The southern Indiana town of New Harmony, once home to two utopian communities, lies along the Wabash River, not far from its confluence with the mightier Ohio. Originally named Harmonie, the town was founded in 1814 by a utopian sect that had fled persecution in Germany. Believing the second coming of Christ to be imminent, its austere members practiced celibacy and abstained from tobacco. Despite their focus on the great hereafter, the Harmonists managed to construct an economic Eden on what had been a mosquito-infested swamp: they drained the soil, established thriving crops, and produced highly regarded textiles. Still, after a decade, dispirited by the isolation of the place, they put the entire town with its 200 buildings up for sale. Welsh industrialist Robert Owen bought the settlement in 1824, where he established a second utopian community, very different than the Harmonists’. Owen believed in social equality, progressive education, and scientific research. Renaming the town New Harmony, he assembled an international Chautauqua there, with regular scientific lectures, theatrical performances, and concerts. But Owen was more a visionary than a planner, and the community disbanded after a few years.
Yet the tiny town (pop. approximately 900) remains an attraction. Its restored historical buildings are open to tourists, and more recent developments have rendered New Harmony a site for retreats and reflection. The ashes of theologian Paul Tillich reside in a meditative park bearing his name, the architect Philip Johnson designed the town’s Roofless Church, its brick walls open to the sky, and two labyrinths invite visitors to trace their meandering routes to the center. For many years, the Ropewalk Writers’ Retreat was held there.
Laurel Smith, a professor of English at Vincennes University, has written a free verse sonnet that suggests the effect this ecumenically sacred place can have on its visitors. Resembling the two-part structure of the Italian form, “Improvised Sabbath” begins with two women walking through New Harmony, a place “where history / is a word like God, quiet and huge.” They’re tourists, taking pictures and enjoying the warm spring weather.
At the sestet, the poem moves inward, when one of the women acknowledges, “I think too much.” Thereafter, the place does its work, pulling the women from the clamor of language and reason. The cemetery contains anonymous graves without headstones, one of the labyrinths, modeled on the cathedral floor at Chartres, a path to still the mind. By the end, resting near the lake, noting the “dark fish / like swimming ghosts,” the women give themselves over to silence.
Improvised Sabbath New Harmony, Indiana Two women walk in the town where history is a word like God, quiet and huge. One woman holds a camera, the familiar gesture of a visitor recording the details of a place. The day itself is golden in a season of rain, of maple seedlings that twirl and fall. Today summer considers her arrival; the air so bright and full the walkers begin to forget the cool spring. I think too much, says one of them, the one whose hands are free. They are mostly quiet, though, walking past a walled cemetery with no markers, walking toward the recent gate to a labyrinth. When they stop near the lake, dark fish like swimming ghosts, neither woman will say a word.
This poem appeared in And Know This Place: Poems of Indiana, ed. Jenny Kander and C.E. Greer (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2011).