I came to know Wendell Berry at the wrong time in my life. My husband and I, with three children in tow, had just barely ... Read More
It is always a bit of a mental jolt to discover that one of your best-loved authors greatly dislikes another of your very favorite authors. I felt this way recently as I read an essay by Wendell Berry in which he took great umbrage with the wanderlust of Tennyson’s title character in the poem, Ulysses. I have always loved Ulysses, both the poem, and the man presented in it. I even memorized snatches of Tennyson’s sea haunted poem. When I read those great lines of Ulysses’ longing to “follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought,” I knew his hunger. And when I read that face-down-the-night declaration of his purpose to “drink life to the lees,” and “sail beyond the baths of all the western stars until I die,” well, I wanted to take off for the far ends of the earth right then. Something new was waiting to be found.
So, you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that Berry found Ulysses’ adventurous fervor to be just the sort of misplaced hunger that sets people off on adventures when they ought to be keeping the faith at home. I’m a bit of a Wendell Berry fanatic. He answers so many of the questions I ask about how to create fellowship and life in a fast, isolated modern world. He’s all for steady cultivation and faithfulness over long years. How can any community or heritage be built, he wondered in his essay, if kings were always wandering off and leaving their people to the wind when the want for adventure struck? I saw his point. I understood. But I also knew that Ulysses’ hunger was more than a selfish whim to travel. It was soul deep, a hunger for something eternal. Somehow, both views had to be true.
At that moment, with two great authors juxtaposed over their view of one king’s adventurous heart, I understood that different souls see different sides of life. Different artists find different beauties. Different writers tell different stories. Some find glory in the adventure of life, the great journey required of every soul born. Some find glory in the quiet, daily growth of home life, the small, rich details that come from life carefully tended and lived. Both speak truth, both offer us beauty. Both offer a glimpse into the richness of God’s mind. I sat with my book in hand and thought back over some of my favorite writers and heroes, fascinated to find them each what I will call either a dreamer, or a keeper.
Take St. Brendan, for instance. He was a seafarer. Why? Cloistered, devout, he was just a young monk alive in a world still haunted by the furies of old pagan gods, hemmed in by the pathless sea. Danger abounded in brigands and storms and petulant kings. Yet an old monk mumbled a half-baked dream, murmured of paradise gained, and off sailed Brendan over the wild waters, in resolute search of Eden.
Jane Austen was an observer. Why? With a knife-keen wit and a mind to unsettle the wisest, she could have striven to philosophical heights. Instead, she spied on her neighbors, and wove the quips and foibles of dining room drama into immortal tales. Brilliant woman, parson’s child, country-bound spinster aunt, she questioned not her lot, but found it to be a merry drama and was glad.
Galileo was a doubter. Why? Taught to believe that the earth was settled perfectly in space, the glorious center of everything, he balked. Believe without question? Not him. He studied and stargazed and flung planets from their thrones with never a second thought. One peek through a telescope, one hunch in a prickle up his spine, and off he ran to prove what had never been seen.
I think the people of earth are divided by lines of desire. Dreamers stand on one hand, and keepers sit on the other. Restive and restless-eyed souls are the dreamers. They are the hungry-hearted, with wanderlust thrumming in their blood and eager brains, ever in search of what lies a fingertip just out of reach. Truth or beauty, treasure or friend, they would risk their life to find the unseen ideal. In the annals of time, the dreamers play out like high, bright notes in a symphony. St. Brendan had to find heaven if it could be found on earth. The call of it just beyond him was a song he could not resist. Galileo felt that all was not as he had been told. Ulysses wanted to sail beyond one more star. So it is with all dreamers. They are the explorers, the artists, the sailors, and searchers who ever beat down the walls of the known, intent upon finding what has never been found.
The keepers wait to welcome them home. They are the glad-eyed and frank-faced souls, who settle and stay with a faithful joy. The song of the unseen troubles them not; they feel instead the dance of the seasons, the cadence of days as time sings in the here and now. The present reaches a powerful hand from the deep earth and roots them, happy, to their one place in the wide world. They craft and build, they keep what is civil and lovely alive, they master the art of life lived richly. In the symphony of time, they are the rich-throated hum of low violins, the myriad voices who weave the steady, marching song of the earth. Keepers are the good kings who set their hearts to cultivation instead of conquest, the Jane Austens who revel in the merriment of every day. They are the rulers and builders, the farmers and reapers of harvests, the faithful who keep all that is good in place throughout the ages.
We are born, every one I think, with some leaning toward dreamer or keeper. In most of us, I’m sure there is a bit of both. But no matter which, we must push the song of our soul to its full beauty. The world needs the good that both bring. Evil is defeated by the dreamers whose souls rise to cry against all that is wrong, and the keepers already deep in the daily, gritty work of pushing back the dark. Beauty is cultivated by the keepers who shore up the world with civility, even as dreamers sail back and forth in search of newer, unknown good. Together, they weave the music of their souls, their work, and their wonder into a joyous symphony of fellowship. And this is the song the whole world was made to sing.
So, I’ll keep Ulysses and my beloved Mr. Berry. Together, they paint a brilliant picture of the world I am longing to find and create in my own work. Dreamers and keepers; together they paint the wealth of God’s heart. So, the question is, which are you?
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.