Many people find it hard to grasp the notion of a nation because they try to grasp the notion too tightly. It is, we might say, like a wet bar of soap that flies out of the hand when it is squeezed.
I suspect they do this because their minds are modern, and therefore trammeled by the Cartesian prejudice that a “clear and distinct idea” must stand at the head of every rational thought. But when nation is apprehended as a clear and distinct idea, it is always reduced to one aspect of the real thing, which is complex, indistinct and obscure. In a recent post, for instance, I wrote about the way that men like Paul Ryan reduce American nationality to a doctrine, and about their fierce hostility to men who (they allege) reduce that nationality to blood and soil.
All of these reductions distort the notion of a nation by reducing it to the clear and distinct idea of either a political creed, a biological race, or a geographical territory. The truth is that a nation combines all of these elements, and that the contours of this combination are irreducibly ambiguous.
But one thing, at least, is clear. If one of these elements is missing, we do not have a nation. If there is nothing but doctrine, we have a church. If there is nothing but soil, we have an empire. And if there is nothing but blood, we have something of interest only to a zoologist. To have a nation, we must have all three elements, and we must not expect to define these elements with any great exactness.
Obscurantism is evil, but obscurity is not. It is wrong to intentionally obscure what is in fact clear, but it is also wrong—and perhaps in the long run more harmful—to clarify what is in fact obscure. When we do this, we squeeze the bar of soap and it shoots out of our hand.
This is why the epistemology of nation is mythical rather than mathematical. Mythical thought is not angered by obscurity, and it is certainly not surprised. It is not embarrassed when its Cartesian critics pound the table and accuse it of obscurantism. To this accusation, the mythical mind calmly responds that there are in this world a great many things that cannot be brought into sharp focus. But the fact that they cannot be brought into sharp focus does not mean that they are not real.
When we limit human knowledge to things that can be brought into sharp focus, we lock human understanding in “the prison of things that are clear.” The phrase is from Lubac’s Drama of Atheistic Humanism (1944), and it takes us to the heart of the special stupidity of enlightenment. To shift the metaphor, the enlightened mind demands to see everything in broad daylight, and it will not stoop to peer at the obscure things that can be seen only by the dim and flickering light of a pale and smoking lantern.
The nation is one of the things we know by lantern light. It is like an animal that has crawled under the house and backs away into the shadows when we thrust out our lantern to see what it is. Religion is another thing like that. And so is love.
I recently confessed that I have a vagabond mind, and my strolling of late has taken me into the neighborhood of some Southern poets of the late nineteenth century. I have been pleased to make the acquaintance of Sidney Lanier, Henry Timrod, and Paul Hamilton Hayne (and not a little indignant that these names were not on any course syllabus I was ever handed). I have been pondering especially Lanier’s “Corn” (1875), a poem that I believe throws more than a little lantern light on the notion of nation. Lantern light, mind you, not a spotlight; and Lanier was certainly not so rash as to try dragging this critter by its tail into the full light of day.
I submit that “Corn” is a classic of American conservative verse, repugnant though it may be to a large part of the Republican party. It is conservative because it conserves the three elements of doctrine, blood and soil, allowing no one element to overwhelm and drive out the others, and more especially because it conserves all three elements from the wasting fever of classical liberalism and political economy.
I have broken Lanier’s poem into sections divided by brief bracketed paragraphs of commentary. His language and imagery are not recondite, but this may help you maintain your bearings, and also to skip ahead if you find your patience wearing thin. WordPress does not allow me to reproduce Lanier’s rather complex scheme of indentation, so I have substituted my own scheme of line spaces to approximate the effect.
[The poem opens with the poet walking through a Georgia wood in springtime, ten years after Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox. The life returning to the wood is a metaphor of the reviving South, and the entire poem should be read as an expression of Lanier’s hopes and fears about what the “New South” would become. Above this metaphor of Southern revival, Lanier is, however, simply delighting in in the profound communion he feels with his native land. Like the trees and wild grapes, his soul is nourished by the Georgia soil, and he feels kinship with both the virginal flowers and the amorous creatures that scuttle in the fallen leaves. I think there are many lovely lines in this bucolic overture, but readers with no relish for nature poetry may wish to skip ahead.]
Today the woods are trembling through and through
With shimmering forms, that flash before my view,
Then melt in green as dawn-stars melt in blue.
The leaves that wave against my cheek caress
Like women’s hands; the embracing boughs express
A subtlety of mighty tenderness;
The copse-depths into little noises start,
That sound anon like beatings of a heart,
Anon like talk twixt lips not far apart.
The beech dreams balm, as a dreamer hums a song;
Through that vague wafture, expirations strong
Throb from young hickories breathing deep and long
With stress and urgence bold of prisoned spring
And ecstasy of burgeoning.
Now, since the dew-plashed road of morn is dry,
Forth venture odors of more quality
And heavenlier giving. Like Jove’s locks awry,
Rich-wreathe the spacious foreheads of great pines,
And breathe ambrosial passion from their vines.
I pray with mosses, ferns and flowers shy
That hide like gentle nuns from human eye
To lift adoring perfumes to the sky.
I hear faint bridal-sighs of brown and green
Dying to silent hints of kisses keen
As far lights fringe into a pleasant sheen.
I start at fragmentary whispers, blown
From undertalks of leafy souls unknown,
Vague purports sweet, of inarticulate tone.
Dreaming of gods, men, nuns and brides, between
Old companies of oaks that inward lean
To join their radiant amplitudes of green,
I slowly move, with ranging looks that pass,
Up from the matted miracles of grass
Into yon veined complex of space
Where sky and leafage interlace
So close, the heaven of blue is
Inwoven with a heaven of green.
[Lanier’s “ranging look” that passes up from earth to sky is, of course, a sign that he is in communion with both heaven and earth. He is not only attuned to the chaste and lusty rites of spring that are taking place at his feet, but also to the sky that overarches and sustains this vernal pageant. The “heaven of blue” is not, you will note, a distant heaven, but is rather “interlaced” with the burgeoning “heaven of green.” And this is well for Lanier, who as a man of flesh and blood is confined to earth by the “mighty tenderness” of the “embracing boughs” of “oaks that inward lean.”]
[Stepping out from the pure nature of that Georgia wood, Lanier enters into the world that is made by men. A traditional Southern snake fence separates the wild growth from the orderly rows of cornstalks, and despite his romantic love of nature, Lainer sees that “the march of culture” is something other than the pulse of nature. A man may bask in moments of profound communion with nature, but from these moments he must return because he is, after all, a man.]
I wander to the zigzag-cornered fence
Where sassafras, intrenched in brambles dense,
Contests with stolid vehemence
The march of culture, setting limb and thorn
As pikes against the army of the corn.
[Leaning on the snake fence and looking across the cornfield, Lanier show us that man stands apart from nature because the world is, for him, a symbol as well as a thing. It is by reading the symbolism of the cornfield that Lanier “harvests” that field without “theft,” and it is by taking those symbols to heart that he eats from that field without “tilth.”]
There, while I pause, my fieldward-faring eyes,
Take harvests, where the stately corn-ranks rise,
Of inward dignities
And large benignities and insights wise,
Graces and modest majesties.
Thus, without theft, I reap another’s field;
Thus, without tilth, I house a wondrous yield,
Heaping my heart with quintuple crops concealed.
[The first symbol Lanier sees is a lone corn stalk, larger than the rest, standing somewhat apart and close against the snake fence that separates the corn from the wild growth on the other side. He sees this cornstalk as the “type” (i.e. symbol) of a national poet who stands apart from his people, but who nevertheless remains one of them and on their side of the fence. A national poet does not cross over and live among the sassafras and brambles on the other side.]
Look, out of line one tall corn-captain stands
Advanced beyond the foremost of his bands,
And, waves his blades upon the very edge
And hottest thicket of the battling hedge.
Thou lustrous stalk, that ne’er mayst walk nor talk,
Still shalt thou type the poet-soul sublime
That leads the vanward of his timid time
And sings up cowards with commanding rhyme—
[The word “type” is here a verb that means to symbolize. A national poet is on the side of his own kind, not on the side of the “battling hedge” that will overgrow the cornfield if given half a chance. He is on the side of his own kind, but as their teacher, not a man in the crowd. He must be in one sense greater than his people (he must “grow by double increments”), but he must not be grander than his people (he must remain as “soul homely” as a humble stalk of corn). He must write his poems for “yeomen,” not critics, and his aim must be to boost both their morals and their morale.]
[As for his own soul, he must learn to be . . .]
Soul calm, like thee, yet fain, like thee, to grow
By double increment, above, below;
Soul homely, as thou art, yet rich in grace like thee,
Teaching the yeomen selfless chivalry
That moves in gentle curves of courtesy;
Soul filled like thy long veins with sweetness tense,
By every godlike sense
Transmuted from the four wild elements.
[The “four wild elements” are, of course, earth, air, water and fire. By the strange alchemy of corn, these elements are transmuted into “sweetness” that can nourish a human body. By an analogous alchemy, a national poet combines the elements he draws with “every godlike sense” from his surroundings, and with this sweetness feeds his people’s soul]
[To do this, a national poet must be rooted in his native soil, and must therefore be content to know that he is “standing in his future grave.” It should be needless to say that this is the heart of blood and soil nationalism. Blood and soil nationalism is a grateful acceptance of the fact that the blood of the nation runs into and out of its soil. Even as the broken bodies of its dead are laid in the earth, the food of its youth sprouts anew.]
Drawn to high plans,
Thou lift’st more stature than a mortal man’s,
Yet ever piercest downward in the mould
And keepest hold
Upon the reverend and steadfast earth
That gave thee birth;
Yea, standest smiling in thy future grave,
Serene and brave,
With unremitting breath
Inhaling life from death,
Thine epitaph writ fair in fruitage eloquent,
Thy living self thy monument.
[Lanier continues to develop the analogy between the cornstalk and a national poet who draws from his surroundings to produce “fruitage eloquent.” But now he adds his people’s history to the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. Like the corn, the poet must taste “dreadful night” (which I take to be ordeals such as the Civil War, in which Lanier fought), must assimilate “antique ashes,” and must push his roots deep into buried beds of “potsherds and dry bones, and ruin-stones.”]
As poets should,
Thou hast built up thy hardihood
With universal food,
Drawn in select proportion fair
From richest mould and vagabond air;
From darkness of the dreadful night,
And joyful light;
From antique ashes, whose departed flame
In thee has finer life and longer fame;
From wounds and balms,
From storms and calms,
From potsherds and dry bones,
[A national poet makes his verse from things that lie ready to hand in the everyday world of his people, for like the cornstalk he is bound to the soil and does not run away in search of exotic impressions and foreign notions. His substance is healthy and “vigorous” precisely because it has been wrought from “what’er the hand of Circumstance hath brought.” And even with this his work is not to pick and choose like some finicky critic, but to assimilate, synthesize and elevate what his surroundings yield. The result is the spiritual food with which a national poet can “solace” (not shock or harass) both “lord in hall” and “beast in stall.”]
So to thy vigorous substance thou hast wrought
Whate’er the hand of Circumstance hath brought;
Yea, into cool solacing green hast spun
White radiance hot from out the sun.
So thou dost mutually leaven
Strength of earth with grace of heaven;
So thou dost marry new and old
Into a one of higher mould;
So thou dost reconcile the hot and cold,
The dark and bright,
And many a heart-perplexing opposite,
Akin by blood to high and low,
Fitly thou playest out thy poet’s part,
Richly expending thy much-bruised heart
In equal care to nourish lord in hall
Or beast in stall.
[Now, Lanier takes a very interesting turn and speaks more directly of his hopes and fears for the New South. His hope is that the people of the South will be content with a modest life of agrarian repose; his fear is that they will catch (or perhaps relapse into) the fever of political economy. He thus begins by praising the corn for its habit of staying put and being a “steadfast dweller on the selfsame spot” where it was born. The corn is thus the “type” (i.e. symbol), of the “home-fond heart.” As such it “rebukes” the restless world of commerce that builds its “flimsy homes” on “the shifting sands of trade.” Those “flimsy houses” endure “scarce a day” and are in no time swallowed up by “swift engulfments of incalculable tides, whereon capricious commerce rides.”]
Thou took’st from all that thou might’st give to all.
O steadfast dweller on the selfsame spot
Where thou wast born, that still repinest not—
Type of the home-fond heart, the happy lot!
Deeply thy mild content rebukes the land
Whose flimsy homes, built on the shifting sand
Of trade, forever rise and fall
With alternation whimsical,
Enduring scarce a day,
Then swept away
By swift engulfments of incalculable tides
Whereon capricious Commerce rides.
[To illustrate the deadly fever of political economy, Lanier invites the corn to look across the valley, in which a bankrupt mill molders, and upon a ravaged and derelict farm that crowns a distant hill.]
Look, thou substantial spirit of content!
Across this little vale, thy continent,
To where, beyond the moldering mill,
Yon old deserted Georgian hill
Bares to the sun his piteous aged crest
And seamy breast,
By restless-hearted children left to lie
Untended there beneath the heedless sky,
As barbarous folk expose their old to die.
[The last line of course echoes George Fitzhugh, who thirty years before had written that a society run along the lines of political economy would be as cruel as a society with the custom “of exposing its deformed and crippled children.” In Lanier’s Georgia hills, the moldering mill and ravaged farm are types (i.e. symbols) of agrarian contentment ravaged and destroyed by the fever of classical liberalism. The “seamy breast” of the hill is “scarified” with gullies because its soil has been overworked by “keen Neglect.” Lanier knew the farmer who ruined this farm, and says he did so because he had given “soul and soil” to “coquette Cotton.” In other words, the farm was ruined as a burnt offering to Mammon]
Upon that generous-rounding side,
With gullies scarified
Where keen Neglect his lash hath plied,
Dwelt one I knew of old, who played at toil,
And gave to coquette Cotton soul and soil.
Scorning the slow reward of patient grain,
He sowed his heart with hopes of swifter gain,
Then sat him down and waited for the rain.
[Impatient with the humble task of growing “patient grain,” this farmer “sowed his heart” with Carlyle’s “Mammon Gospel of Supply-and-Demand.” He stopped being a farmer and became a speculator, because this promised “swifter gain.” And having given his heart to Mammon, the farmer was snared in the toils and traps of Mammonism.]
He sailed in borrowed ships of usury
A foolish Jason on a treacherous sea,
Seeking the Fleece and finding misery.
Lulled by smooth-rippling loans, in idle trance
He lay, content that unthrift Circumstance
Should plough for him the stony field of Chance.
Yea, gathering crops whose worth no man might tell,
He staked his life on games of Buy-and-Sell,
And turned each field into a gambler s hell.
[“Unthrift Circumstance” is the luck of the market in the “game of Buy-and-Sell.” But the farmer has no luck and “unthrift Circumstance” betrays him into the “gambler’s hell” of risking what he still possesses in the hope of recovering what he has already lost. Snared and trussed by Mammonism, the farmer must take himself to the very temple of Mammon, and abase himself before its high priest. In other words, he must go to town and plead with a banker in his lair. He must abase himself with obsequious begging and lies, and by kissing the rich man’s dust.]
Aye, as each year began,
My farmer to the neighboring city ran;
Passed with a mournful anxious face
Into the banker’s inner place;
Parleyed, excused, pleaded for longer grace;
Railed at the drought, the worm, the rust, the grass;
Protested ne’er again ’twould come to pass;
With many an ohand ifand but alas
Parried or swallowed searching questions rude,
And kissed the dust to soften Dives’s mood.
At last, small loans by pledges great renewed,
He issues smiling from the fatal door,
And buys with lavish hand his yearly store
Till his small borrowings will yield no more.
[So, this wretched devotee of Mammon is by slow degrees crushed and ground to dust. His hope of “swifter gain” gives way to forebodings of dispossession, destitution and disgrace. Yet he still looks to the market for salvation, fretting over the auguries of prices, and futures, and rumors, and trends.]
Aye, as each year declined,
With bitter heart and ever-brooding mind
He mourned his fate unkind.
In dust, in rain, with might and main,
He nursed his cotton, cursed his grain,
Fretted for news that made him fret again,
Snatched at each telegram of Future Sale,
And thrilled with Bulls or Bears alternate wail
In hope or fear alike forever pale.
[Wasted with anxiety, the farmer at last learns that Mammon is a cruel god and Shylock will have his pound of flesh.]
And thus from year to year, through hope and fear,
With many a curse and many a secret tear,
Striving in vain his cloud of debt to clear,
He woke to find his foolish dreaming past,
And all his best-of-life the easy prey
Of squandering scamps and quacks that lined his way
With vile array,
From rascal statesman down to petty knave;
Himself, at best, for all his bragging brave,
A gamester’s catspaw and a banker’s slave.
[When Lanier was writing, the phrase “best-of-life” meant what we mean by “prime of life.” It denoted not only the years of healthy maturity, but also the rewards a man must reap in those years if he is to reap rewards at all. This farmer who put his faith in political economy watches in horror as the bank forecloses on both his best-of-life and his farm. Betrayed by political economy, he runs away from Georgia in poverty and disgrace, most probably in the direction of Texas.]
Then, worn and gray, and sick with deep unrest,
He fled away into the oblivious West,
[To close this poem, Lanier pities the wounded Georgia hill. Its wounds are too deep for life to return this spring, but the poet has faith its wounds will heal in time. Here again, we should remember that Lanier was writing only ten years after Appomattox, and so almost certainly meant the ravaged Georgia hill is the type (i.e. symbol) of the war-ravaged South. That the South was war-ravaged was itself due to antebellum dalliance with the faithless coquette of political economy.]
[Looking into the future, Lanier hopes that the ravaged hill, and like it the ravaged South, will come under the guidance and protection of some “bolder heart,” which I take to mean a deeper Gospel, that will combine the wisdom of tradition (“antique sinews”) with the intelligence of “modern art.”]
Old hill! old hill! thou gashed and hairy Lear
Whom the divine Cordelia of the year,
E’en pitying Spring, will vainly strive to cheer
King, that no subject man nor beast may own,
Discrowned, undaughtered and alone
Yet shall the great God turn thy fate,
And bring thee back into thy monarch state
And majesty immaculate.
Lo, through hot waverings of the August morn,
Thou givest from thy vasty sides forlorn
Visions of golden treasuries of corn
Ripe largesse lingering for some bolder heart
That manfully shall take thy part,
And tend thee,
And defend thee,
With antique sinew and with modern art.