Herbert Elliott

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(HOST) Life on a Vermont hill farm has inspired more than a few poets over the years, but commentator Tom Slayton says that it’s still an unexpected pleasure to find the combination of both hill farmer and poet in one man.

(SLAYTON) Herbert Elliott, who lived most of his 76 years in St. Johnsbury and Lyndonville, was a farmer who milked cows and raised turkeys. And, like quite a few Vermonters of his generation, he also wrote poetry.

Herbert Elliott’s poetry was good: brisk, pungent and insightful. His short poems describe life on the farm and in the nearby woods and fields. They follow the conventions of rhyme and meter, but unlike much amateur poetry, Elliott’s poems are light, imaginative and playful. In short, his poetry is an unusual delight. Here, for example, is a poem about this time of year:

March Night

The night is full of windy sound
And frozen pools are spiked to ground
With stars. But spring is at the edge
Of things. A bluebird came today.
He sleeps within the whistling hedge.
His song at daybreak ought to start
The blood pent in the maple’s heart.

You see what I mean about imagination and delight? The bluebird’s song won’t really start the maple flowing. But it will help shake winter from our hearts and, in that way, help bring the new season on. The image of the frozen pools of water “spiked to the ground” by the evening stars is both accurate and fanciful.

In another spring poem called “Birds With Us”, Herbert Elliott recalls a flock of birds who descend upon his farmhouse to feed after a late spring snow:

The wood-birds left the woods
And snowy forest floor
And printed little tracks
Before the kitchen door.

The night came and the moon,
And in the silver gleam,
In barn they dreamed of spring
On rafter and on beam.

Did this small event really happen this way, and did the birds really dream of spring as they huddled in the barn? Maybe, maybe not. But Elliott’s clear observation and gentle imagination make the event real for us. The image of tiny bird tracks “printed before the kitchen door” has stayed with me ever since I read it.

Herbert Elliott died in 1990 and published only a few of his poems in his lifetime. Fortunately, his daughter Sandra Elliott Ebbett has recently brought out a small, beautfully printed edition of her father’s poetry. It’s entitled Take Your Last Look and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the complex inner life of a Vermont hill farmer.

Elliott was educated at Lyndon Institute and the University of Vermont. He excelled in Latin and French and recalled throughout his life his love of Virgil’s Aeneid. He was living evidence that the television stereotype of the ignorant Vermont farmer is about as wrong as it can possibly be. He was a thoughtful, cultured man who appreciated the beauty and sublety of life in northern Vermont – and his poetry shows it.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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