thought can cultivate. In an environment like that of our class, where literature was taken as a hint and a guess towards the truth of the Word and where conversation about literature was not abstract but personal and joyful, words may truly enrich the embodied life beyond words. To serve that triumph, we did all the rest.

Image Credit: Carl Spitzweg, “The poor poet” (1839) via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Poetically and beautifully said at a time that our society needs it.

    As I was reading, I thought of that phrase “Art for art’s sake.” That is a phrase I learned in the curriculum of the small Christian high school where I used to teach. This phrase means to me: No higher purpose – Creator – to write for.

    There is much rest in writing God’s way. He directs our steps if we are willing to listen.


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