Wherefore Art Thou, Hidden Wheat?

Last year I traveled to meetings Washington, D. C., and which provided an opportunity to visit beautiful Folger Library which is located just a few blocks northeast of the Capitol Building. The library houses the world’s largest collection of works by and about William Shakespeare, and just standing inside the main reading room transports one to Old World Europe with stacks of fine bindings and exquisite hardwood furnishings.

Folger Library, Washington, D. C.

References to grain appear in many works by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) including some two dozen lines that mention “corn” in the generic sense as in verse from Henry VI: “Why droops my lord like over-ripen’d corn, Hanging the head at Ceres’ plenteous ears load?” and “What valiant foemen, like to autumn’s corn, Have we mow’d down in tops of all their pride.” His tragedy Coriolanus, based on the life of a legendary Roman leader, was likely influenced by the violent public response to enclosure of public farmlands that took place in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire. With low wages and reduced harvests, rural inhabitants opposed the privatization of lands by the rich that had long been held in common. A similar impulse had motivated plebeians in the time of Coriolanus. Shakespeare also makes specific reference to “white wheat,” “red wheat,” and various cereals commonly known to rural inhabitants as well as city dwellers of the time.

His reasons are as two grains of wheat hidden in two bushels of chaff. (The Merchant of Venice)

Between the acres of the rye, These pretty country folks would lie. (As You Like It)

Ceres, most bounteous lady, Thy rich leas, Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and peas. (The Tempest)

Herefordshire clergyman and mystic poet Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674) composed Centuries of Meditations, an eclectic collection of several hundred meditations on Christian living and happiness with numerous agrarian allusions. Traherne found that childlike faith and reflection combined with rational consideration of the physical world revealed “the eternal theme of the goodness and splendor of God.” This synthesis of imaginative and logical thought anticipated ideas of Enlightenment Romantics by two centuries, though Traherne’s writings were not well known until modern times. C. S. Lewis considered Meditations the most eloquent expressions of natural beauty in the English language, as in these lines from Traherne’s recollection of grain fields from his youth: “The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.”