The Poet and the Plowman

Surprisingly often we talked about Vergil, usually about the Aeneid, but sometimes about the Georgics, and then with the wry sentimental fondness of old students who had been made, not quite willingly, to go to school to the poem. And during the plentiful longueurs of the Redskin games of the mid-1960's, we would regret that so many traditional attractions of farm life had seemed to disappear along with our Latin. Then he would smile and say in his breathy ironic genteel Kentucky accent: "But we would make dreadful farmers, Fred, you and I."

This was Allen Tate, who would spend Sunday afternoons at my home during his two-week teaching stints in Greensboro because I enjoyed watching television football with him. ("I admire the precision," he said, "Machinelike.") He maintained that poets should be only spectator farmers—doubting that Vergil had ever struck a lick with a hoe—and that when they became active husbandmen, they cut ridiculous figures or were unhappy and embittered. He was thinking of Jesse Stuart and Robert Frost and of Hesiod, and I thought of the bittersweet work of Wndell Berry.

It was partly because of his allegiance to the values of an agricultural society that he liked to describe himself as a "reactionary." That was rather a belligerent term in the 1960's (and must have been more so in the 1930's when he developed his stance),...

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