From “The Land” [Shepherds and stars are quiet with the hills]

Shepherds and stars are quiet with the hills.
There is a bond between the men who go
From youth about the business of the earth,
And the earth they serve, their cradle and their grave;
Stars with the seasons alter; only he
Who wakeful follows the pricked revolving sky,
Turns concordant with the earth while others sleep;
To him the dawn is punctual; to him
The quarters of the year no empty name.
A loutish life, but in the midst of dark
Cut to a gash of beauty, as when the hawk
Bears upwards in its talons the striking snake,
High, and yet higher, till those two hang close,
Sculptural on the blue, together twined,
Exalted, deathly, silent, and alone.

And since to live men labour, only knowing
Life’s little lantern between dark and dark,
The fieldsman in his grave humility
Goes about his centennial concerns,
Bread for his race and fodder for his kine,
Mating and breeding, since he only knows
The life he sees, how it may best endure,
(But on his Sabbath pacifies his God,
Blindly, though storm may wreck his urgent crops,)
And sees no beauty in his horny life,
With closer wisdom than soft poets use.
But I, like him, who strive
Closely with earth, and know her grudging mind,
Will sing no songs of bounty, for I see
Only the battle between man and earth,
The sweat, the weariness, the care, the balk;
See earth the slave and tyrant, mutinous,
Turning upon her tyrant and her slave,
Yielding reluctantly her fruits, to none
But most peremptory wooers.
Wherever waste eludes man’s vigilance,
There spring the weeds and darnels; where he treads
Through woods a tangle nets and trips his steps;
His hands alone force fruitfulness and tilth;
Strange lovers, man and earth! their love and hate
Braided in mutual need; and of their strife
A tired contentment born.


This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on January 7, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

Vita Sackville-West’s pastoral epic The Land was first published in 1926 by William Heinemann. In “The Political Legacy of the Garden: (Anti)pastoral Images and National Identity in Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West,” published in Woolf in the Real World: Selected Papers from the Thirteenth International Conference on Virginia Woolf (Clemson University Digital Press, 2005), McKenzie L. Zeiss, former writing instructor at the University of California, Irvine, writes, “Sackville-West also insists on using the pastoral to question rather than to solidify English identity in the earlier poem The Land. Its most often cited lines come in the introduction: ‘I sing once more / The mild continuous epic of the soil.’ However, to take these lines at face value is to ignore the rest of the poem, which renders profoundly ironic any description of the pastoral setting as ‘mild.’ Sackville-West characterizes the country life as ‘A loutish life, but in the midst of dark / Cut to a gash of beauty.’ Calling beauty of the pastoral a ‘gash’ asserts that it is precisely the opposite of anything either ‘mild’ or ‘continuous.’ She continues by asserting that she ‘Will sing no songs of bounty, for I see / Only the battle between man and earth.’ Pastoral forms can serve as an answer to war because they reproduce it, and Sackville-West’s focus on the origins and histories of plants [in her later title The Garden] suggests the ways in which the political history of the nation is bodily inscribed in the land itself.”