Readers of Chronicles already know that David Middleton is an extraordinarily accomplished poet.  For much of the rest of the reading world, unfortunately, he is a well-kept secret.  Living in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and teaching at Nicholls State University, he is far removed from the centers of literary power and influence.  Even if that were not the case, American poets tend to be part of a coterie confined to other poets and would-be poets.  Fortunately, Middleton is not of that ilk.

Some poets paint pictures with words.  Others exploit the sensuous music of words.  Middleton is one of the select few who can do both equally (and seamlessly) well in the same poem.  Like the Nashville Fugitives, he possesses a sure command of the formal resources of verse.  But his work shuns the elliptical and ironic mannerisms of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.  The closest comparison among the Fugitives would probably be to Donald Davidson in the late period of his career, when Davidson had transcended the rhetorical excesses of his early verse to achieve true lyrical power and intellectual subtlety.  It is to Middleton’s credit that he has reached that same level of achievement far more frequently and at a younger age.

Middleton’s most recent book, The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy, is a sequence of 60 poems (some of them published first in these pages) inspired by the work of the 19th-century French painter Jean-François Millet.  Middleton was originally struck by what he calls Millet’s “sympathetic realism in depicting the harsh life of French peasants in the nineteenth century.”  (He later discovered that Millet’s painting had also influenced “Humility,” a poem by Fred Chappell, who is himself an underappreciated Southern writer.)  Although each of Middleton’s poems could be read in isolation, one can find affinities throughout the volume.  He has noted, for example, that lines 12 through 16 of the first poem catalogue typical farm tasks on which he expands in the next six poems.  While virtually abandoning rhyme, Middleton writes in formal-verse patterns that must be read aloud to be enjoyed fully.  Each poem is composed in four stanzas in an effort to approximate the four-by-four effect of a picture framed.

Gruchy itself is a Norman village near Cherbourg where Millet grew up in rural poverty.  Although he later lived in Paris and Barbizon and in an area near the great plain of Chailly, Gruchy was the setting to which his imagination invariably returned.  After his first wife died of tuberculosis two years into their marriage, Millet wed a Breton serving girl named Catherine, who bore him nine children and outlived him by 20 years.  Middleton identifies her as the muse of this recent volume of verse.

One of the identifying features of the early modernist era in poetry was a stark juxtaposition of decadent imagery from contemporary life with symbols from earlier ages of faith and romance.  When Middleton reaches back to an earlier time with which to compare the rural ambience of 19th-century France, however, the effect is frequently (though not invariably) one of natural and theonomous unity.  The worlds may be different, but they are not necessarily conflicting.  One of the problems in attempting to define postmodernism is the fact that many contemporary poets (such as Middleton) have recovered techniques and beliefs that pre-date the revolutions of the 20th century.

Approximately one third of the poems in The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy (19 of 60) reference the Bible or Christian theology.  In “Potato Planters,” for example, the first, second, and fourth stanzas consist of a straightforward description of a farm family planting “a crop some scorn as human food” and then returning home for the night.  The third stanza, however, opens up a window to first-century Palestine and to eternity itself:

The trees bring gifts of coolness, quiet, and shade

To a donkey’s dreaming child where watchful eyes

Of a donkey seem to almost comprehend

The infant still asleep in Bethlehem.

In “Twilight,” however, no such hope is available.  To be sure, the final two lines of the second stanza do suggest that we might be seeing the image of “a holy family / Going toward Egypt or toward Bethlehem.”  (Note the ambiguity of the indefinite article and the irony of the fact that, for this particular Hebrew family, Egypt is the route of deliverance and Bethlehem, that of destruction.)  But the first line of the third stanza, which begins a sentence that lasts through the balance of the poem, denies the biblical comparison: “No, here’s no Joseph with some sheltered flock.”

We find other sobering images of our fallen world in “Shepherd Minding His Sheep.”  Here, we look down upon sheep traveling from one destination to another.  Between the second and third stanzas, we are reminded that, despite our privileged view of “tall blades so green and cool in shade . . . ,” this effect must come from trees that are “undepicted” and which “set our perspective on the scene.”  Then, in the final stanza, as the sheep begin to enter “Canaan’s verdant ground . . . ,” we realize that our vantage point has been that of Moses, denied entrance to the Promised Land.  Although even a glimpse of a country from which he is barred might seem an act of mercy, Middleton leaves no doubt in our mind that what Moses views from Mount Nebo can remind him only of “deprivation’s plenitude.”

“Sheepfold by Moonlight” could just as easily be called “The Bad Shepherd,” although the tone of the poem is hardly one of judgment.  The first two stanzas simply show us the difficult labors of a poor shepherd “on Chailly plain.”  Because this shepherd must work in the “faint beams” of the actual moon, he is “shadowed by light but not the source of light.”  Thus, “the bleating of a lost or straggling lamb / Will go unheard in deep exhaustion’s sleep.”  If it is no Good Shepherd that we see, neither is it a particularly evil one—only the sort of guy who tries to make do by hutching his sheep “in these Arcadian wastes like Paris, Troy, / Or any other city of the plain.”  One cannot help being struck by the earthly grandeur of the two cities named and by the subtle reminder that Paris of Troy was not only himself a shepherd but—in later tending his political and military flocks—a notoriously bad one at that.

The scene in “Harvesters Resting” reminds the poet (and perhaps the painter before him) of the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz—a natural analogy made several times within the volume.  At first, Middleton stresses the contrast between the Old Testament tale, in which the wealthy Boaz rescues Ruth from her poverty, and the straitened economic circumstances of the Norman harvesters.  But his final stanza emphasizes the fact that Ruth’s marriage brought her something far more than financial security.  Although she was born a Moabitess, Ruth’s incorporation into Israel made her the ancestress of kings (literally of King David) and, as Middleton need not even point out, of the King of Kings.

The only place in the volume where Middleton speaks in the personal voice is in his penultimate poem “Self-Portrait.”  The first three stanzas are actually written in the second person, as the poet addresses the painter about the only two pictures in which he depicts himself.  But, as we see in his final stanza, Middleton’s primary intention is to reveal his own personal motivation behind writing The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy:

And in these poems I’ve disappeared in you—

Or is it that you’ve lost yourself in me?—

Our shapes and phrases so alike composed,

Your Channel in the Gulf, my South in Normandy.

Rather than conclude on what some might regard as a self-flexive note, Middleton skips three pages before bringing his book to a magnificent summation with “Angelus.”  The first stanza reminds us that the Angelus bells ringing from the village church are part of the daily ritual of worship.  We then move out of the churchyard into the potato field.  Even if the bells cannot be heard this far away, the sky remains gold, despite the fact that the sun has already set.  Here,

In attitudes of prayer a man and wife

Think of the Incarnation of their Lord,

The flesh redeemed, a grace creation saved,

Bells pealing from the New Jerusalem

Through history back to Eden’s speaking leaves.

Middleton, however, is too sensitive to the mood he has created in these poems to end on such a grandiose tone.  The final stanza of “Angelus” returns us to the potato field, where the daily drudgery must continue “till the final angels come.”  This affirmation sheds a divine light of hope on these pictures turned into words.  If the art of the painter and the poet can bestow beauty on the mundane images of everyday life, grace can elevate that beauty to an even higher level of meaning.


[The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet, by David Middleton (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 80 pp., $16.95]