From CORN (New York: Doubleday, 1939)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Corn Harvest


Too many years, from a vague evening valley
In middle England, night growing out of ground
Over my face, up to the brighter sky,
I watched the earth crawl into its timid shadow,
Where, above Oxford wall and high Welsh rock,
Hovered the westward-driven hawk of day.

I followed the talons, gripping light that soon
Would trail along the big hills of my land,
Bringing to silent barn the cattle bellow,
To eager field the passionate, gaunt plow,
To hollow room, huddled against long night,
The loved face, the waking words of morning.

And so, too meditative, I went back,
Too much alone, through mist heavy on hedge
And gray on face, along the groping roads
That led in curves, the way a man would walk,
To all the country pubs with their warm fires,
Plough, The Nag’s Head, Turf, The Drover’s Arms,
To every village rooted in wild moor,
In wood or wold, in barren heath or down,
Longer than any Devon oak or beech,
Wytham, Water Eaton, Wolvercote,
Old names worn water-smooth under the tongue.

At last, by narrow lane and broad highway
Loud with big lorries driving down to London,
I came to that dark, water-wandered town,
Where, before proud stone was piled on stone
To mark the frantic limits of the mind,
Oxen forded the mild, midland river:
Town of hard, intellectual pride, named
For cattle moving with a click of horns,
With a deep moan, through white, hoof-maddened water
Into a crossroad market.
Up that tower
Waiting behind the desperate, spiked wall
Where gargoyles grinned in worn Gothic leer
Over the gate’s wrought agony of iron,
Behind the old belief in right of class,
Tougher and more durable than rock,
Behind the candle-clustered chestnut tree,
To the whole western continent that crouched
In the four cornered oblong of my room
Under the carven eaves where running rain
Bounded it with two oceans.
There I walked,
Morning to night, the wide length of all states:
One step, Manhattan to the Alleghenies,
Myriad lying under mountain laurel,
One step, the autumn prairie blonde with corn,
Beaked crow veering over Iowa valley.
The lifting of a foot paced off the land.
Over the rumpled rug the Rockies climbed,
The gray Nevada dessert glared with heat,
In high Sierra canyon hung that camp
Where the dead children in the howling winter
Lightened the last man’s hunger. One more step
And the Pacific plunged against the wall.
Then back across that country to my bed,
Where, in years of drying the damp sheets
With the small blood-warmth of my body, hearing
The college loud with live human sound
Of men moving in darkness, I had learned
Only to be at home with homesickness.

That was a way of living for a while:
To rope the prairie with a hawthorn hedge,
To watch the forest-followed Mississippi,
Mile-wide where it drifted the migrating duck,
Shrink to the waded Thames, gliding through meadow,
While swans were arrogant on the gray water:
To leave the dare and dazzle of the sun
Burning the brittle leaves of Kansas corn,
Air like glass through which the sight came pure,
For a perpetual island twilight, fading
The fire from color, drowning the distant earth
With a wet light that made plain tree and hill
Loom on a vague and massive ocean floor.
The eye grew wider in that gentle air,
Losing the squint of dog-day noon,
Yet always hungered for the hard cut sky,
Blunt day in Indian summer, lost in that
Land of weather blown in from the bare sea.

It was strange, then, to know that the west was only
Windrush flowing from the Cotswold hills,
And not Missouri, bold in Big Horn peaks.
Nights when the west wind blew I turned my face
Toward it as to a long-familiar hand
That came, by the black water beaten white
On Cornish rock, from touching men I knew.
England, long lived-in country, where all things,
Field, hill and mountain, are a human size,
The paths worn deep by generations walking,
Father to son, the family old in place,
Streets build for the veer and plunge of horses,
The village native to a river edge
As stone under the wavering, dark water,
Islip on Cherwell where lean Skelton lived.
Nation narrowed by the hands of men,
Veined with canal, the shape of living fixed
Clear as the limits of a Berkshire farm,
The forest given form.
In that calm air
The tense American nerve relaxed, I lived
With a gray quietness that let the mind
Grow inward like a root. It was a peace
Of meditative day and steady light.
The eyes grew gentle and the tongue less taut.
I lived with darkness as a woman, knowing
The afternoon aloof, but deep midnight
Intimate and eager.
Yet alone
In evening room thoughtful with pipe and beer
I heard, down the long valley of my bones,
The cry of home run like a calling hound,
And not in word but in the beat of blood
I knew that this would never be my land—
Belly and brain, I lived America.

In the new tasting of the wedge-shaped tongue
I thought of western prairie and the dirt
Black in plowed furrow, big with power of seed.
I had grown tired of that dull foreign food,
Wanting the piled-high plates of August corn,
Golden like nothing in the English earth,
Sweet with the rain and yellow with the sun.
It felt, at times, built around those men,
A force like sandbags on a long-bombed town,
Repelling the invader passively:
An attitude inherited with blood,

A careful accent on the cautious word,
The little, daily acts deliberate
As if the hard decision of their doing
Had been, in the dim of time, forever taken.
In that gray light the men were like the land,
Remote and hidden. If you looked too close
At a man’s eyes, always there moved a fog
Between you and the living self behind.
There was a dampness even in their bones,
A mood of mist, drowning the eager will
Before it lifted the spontaneous hand.
The mind was brilliant but the tongue was brittle.

Yet it is home wherever the hand can feel
By night, unfeeling, the familiar wall,
The chair in its old place, where feet have learned
The crooked way of stairs.


Always returning to that town
Or gray air groping on gray stone,
Always I knew the stranger’s sorrow,
To live with men, but be alone.

Although I walked with friends and heard
With them the bells of evening rung
Vague in the valley of the Thames,
Their talk was bitter on my tongue.

I wished the blunt and useful speech
Of men on land where I was born,
Guessing the pounds of a fattened pig,
Asking the price of autumn corn.

Avon and Evenlode were rivers
Clear and mild in Warwick meadow.
I wanted Missouri dark with earth
Where hung the drifting heron’s shadow.

Hedges carved the hills and walls
Hid, in town, the too shy face.
I wanted prairie for my eyes,
The power of emptiness and space.

My blood followed the sun. I turned
To Wales, at evening, my head.
I breathed the west wind. In my teeth
The word America was bread.


Often I crossed
That narrow width of a most nervous water,
Channel of gray chalk cliff by the gannet climbed,
To wander the worn, ancestral continent,
Where, in old cemeteries that were filled
With dead named more precisely than in life,
No curt nickname, the mother’s call and the friend’s,
Great cities of ghosts, larger than the living,
Intimate in grave, none lonely there,
I thought of Iowa, of that tawny hill
Where cornfield mingled with the new gravestones,
The dead so few and the alive so many,
The earth strange to the burial of a man.

There I saw the anonymous living walk
Dark streets made desolate with flags, the faked
Symbols of grandeur in the desperate lands,
Forgetting that the unconcealable
Image of any country, even the proud,
Is the plain human faces of its people,
The life instinctive in the huddled eyes.
I talked with some who knew the air they breathed
Was rotten with the voice of leaders howling
The blood’s blind riot and the brag of race.
Behind locked doors they answered, their lean mouths
Filled with broken teeth of bitterness.

I walked down wheat field and broad boulevard,
On mountain path a man wide in pine forest,
Wherever the feet of men had worn the land,
Hunting what had no name but was a hard
Hope in the mind, a need of the hands moving:
A lust for looking inward at the self
To find some form deeper than bone or dream,
Groping for gods, for any force driving
Windlike the years to catch in the world’s angle,
For the dark motives of men, the dare of action,
A clear cause for the drifting of our days
Through this defiant and relentless time
When the whole nation and the single mind
Cry aloud, in the mad havoc of hate,
For a word of faith, a way of the heart feeling,
A vision of a life within the life
Against deception and the blood’s despair.


One autumn evening when a nervous fog
Climbed from Port Meadow up to Cumnor town,
I thought of the day I came to that blonde light
And first put on the commoner’s black gown.

The eyes had changed a little, finding good
The gray half tones of Oxford. Hand had grown
More meditative and the careful mind
More passionate, proud of flesh, of touching stone.

America still walked my head, alive
With its pure color and skyscraper line,
But shadowed by the image of a land
Rolling green from Severn flood to Tyne.

In the deep earth of mind that I had put down
Long roots like corn against the burning days,
That bleak night, turning inward on myself,
I asked what of the world I found to praise.

I listened to my voice, until the hollow ear
Was filled with talk of lived-out good and living fear:


Now, in the month of the breaking of red leaves,
The bare autumnal mood of the blood’s chilling,
I turn to the hard work of giving shape
To my own days, if my own hands are willing.

I have been one of many in this age
Hunting in hunger for the source of power,
Whether in mass of men, in the cold mind,
In nerve intense with touch, in cross-topped tower.

Not looking for a vision, the plain man
Blinded by lightning from the broken skies,
But feeling the gradual warmth of sun on rock,
Or day gather in slowly waking eyes.

Animals have sureness, earthworms build
Their labyrinthine burrow in the loam
Without the need of question, flying swallows
Carve in the hanging cliff of wind their home.

I have heard a man, skilled maker of tools,
Cry—Look, how the light of morning leans
Calm on our face, yet we turn away, lacking
The confident power of our own machines.

* * *

I saw men beat the flesh for their God’s glory,
Chanting before him the hard praise of pain:
Gaunt athletes of god trained by negation,
Running through the world with sun-bronzed brain.

Look, they said, this tangible, tough world
Is only shadow and the eye’s illusion.
After your death will come reality,
The end of action and the head’s confusion.

Yet if these men are right, the daily acts
Of life in work and word must be divine,
And by the loved hand’s linger, the eye’s looking,
I touch another world and call it mine,

I reach up through the braches of the sky
And taste Him like a long sun-ripened fruit.
But the one honest truth I found is this:
The hunt for God is only self-pursuit.

* * *

I saw men shape a nation in their hands
Cruel as an axe cutting a live tree,
Saying—Forget the belly, bitter for food.
Think of the glorious state you will not see.

For a while, then, I thought that social force,
The strength of men together in a mass,
Would be the way and wisdom of our living,
One man lost in the many, like the grass.

But then I watched the hypodermic needle
Of blind hope, of brutal will to serve
The good of others and of men unborn,
Anaesthetize the kind and human nerve.

I saw a few break liberties that many
Died through dark years to bring, in one bloody hour.
Raving on radio, their tongues revealed
The proud insanity of too great power.

What of today’s blown air, big in the lungs?
Must we, blood in our face, yet make our mood
A looking always at the gray east, waiting
The way of tomorrow’s weather, taste of it’s food?

It is now men walk the curving earth, aware
Of cornfield, of long sunlight, moving by them.
Let the dictators of our days remember
That human fact, which shall again defy them.


If it were older time
The taste of our speech other,
I could admit the hand
Of brother beating brother,

The mouth, for giving word
To way and shape of mind,
Gagged, and eyes that drank
The light of day, bound blind.

Yet it is now, this year
Is gathered to our bone,
Now, when few common men
May walk or think alone.

For in one mad machine
They have been made a part,
Their pulse must beat with one
Huge, inhuman heart.

The animal, old days
Of raving tooth return,
The power of pack complete
When modern men must learn

Against a wall of hate
It is no use to run.
Too many times the blunt
Argument of gun,

The palpable and taut
Persuasion of hung rope,
Have made a man accept
The hopelessness of hope.


Westward followed the falling sun through days
Barren of any sound but our keel breaking
White the green Gulf Stream, northward going. Tongue
Empty of any taste but the salt tang.
Then the lone shore bird and the gradual air
Bringing the land breath and that city kneeling
Deep in the tide, hand in the harbor wash,
Towers hung in the sky’s dare and the gull way.

The dazzle of that town, its glare light broken
Over the high stone wall and the hard mouth,
The land rising with the day climb, dragging
Up gnarled valley floor the narrowed river:
They were America, but west was home.

Thousand-mile field, midwest, plowed without end,
Mountain to mountain furrow planted full.
Mississippi, father of waters, stained
With the black prairie as my blood with red,
Artery of my throat and the rich land,
Flow of a continent.
I have come back
To land I carry in my bone as corn
Eaten when a child: Through pasture where
Guernsey and Shorthorn, deep of udder, graze
The nourishing sweet grass. Over long field
Where the sod-breaking plow has ripped the earth
Before the planting of a little wheat
Brought from the east on horseback or ox-wagon.
Along that valley where the lazy crow
Loafs on the west wind, where the limestone bluff
Warms the limp rattler.
Iowa, river-rounded,
Fields that rise and fall like a woman walking
Lightly an ocean of water wavering,
Now I have come from the wide world wandering
To live with you in a worn river valley
Rich with the black gold of buffalo grass
Rotted through years of winter and red sun.

Look! I touch you in the hold of my hand.
I come in the bitter beating of a heart
Full with the sorrow of a human world
Living by anger and the bullet’s lust.
Yet not to run away from the hard world,
Or from the long confusion of this time;
Only to look, in the heart of America,
Toward understanding and a peace.
For always
There is the great pulsebeat of moon and sun,
The mother giving of plow-broken earth
When the fat bellies of autumnal barns
Grow big with harvest. There are always men
Learned in the wisdom and old way of land,
Wafting on season as a wing on wind,
Huskers of corn, reapers of clover hay,
Handlers of cattle and of work horse,
Good at mending machines or a hurt dog,
Readers of coming rain.
Here, far away
From those who live by cold and clever phrase,
From the all-knowers with the future quick
On the loose tongue, from the dead-certain eyes
That see too clearly to see anything,
From desperate cities where forever days
Whistle up machine dawn like a dog,
I can let now the mind’s taut hand relax
Its grope for meaning in a world gone dark,
And learn again the way of wind and weather,
Here, not out of life, but only out
Of its confusion, in the candid light.

I have seen too much of the wise, their foolproof schemes
Cracking the simple heart. Today I want
Not wisdom but a human sympathy.
I have known men, honest as rooted rock,
Who, looking always upward for a light
To follow, and lead a nation after them,
Took the bare sun on their eyes until the brain burned,
And lost the touch of men in the dream of man.
Here by the river armlike round the farm
Let the mind’s limit be the edge of eyes
And the low hill ridge mark the end of living.
Let me grow inward like a cell of bone,
Slow, but hardened to a skeleton.
Here I have found that needful wandering,
That taking of men’s hands, that restless hunt
With you, a woman, in the burning night
For the grave form of peace, and that gray staring
Into the face of children, was but seeking
That shape of my own living in myself,
And all that eager walking on the earth
A looking for limits where I dared not walk.
Here I can watch again that human force
Which has two limber legs for easy moving
Over a land of corn a cattle trail,
Whose memory knows the taste of last year’s crop,
An eye for the heft of an ax, the lithe handle,
A nose to tell the age of a load of hay.
Here the corn grows!
Tough, wind-welcoming
Plant: In spring the bold green leaf breaking
Ground with a power definite as the plow,
Or hot midsummer with the heavy stem
Reaching for rain, pleading all day for sun,
Tassel yearning for the yellow pollen,
Or autumn, kernel-dented, golden ears
All husked, rip of the fingers, snap of the wrist,
Crash on wagon bang-board, white-faced steers
From high Wyoming ranges turned to glean
The field gone gray with frost. Always the pride
Of the up-soaring and deep-rooted stalk.
That a man’s life should have such strength of growing,
The clean unasking lift into the light,
The dark and natural driving into earth!
That, in our hollow bones, we could store up
Moisture against drouth days as in that core!
That we could find in our years onward going
So clear a purpose as to make from rain
And the good nourishment of summer warmth
A simple food for men and animals
Against the wear of winter.
My life is
To be at home here by the cornfield’s edge,
Under the big light of American sky,
But only till I have an understanding
Of how, through ecstasy and terror, life
Goes on, defiant, in a dark need of nerve,
Eating the bread of ordinary days,
Until I learn, recalling the men seen
In Munich gunfire and on Iowa farm,
That truth is where you stand to see a thing.
How can I know the world and my place there
Before I know myself? Too long I went
With a great urge and shouting into life.
Now I will let it, like a change of season,
Come to me here.
A grindstone does its job
By a perpetual turning in one place,
Wearing itself down slower than the steel.