From: The Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Richard Bentley & Son 1890 London


THE lack of system which is noticeable in Thoreau’s character may be traced in the style of his writings as plainly as in his philosophical views. He was not careful as to the outer form and finish of his works, for he believed that the mere literary contour is of quite secondary importance in comparison with the inner animating spirit; let the worthiness of the latter once be assured, and the former will fall naturally into its proper shape. “As for style of writing,” he says, “if one has anything to say, it drops from him simply and directly, as a stone falls to the ground. There are no two ways about it, but down it comes, and he may stick in the points and stops wherever he can get a chance. New ideas come into this world somewhat like falling meteors, with a flash and an explosion, and perhaps somebody’s castle roof perforated. To try to polish the stone in its descent, to give it a peculiar turn, and make it whistle, a tune, perchance, would be of no use, if it were possible. Your polished stuff turns out not to be meteoric, but of this earth.” Furthermore, although, as we have seen, writing was more and more recognised by him as his profession in his later years, he was at all times conscious of a fuller and higher calling than that of the literary man—as he valued nature before art, so he valued life before literature. He both preached and practised a combination of literary work and manual; of the pen and of the spade; of the study and of the open sky. He protested against that tendency in our civilization which carries division of labour to such an extent that the student is deprived of healthy outdoor work while the labourer is deprived of opportunity for self-culture. He imagines the case of some literary professor, who sits in his library writing a treatise on the huckleberry, while hired huckleberry-pickers and cooks are engaged in the task of preparing him a pudding of the berries. A book written under such conditions will be worthless. “There will be none of the spirit of the huckleberry in it. I believe in a different kind of division of labor, and that the professor should divide himself between the library and the huckleberry field.” His opinions on the subject of literary style are clearly stated in the Week, and are no doubt in great measure a record of his own practice:

  “Can there be any greater reproach than an idle learning? Learn to split wood at least. The necessity of labor and conversation with many men and things to the scholar is rarely well remembered; steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s style, both of speaking and writing. If he has worked hard from morning till night, though he may have grieved that he could not be watching the train of his thoughts during that time, yet the few hasty lines which at evening record his day’s experience will be more musical and true than his freest but idle fancy could have furnished. Surely the writer is to address a world of laborers, and such therefore must be his own discipline. He will not idly dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before nightfall in the short days of winter, but every stroke will be husbanded, and ring soberly through the wood; and so will the strokes of that scholar’s pen, which at evening record the story of the day, ring soberly, yet cheerily, on the ear of the reader, long after the echoes of his axe have died away.”

  Such were, in fact, the conditions under which Thoreau wrote many of the pages of the journal from which his own essays were constructed; and, whatever may be thought of the validity of the general principle enunciated by him, there can be no doubt that in his particular instance the result was singularly felicitous. It was his pleasure and his determination that his writing should be redolent of the open-air scenery by which it was primarily inspired. “I trust,” he says of the Week (and the same may be said of all his volumes), “it does not smell so much of the study and library, even of the poet’s attic, as of the fields and woods; that it is a hypæthral or unroofed book, lying open under the ether, and permeated by it, open to all weathers, not easy to be kept on a shelf.” In this way Thoreau added a new flavour to literature by the unstudied freshness and wildness of his tone, and succeeded best where he made least effort to be successful. “It is only out of the fulness of thinking,” says Mr. R. L. Stevenson, “that expression drops perfect like a ripe fruit; and when Thoreau wrote so nonchalantly at his desk, it was because he had been vigorously active during his walk.” Even Mr. Lowell, a far less friendly critic, is compelled, on this point, to express his admiration. “With every exception, there is no writing comparable with Thoreau’s in kind that is comparable with it in degree, where it is best. His range was narrow, but to be a master is to be a master. There are sentences of his as perfect as anything in the language, and thoughts as clearly crystallised; his metaphors and images are always fresh from the soil.”

  This success, although naturally and unconsciously attained, had of course been rendered possible in the first instance by an honest course of study, for Thoreau, like every other master of literary expression, had passed through his strict apprenticeship of intellectual labour. Though comparatively indifferent to modern languages, he was familiar with the best classical writers of Greece and Rome, and his style was formed on models drawn from one of the great eras in English literature that of the quaint simple “worthies” of the later Elizabethan period. It is a noticeable fact that “mother-tongue” was a word which he loved to use even in his college days; and the homely native vigour of his own writings was largely due to the sympathetic industry with which he had laboured in these quiet but fertile fields. Nor must it be supposed, because he did not elaborate his style according to the conventional canons, that he was a careless or indolent writer—on the contrary, it was his habit to correct his manuscripts with unfailing diligence. “No labor,” says Channing, “was too onerous, no material too costly, if outlaid on the right enterprise.” He deliberately examined and re-examined each sentence of his journal before admitting it into the essays which he sent to the printer, finding that a certain lapse of time was necessary before he could arrive at a satisfactory critical decision. “Whatever has been produced on the spur of the moment will bear,” he thinks, “to be reconsidered and reformed with phlegm. The arrow had best not be loosely shot. The most transient and passing remark must be reconsidered by the writer, made sure and warranted, as if the earth had rested on its axle to back it, and all the natural forces lay behind it. If you foresee that a part of your essay will topple down after the lapse of time, throw it down now yourself.” His absolute sincerity showed itself as clearly in the style of his writing as in the manner of his life. “The one great rule of composition and if I were a professor of rhetoric I should insist on this-is to speak the truth. This first, this second, this third, pebbles in your mouth or not. This demands earnestness and manhood chiefly.”

  In his choice of subjects it was the common that most often enlisted his sympathy and attention. “The theme,” he says, “is nothing; the life is everything. Give me simple, cheap, and homely themes. I omit the unusual—the hurricanes and earthquakes, and describe the common. This has the greatest charm, and is the true theme of poetry. Give me the obscure life, the cottage of the poor and humble, the work-days of the world, the barren fields.” But while he took these as the subjects for his pen, he so idealised and transformed them by the power of his imagination as to present them in aspects altogether novel and unsuspected; it being his delight to bring to view the latent harmony and beauty of all existent things, and thus indirectly to demonstrate the unity and perfection of nature. Take his treatment of the telegraph wires, for instance—a subject which might not have been expected to commend itself to the fancy of a poet whose favourite woods had been lately desecrated by the introduction of the railroad. Yet what writer has ever handled this theme as Thoreau has done?

  “As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead: it was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life which came down to us and vibrated the lattice-work of this life of ours—an Æolian harp. A human soul is played on, even as this wire: I make my own use of the telegraph, without consulting the directors, like the sparrows, which, I observe, use it extensively for a perch. Shall I not, too, go to this office? The sound proceeds from near the posts, where the vibration is apparently more rapid It seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music. As I put my ear to one of the posts it labored with the strains, as if every fibre was affected, and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law: every swell and change and inflection of tone pervaded it, and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood, as if its very substance was transmuted.

  “What a recipe for preserving wood, to fill its pores with music! How this wild tree from the forest, stripped of its bark and set up here, rejoices to transmit this music! When no melody proceeds from the wire, I hear the hum within the entrails of the wood, the oracular tree, acquiring, accumulating the prophetic fury. The resounding wood—how much the ancients would have made of it! To have had a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that harp were (so to speak) the manifest blessing of heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not now add a tenth muse to those immortal nine? . . .

  “I hear the sound working terribly within. When I put my ear to it, anon it swells into a clear tone, which seems to concentrate in the core of the tree, for all the sound seems to proceed from the wood. It is as if you had entered some world-cathedral, resounding to some vast organ. I feel the very ground tremble underneath my feet as I stand near the post. What an awful and fateful music it must be to the worms in the wood! No better vermifuge were needed. As the wood of an old Cremona, its every fibre, perchance, harmoniously transposed and educated to resound melody, has brought a great price, so methinks these telegraph-posts should bear a great price with musical instrument makers. It is prepared to be the material of harps for ages to come; as it were, put a-soak in and seasoning in music.”

  Numerous passages might be selected from Thoreau’s works which exhibit, in as high degree as the one just quoted, the same picturesque and suggestive qualities. He had a poet’s eye for all forms of beauty, moral and material alike, and for the subtle analogies that exist between the one class and the other—in a word, he was possessed of a most vivid and quickening imagination. His images and metaphors are bold, novel, and impressive ( as when, to take but a couple of instances, he alludes to the lost anchors of vessels wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod as “the sunken faith and hope of mariners, to which they trusted in vain”; or describes the autumnal warmth on the sheltered side of Walden as “the still glowing embers which the summer, like a departing hunter, had left”); and, with all his simplicity and directness of speech, he has an unconscious, almost mystic, eloquence which stamps him unmistakably as an inspired writer, a man of true and rare genius. It has been well said of him that “he lived and died to transfuse external nature into human words.” In this respect his position among prose-writers is unique; no one, unless it be Richard Jefferies, can be placed in the same category with him.

  In so far as he studied the external form of his writings, the aim and object which Thoreau set before him may be summed up in one word—concentration. He avows his delight in sentences which are “concentrated and nutty—sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not report an old but make a new impression; sentences which suggest on many things, and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct: to frame these—that is the art of writing. Sentences which are expressive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went; which lie like boulders on the page up and down, or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; and which a man might sell his ground or cattle to buy.” The distinctive features of his own literary style could not have been more accurately described. The brief, barbed, epigrammatic sentences which bristle throughout his writings, pungent with shrewd wisdom and humour, are the appropriate expression of his keen thrifty nature; there is not a superfluous word or syllable, but each passage goes straight to the mark, and tells its tale, as the work of a man who has some more urgent duty to perform than to adorn his pages with artificial tropes and embellishments. Like Emerson, he is fond of surprising and challenging his readers by the piquancy and strangeness of his utterances. His use of paradox was partly due to the same desire to stimulate and awaken curiosity, partly to his wayward and contradictory nature. “A certain habit of antagonism,” Emerson tells us, “defaced his earlier writings—a trick of rhetoric not quite outgrown in his later—of substituting for the obvious word and thought its diametrical opposite.” Thoreau, as we have seen, himself admitted this fault in his private journal; yet that he to some extent deliberately adopted, and was prepared to defend, his paradoxical tendency, is shown by several passages in his writings. “I trust,” he writes in his Letters, “that you realise what an exaggerator I am—that I lay myself out to exaggerate whenever I have an opportunity—pile Pelion upon Ossa, to reach heaven so.” And again, in Walden, he cheerfully pleads guilty to the charge of extravagance in his statements. “I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience. I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression.” The dangers and demerits of a paradoxical style are sufficiently obvious; and no writer has ever been less careful than Thoreau to safeguard himself against misunderstandings on this score. He has consequently been much misunderstood, and will always be so, save where the reader brings to his task a certain amount of sympathy and kindred sense of humour.

  To those who are not gifted with the same philosophical sense of the inner identity that links together many things which are externally dissimilar and disproportionate, some of Thoreau’s thoughts and sayings must necessarily appear to be a fair subject for ridicule. Yet that he should have been charged with possessing no humour would be inexplicable, save for the fact that the definitions of that quality are so various and so vague. Broad wit and mirthful genial humour he certainly had not, and he confessedly disliked writings in which there is a conscious and deliberate attempt to be amusing. He found Rabelais, for instance, intolerable; “it may be sport to him,” he says, “but it is death to us; a mere humorist, indeed, is a most unhappy man, and his readers are most unhappy also.” But though he would not or could not recognise humour as a distinct and independent quality, and even attempted, as Channing tells us, to eliminate what he considered “levity” from some of his essays, he none the less enjoyed keenly—and himself unmistakably exhibited—the quiet, latent, unobtrusive humour which is one of the wholesome and saving principles of human life. “The more quiet,” he thinks, “the more profound it is; even nature is observed to have her playful moods or aspects, of which man seems to be sometimes the sport.” Among Thoreau’s own writings, Walden is especially pervaded by this subtle sense of humour, grave, dry, pithy, sententious, almost saturnine in its tone, yet perhaps for that very reason the more racy and suggestive to those readers who have the faculty for apprec1atmg it. What could possibly be more delicious, for instance (and it is only one instance out of many), than his chapter on the various “Visitors” who used occasionally to pay him a call at his woodland shanty?

  “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economised the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another. . . . If one guest came he sometimes partook of my frugal meal, and it was no interruption to conversation to be stirring a hasty-pudding, or watching the rising and maturing of a loaf of bread in the ashes, in the meanwhile. But if twenty came and sat in my house, there was nothing said about dinner—though there might be bread enough for two—more than if eating were a forsaken habit; but we naturally practised abstinence; and this was never felt to be an offence against hospitality, but the most proper and considerate course. The waste and decay of physical life, which so often needs repair, seemed miraculously retarded in such a case, and the vital vigor stood its ground. I could entertain thus a thousand as well as twenty; and if any ever went away disappointed or hungry from my house when they found me at home, they may depend upon it that I sympathised with them at least So easy is it, though many housekeepers doubt it, to establish new and better customs in the place of the old. You need not rest your reputation on the dinners you give. . . .

  “Far off as I lived, I was not exempted from that annual visitation which occurs, methinks, about the first of April, when everybody is on the move; and I had my share of good luck, though there were some curious specimens among my visitors. Half-witted men from the almshouse and elsewhere came to see me, but I endeavored to make them exercise all the wit they had, and make their confessions to me; in such cases making wit the theme of our conversation; and so was compensated. With respect to wit, I learned that there was not much difference between the half and the whole. One day, in particular, an inoffensive simple-minded pauper, whom with others I had often seen used as fencing stuff, standing or sitting on a bushel in the fields to keep cattle and himself from straying, visited me, and expressed a wish to live as I did. He told me, with the utmost simplicity and truth, quite superior, or rather inferior to anything that is called humility, that he was ‘deficient in intellect.’ These were his words. The Lord had made him so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another. ‘I have always been so,’ said he, ‘from my childhood; I never had much mind; I was not like other children; I am weak in the head. It was the Lord’s will, I suppose.’ And there he was to prove the truth of his words. He was a metaphysical puzzle to me. I have rarely met a fellow-man on such promising ground—it was so simple and sincere, and so true, all that he said. And, true enough, in proportion as he appeared to humble himself was he exalted. I did not know at first but it was the result of a wise policy. It seemed that from such a basis of truth and frankness as the poor weak-headed pauper had laid, our intercourse might go forward to something better than the intercourse of sages.”

  It has been remarked that it is impossible to classify Thoreau—“he cannot be called a man of science, he cannot be called a poet, he cannot even be called a prose poet.”1 If classification of any kind be desirable in the case of such a protestant and free-lance, he should probably be called an essayist with a strong didactic tendency. He could not, as his friend Channing observes, “mosaic” his essays, but preferred to give himself free play by throwing them into the narrative and autobiographical form. The Week and Walden, which were published in his lifetime, and three of the posthumous volumes—Cape Cod, A Yankee in Canada, and The Maine Woods—are all framed on this principle, a more or less slight record of personal experience being made the peg on which to hang a great deal of ethical moralising and speculation. Apart from all questions of the value of the opinion advanced, the charm of those books lies mainly in their intellectual alertness, keen spiritual insight, and brilliant touches of picturesque description. Few authors have created such a rich store of terse felicitous apothegms, or have drawn such vivid and sympathetic sketches of natural scenery. Numerous examples of his laconic incisive utterances have already been incidentally quoted. Here is a characteristic open-air picture of a bright breezy day on the Concord river, where he spent so much of his time:

  “Many waves are there agitated by the wind, keeping nature fresh, the spray blowing in your face, reeds and rushes waving; ducks by the hundred, all uneasy in the surf, in the raw wind, just ready to rise, and now going off with a clatter and a whistling like riggers straight for Labrador, flying against the stiff gale with reefed wings, or else circling round first with all their paddles briskly moving, just over the surf, to reconnoitre you before they leave these parts; gulls wheeling overhead; musk-rats swimming for dear life, wet and cold, with no fire to warm them by that you know of, their labored homes rising here and there like haystacks; and countless mice and moles and winged titmice along the sunny windy shore; cranberries tossed on the waves and heaving up on the beach, their little red skiffs beating about among the alders;—such healthy natural tumult as proves the last day is not yet at hand. And there stand all around the alders and birches and oaks and maples full of glee and sap, holding in their buds until the waters subside.”2

  Here, too, to show the more human side of Thoreau’s genius, is one of the picturesque character-sketches which are far from uncommon in his writings:

  “I can just remember an old brown-coated man who was the Walton of this stream, who had come over from Newcastle, England, with his son—the latter a stout and hearty man who had lifted an anchor in his day. A straight old man he was, who took his way in silence through the meadows, having passed the period of communication with his fellows; his old experienced coat, hanging long and straight and brown as the yellow-pine bark, glittering with so much smothered sunlight, if you stood near enough, no work of art but naturalised at length. I often discovered him unexpectedly amid the pads and the gray willows when he moved, fishing in some old country method—for youth and age then went a-fishing together—full of incommunicable thoughts, perchance about his own Tyne and Northumberland. He was always to be seen in serene afternoons haunting the river, and almost rustling with the sedge; so many sunny hours in an old man’s life, entrapping silly fish; almost grown to be the sun’s familiar; what need had he of hat or raiment any, having served out his time, and seen through such thin disguises. I have seen how his coeval fates rewarded him with the yellow perch, and yet I thought his luck was not in proportion to his years; and I have seen when, with slow steps and weighed down with aged thoughts, he disappeared with his fish under his low-roofed house on the skirts of the village. I think nobody else saw him; nobody else remembers him now, for he soon after died, and migrated to new Tyne streams. His fishing was not a sport, not solely a means of subsistence, but a sort of solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world, just as the aged read their Bibles.”

  Beside the river-scene above quoted may be set one of the many sea-pictures from Cape Cod:

  “At length we reached the seemingly retreating boundary of the plain, and entered what had appeared at a distance an upland marsh, but proved to be dry sand, covered with beach-grass, the bearberry, bayberry, shrub-oaks, and beach-plum, slightly ascending as we approached the shore; then, crossing over a belt of sand on which nothing grew, though the roar of the sea sounded scarcely louder than before, and we were prepared to go half a mile farther, we suddenly stood on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Atlantic. Far below us was the beach, from half a dozen to a dozen rods in width, with a long line of breakers rushing to the strand. The sea was exceedingly dark and stormy, the sky completely overcast, the clouds still dropping rain, and the wind seemed to blow not so much as the exciting cause, as from sympathy with the already agitated ocean. The waves broke on the bars at some distance from the shore, and curving green or yellow, as if over so many unseen dams, ten or twelve feet high, like a thousand waterfalls, rolled in foam to the sand. There was nothing but that savage ocean between us and Europe. . . . The breakers looked like droves of a thousand wild horses of Neptune, rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind; and when, at length, the sun shone for a moment, their manes were rainbow-tinted. Also, the long kelp-weed was tossed up from time to time, like the tails of sea-cows sporting in the brine.”

  Those of Thoreau’s shorter essays which deal with natural history and outdoor life are to be found reprinted in Excursions, a volume published the year after his death, with the well-known prefatory memoir by Emerson. These Excursions have been described as “landscapes in miniature, embracing every feature of New England summers and winters.”3 There is a wild, racy, indefinable charm about them which is all their own; they are by no means well “finished” and rounded off, when viewed from an artistic—or shall we say artificial—stand-point; for Thoreau loves to gossip on without regard to the laws of essay-writing, and will not deny himself the pleasure of quoting largely, when the whim takes him, from his favourite poets, or from the old prose chroniclers who wrote of the places which he visited, nor will he spare the minutest details which concern his own experiences. Yet the final effect—the only true criterion of success—is altogether delightful; and no reader who has once caught and appreciated the rare mystic flavour of these wildings of literature could ever regret that they were not subjected to the conventional pruning. They can no more be taken to the literary market and weighed in the critical balance than their prototype the “wild apples,” which furnished Thoreau with one of his choicest themes:

“There is thus about all natural products a certain volatile and ethereal quality which represents their highest value, and which cannot be vulgarised, or bought or sold. No mortal has ever enjoyed the perfect flavor of any fruit, and only the godlike among men begin to taste its ambrosial qualities. When I see a particularly mean man carrying a load of fair and fragrant early apples to market, I seem to see a contest going on between him and his horse on the one side, and the apples on the other, and, to my mind, the apples always gain it. Our driver begins to lose his load the moment he tries to transport them to where they do not belong, that is, to any but the most beautiful. Though he gets out from time to time, and feels of them, and thinks they are all there, I see the stream of their evanescent and celestial qualities going to heaven from his cart, while the pulp and skin and core only are going to market. They are not apples, but pomace.”

  In The “Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers,” which are included in the Yankee in Canada volume, are more direct and didactic in aim than the Excursions, and consequently far less discursive and impalpable. Some of Thoreau’s most brilliant and pungent sayings are to be found in these essays, of which the very best are the Plea for John Brown (the most impassioned of all his writings) and Life without Principle, which conveys in brief form the sum and substance of his protest against the follies of modern society.

  The original source which provided material for all these essays and volumes was the daily journal, which was kept by Thoreau with great fulness and regularity from 1837, the year when he left college, to a short time before his death in 1862, and amounted in all to no less than thirty large volumes. This diary formed a complete record of his outward and inward life, and was not a mere collection of chance jottings, but a private autobiography, written throughout with the utmost seriousness and devotion. He has himself recorded4 the view he took of this introspective discipline:

  “My journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it, for the gods. They are my correspondent, to whom daily I send off this sheet, post-paid. I am a clerk in their counting-room, and at evening transfer the account from day-book to ledger. It is a leaf which hangs over my head in the path. I bend the twig, and write my prayers on it; then, letting it go, the bough springs up and shows the scrawl to heaven, as if it were not kept shut in my desk, but were as public a leaf as any in nature. It is papyrus by the river-side, it is vellum in the pastures, it is parchment on the hills. Like the sere leaves in yonder vase, these have been gathered far and wide. Upland and lowland, forest and field, have been ransacked.”

  Nor was the diary useful merely as a record of facts and thoughts, but also as a means of stimulating and chronicling further meditations. “Associate reverently,” he says, “and as much as you can, with your loftiest thoughts. Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is a nest-egg, by the side of which another will be laid. Thoughts accidentally thrown together become a frame in which more may be developed and exhibited. Perhaps this is the main value of a habit of writing and keeping a journal—that is, we remember our best draught and stimulate ourselves.”

  We have seen, in the story of Thoreau’s life, how his daily walks were not, as with most men, a time of leisure and recreation, but an essential part of his day’s work and of his duties as poet-naturalist. He went to hill-top, or forest, or swamp, or riverbank, not as an aimless wanderer seeking to while away an afternoon, but as an inspector going his rounds; and he paid his visits deliberately and on principle to such animals, birds, nests, trees, or flowers as he happened to have under observation. He took notes on the spot,5 even when he walked, as was frequently the case, in the night-time; and on his return home he expanded these notes into graphic descriptions, interspersed with appropriate meditations, which sometimes, in the earlier volumes of the journal, took the form of verse. His notes on natural history constitute a large portion of the diary, and are often tinged with that tone of mysticism which so largely dominated his character. The following extracts are a fair specimen of his record for a summer day:

  “18th June 1853, 4 A.M.—By boat to Nashawtuck. Almost all birds appear to join the early morning chorus before sunrise on the roost, the matin hymn. I hear now the robin, the chipbird, the blackbird, the martin, etc., but I see none flying, or at least only one wing in the air not yet illumined by the sun. I think the blossom of the sweet brier, eglantine (now in prime), is more delicate and interesting than that of the common wild roses, though smaller and paler and without their spicy fragrance. But its fragrance is in its leaves all summer, and the form of the bush is handsomer, curving over from a considerable height in wreaths sprinkled with numerous flowers. They open out flat soon after sunrise. Flowers whitish in middle, then pinkish rose, inclining to purple towards the edges. How far from our minds now the early blossoms of the spring, the willow catkins, for example.

  “P.M.—To Island by boat. The first white lily to-day perhaps.’ It is the only bud I have seen. The river has gone down and left it nearly dry. On the Island, where a month ago plants were so fresh and early, it is now parched and crisp under my feet. I feel the heat reflected from the ground and perceive the dry scent of grass and leaves. So universally on dry and rocky hills, where the spring was earliest, the autumn, has already commenced.

  “8.30 P.M.—To cliffs. Moon not quite full. There is no wind The greenish fires of lightning-bugs are already seen in the meadow. I almost lay my hand on one amid the leaves as I get over the fence at the brook. I hear the whip-poor-wills on different sides. White flowers alone show much at night, as white clover and white weed. The day has gone by with its wind like the wind of a cannon-ball, and now far in the west it blows. By that dun-coloured sky you may track it. There is no motion nor sound in the woods along which I am walking. The trees stand like great screens against the sky. The distant village sounds are the barking of dogs,—that animal with which man has allied himself,—and the rattling of waggons, for the farmers have gone into town a-shopping this Saturday night The dog is the tamed wolf, as the villager is the tamed savage. Near at hand the crickets are heard in the grass chirping from everlasting to everlasting. The humming of a dor-bug drowns all the noise of the village, so roomy is the universe. The moon comes out of the mackerel cloud, and the traveller rejoices. How can a man write the same thoughts by the light of the moon, resting his book on a rail by the side of a remote potato-field, that he does by the light of the sun at his study table? The light is but a luminousness. My pencil seems to move through a creamy, mystic medium. The moonlight is rich and somewhat opaque, like cream, but the daylight is thin and blue, like skimmed milk. I am less conscious than in the presence of the sun—my instincts have more influence.

  “The farmer has improved the dry weather to burn his meadow. I love the smell of that burning as a man may his pipe. It reminds me of a new country offering sites for the hearths of men. It is cheering as the scent of the peat-fire of the first settler.

  “I passed into and along the bottom of a lake of cold and dewy evening air. Anon, as I rise higher, here comes a puff of warm air, trivially warm, a straggler from the sun’s retinue, now buffeted about by the vanguard night breezes. Before me, southward toward the moon, on higher land than I, but springy, I saw a low film of fog, like a veil, reflecting the moonlight, though none on lower ground which was not springy, and up the river beyond, a battalion of fog rising white in the moonlight in ghostlike wisps, or like a flock of sacred covenanters in a recess amid the hills. It is worth while to walk thus in the night after a warm or sultry day, to enjoy the fresh, up-country, brake-like, spring-like scent in low grounds. At night the surface of the earth is a cellar, a refrigerator, no doubt wholesomer than those made with ice by day. Got home at 11.”

  From this journal Thoreau drew freely when preparing his essays or lectures, as the case might be; but, before being given to the world, every passage and sentence underwent further careful revision. After his death the unpublished manuscripts and diaries remained for fourteen years in the charge of his sister Sophia, who, at her death in 1876, bequeathed them to her brother’s friend and correspondent, Mr. Blake. Portions of the journal have since been edited by Mr. Blake under the titles of Early Spring in Massachusetts, Summer, and Winter, various passages, written in different years, being grouped together according to the days on which they were written, so as to give a connected picture of the seasons. This arrangement was apparently foreshadowed by Thoreau, who makes a note in his journal of “a book of the seasons, each page of which should be written in its own season and out of doors, or in its own locality, wherever it may be.” The years represented in these volumes are mostly between 1850 and 1860, the Walden period having presumably been almost exhausted by Thoreau himself.6

  A volume of Thoreau’s Letters was edited by Emerson in 1865. He was not what is known as a “regular correspondent,” and the number of his extant letters is not very great. “Not to have written a note for a year,” he said, “is with me a very venial offence. Some are accustomed to write many letters, others very few; I am one of the last.” The letters included in the published volume are, as a rule, much more severely transcendental in tone than the essays and diaries—”abominably didactic,” Channing called them—and their seriousness is seldom relieved by the dry humour of Walden. It seems that Emerson, in selecting them, made it his object to exhibit a “perfect piece of stoicism,” and therefore inserted only a very few of the domestic letters, which showed the other and tenderer side of Thoreau’s character—an arrangement which was justly described by Sophia Thoreau as not quite fair to her brother. “His correspondence,” says Mr. Sanborn, “as a whole is much more affectionate and less pugnacious than would appear from the published volume. He was fond of dispute, but those who knew him best loved him most.” It is satisfactory to know that Mr. Sanborn will probably some day edit another batch of the letters, consisting chiefly of those addressed to Thoreau’s own family and to Emerson. This will be a valuable corrective of the partial impression created by the earlier volume.

  Last in the list of Thoreau’s writings there remains to be considered his poetry. Strictly speaking, he can hardly be called a poet at all, for, although he had a large gift of the poetic inspiration, he lacked the lyrical fire and melodious utterance which are at least equally.indispensable to the creation of a true poem; his verses are, therefore, interesting less for their own intrinsic value than for the light they indirectly throw on his personality and genius. The description which Emerson gave of his own poetic talent may be applied totidem verbis to that of Thoreau. “I am born a poet—of a low class without a doubt, yet a poet. My singing, be sure, is very husky, and is for the most part in prose. Still, I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter, and specially of the correspondence between these and those.”

  Thoreau’s poems were mostly written from 1837 to 1847, when he was between twenty and thirty years of age. It was his method to jot down in his journal a stanza or two from time to time, and afterwards to combine these scattered pieces into a connected poem, each verse of which would thus be brief, pointed, and sententious. He had been strongly influenced by his early readings in the minor Elizabethan school, and the resemblance in his style to that of Herbert, Cowley, and other writers of that era is very striking, his poetry being distinctly of the same gnomic order, abounding in quaint conceits, thrifty maxims, and elaborate antitheses, with here and there a dainty stanza or series of stanzas, marked by deep insight and felicitous expression. His idea of the poet’s vocation is characteristic. The poet is “no tender slip of fairy stock, but the toughest son of earth and heaven, and by his greater strength and endurance his fainting companions will recognise the god in him. He will hit the nail on the head, and we shall not know the strength of his hammer.” Thus in his poems he is less the artist than the moralist; but the delicacy and nobility of the thought often lift the rough unpolished lines out of the region of commonplace, and make them pleasing and memorable. Such is the case with the stanzas entitled “Sic Vita” and “Inspiration,” parts of which have already been quoted. There are also some exquisite idyllic touches in the verses on “Smoke,” and one or two of the other short pieces of blank verse:

“Light-winged Smoke! Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight;
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
Go thou, my incense, upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.”

  These lines were declared by Emerson to be “better than any poem of Simonides,” though as a rule he did not admire Thoreau’s poetical efforts. “His verses,” he says, “are often rude and defective. The thyme and marjoram are not yet honey. But if he want lyric fineness and technical merits, if he have not the poetic temperament, he never lacks the causal thought, showing that his genius was better than his talent.” These qualities are fully exemplified in an almost unknown poem of Thoreau’s entitled “Annus Mirabilis”:

“Thank God who seasons thus the year,
And sometimes kindly slants his rays,
For in his winter he’s most near,
And plainest seen upon the shortest days.

“Who gently tempers now his heats,
And then his harsher cold, lest we
Should surfeit on the summer’s sweets,
Or pine upon the winter’s crudity.

“A sober mind will walk alone,
Apart from nature, if need be,
And only its own seasons own;
For Nature leaving its humanity.

“Sometimes a late autumnal thought
Has crossed my mind in green July,
And to its early freshness brought
Late-ripened fruits and an autumnal sky.

“The evening of the year draws on,
The fields a later aspect wear;
Since summer’s garishness is gone,
Some grains of night tincture the noontide air.

“Behold! the shadows of the trees
Now circle wider ‘bout their stem,
Like sentries that by slow degrees
Perform their rounds, gently protecting them.

“Far in the woods, these golden days,
Some leaf obeys its maker’s call;
And through their hollow aisles it plays
With delicate touch the prelude of the Falt

“Gently withdrawing from its stem,
It lightly lays itself along,
Where the same hand hath pillowed them,
Resigned to sleep upon the old year’s throng.”

  Many of Thoreau’s early poems found publication in the Dial, and met with much ridicule in critical and anti-transcendental circles; we are told that an unquenchable laughter, “like that of the gods at Vulcan’s limping, went up over his ragged and halting lines.”7 He afterwards included some of these pieces in the Week and other prose volumes, preferring, after the discontinuance of the Dial, not to publish them separately, but “as choruses or hymns or word-pictures, to illustrate the movement of his thought.”8 He told Mr. Sanborn during his last illness that he had destroyed many of his verses because Emerson did not praise them, an act which he afterwards regretted. No complete collection of Thoreau’s poems has ever been issued; but a large number of them may be found in the Dial and the Week, and some of the best, were reprinted in an appendix to the volume of Letters. But in spite of the meritorious qualities of which I have spoken, the final conclusion of the reader will probably be that the best poetry of Thoreau’s nature found expression in his prose. “Great prose of equal elevation,” he thinks, “commands our respect more than great verse, since it implies a more permanent and level height, and a life pervaded with the grandeur of the thought. The poet only makes an irruption, like a Parthian, and is off again, shooting while he retreats; but the prose writer has conquered, like a Roman, and settled colonies.” If he did not altogether write as a poet, he seldom failed to live as one; in his own words—

“My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.”

1 Athenæum, Oct. 1887.
2 The Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.
3 Prof. Nichol’s American Literature.
4 8th February 1841.
5 “An Irishman who saw me in the fields making a minute in my note-book took it for granted that I was casting up my wages, and actually inquired what they came to.”—Journal, 3d April 1859.
6 It has been noticed by a writer in the Academy, 1884, that the published journal contains no dates between 10th April and 1st June. This deficiency is, however, to some extent supplied by the extracts given in the Atlantic Monthly in 1878 under the titles “April Days” and “May Days.”
7 John Weiss, Christian Examiner, 1865.
8 The Critic, 26th March 1881.

All Sub-Works of The Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.