Thoughts on Byron Herbert Reece’s Poem “The Travelers”

By: Ethelene Jones 

The Travelers

I have come down by many a way
From Dooly to the hills of home,
Though one was best, for if it stray
The meanest road seems good to roam.
And though I have inquired of none
What thoughts with each tall youth abode
As they leaned idly in the sun
And watched me tramp the dusty road,
It was not yesterday time taught,
By keeping me to fields confined,
How there may be escape in thought.
These made a journey in the mind
Until, beyond the hills and me,
They saw, if vaguely and in vain,
The long waves breaking on the sea,
The cities shining on the plain.

-Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958) in Bow Down in Jericho  (New York:  E. P. Dutton, 1950.  p. 92)

I view “The Travelers” as one of Byron Herbert Reece’s autobiographical poems.  It’s not that every one of his poems, or any poet’s poems, are not all autobiographical, in reality, for each person brings to pen and paper what he or she knows of life and experience to write whatever is known particularly to that person.  Each view is different;  likewise, each critique of another’s poem also brings to bear what the reviewer knows of similar experiences.  In essence, we each are fellow travelers on this road called life.

Reece begins with an ordinary way he often traveled.  He had a job teaching in a country school in Dooly District, Union County.  Look at any map of Union County, Georgia where he lived.  Choestoe, his home district, is in the southeast portion of the county.  Dooly district is in the far northwest corner, bordering on North Carolina and Fannin County, Georgia to the west.  If Reece’s old car was not working and he literally had to walk the distance from his home in Choestoe to Dooly to his appointment as teacher in the one-room school, it was a distance of several miles.  He would, literally, have tried ‘many a way’ to find the shortest distance between these two points.  Or, wanting to explore another way, “The meanest way seems good to roam.”

Add to that the fact that, in his letters, he wrote to friends that he really did not like teaching, but that it was a means of earning some much-needed money to supplement his often evasive and undependable farm income.  The travel between Choestoe and Dooly would have been necessary for that livelihood, however meager.

Were the “tall youth” who “leaned idly in the sun” some of his pupils, larger and more muscular by far than he with his lean, often sickly frame, and those who, alas, sometimes had little desire for ‘book learning’ ?  If these are the ones he meant, they would have held little sympathy for their teacher who ‘tramped the dusty road.’  If these were boys seen along the route from Dooly to Choestoe, they would merely have been curious, wondering why a lone man traveled by their house perhaps late on a Friday afternoon, and where he might be headed.  What thoughts did they have?  The poet could only wonder.

But he sounded a happier note: “not yesterday” but farther back in time he had learned, even when he was “to fields confined,” he had a means of escape.  The soil held him to his tasks at hand, tilling, hoeing, cultivating, harvesting.  But “escape in thought” and “journey in the mind” could take him worlds away.  We identify with the traveler, the poet, for how many of us have learned the beauty of escape through journeys of the mind.  I, myself, as I hoed corn in Choestoe District as a youth would often go miles afar in my mind, thinking not of briers and weeds that required ridding from rows, but of far-flung places where I would like to go and where I had traveled in my mind through the magic and wonder of books.

“A journey in the mind,” then becomes a sort of necessity, a way to visit and see “long waves breaking on the sea,” and “cities shining on the plain.”  There is a world “beyond the hills and me.”  And anyone can visit it, at any time.  What he/she needs to be is an intentional traveler, one who can go when the urge for far-off places calls.  One need not be confined to “dusty road” and “fields”.

 –Explication by Ethelene Dyer Jones, March 13, 2010

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