Personality and Character.

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


THE personality of Thoreau was one which seldom failed to arrest the attention of those who met him. “He was short of stature,” says a writer who visited him a few years after he left Walden,1 “well built, and such a man as I have fancied Julius Cæsar to have been. Every movement was full of courage and repose; the tones of his voice were those of Truth herself; and there was in his eye the pure bright blue of the New England sky, as there was sunshine in his flaxen hair. He had a particularly strong aquiline Roman nose, which somehow reminded me of the prow of a ship.” This description is fully corroborated by that given by Ellery Channing, who, from his long and intimate acquaintance with Thoreau, could speak with peculiar authority. “His face, once seen, could not be forgotten. The features were quite marked: the nose aquiline, or very Roman, like one of the portraits of Cæsar (more like a beak, as was said); large overhanging brows above the deepest-set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray-eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted; the forehead not unusually broad or high, full of concentrated energy or purpose; the mouth with prominent lips, pursed up with meaning and thought when silent, and giving out when open a stream of the most varied and unusual and instructive sayings. His whole figure had an active earnestness, as if he had no moment to waste. Even in the boat he had a wary, transitory air, his eyes on the outlook—perhaps there might be ducks, or the Blondin turtle, or an otter, or sparrow.” From 1840 to 1860 Thoreau’s figure must have been a very familiar one to his fellow-townsmen of Concord, since he was abroad in all weathers and at all hours, a noticeable man with his sloping shoulders, “his eyes bent on the ground, his long swinging gait, his hands perhaps clasped behind him, or held closely at his side, the fingers made into a fist.” The indomitable spirit that animated his whole character was written unmistakably in his personal appearance. “How deep and clear is the mark that thought sets upon a man’s race!” was the exclamation of one who saw him for the first time.

  The homeliness of Thoreau’s mode of dress has already been noticed, and this, during his more lengthy walks or excursions, often led to strange errors as to his object and vocation. In Cape Cod and elsewhere he was several times mistaken for a pedlar, and on board a steamboat on the Hudson river he was once asked for a “chaw o’ baccy” by a bystander, who took him for a shipmate. It is said that his speech “had always a burr in it,” owing to his peculiar pronunciation of the letter r; but all his oddities of appearance and manner were soon forgotten under the singular charm of his conversation, the power of which is attested by all who knew him. He himself says, in a passage of his diary, that his bon-mots were the “ripe, dry fruit of long past experience,” which fell from him easily without giving him either pain or pleasure. This experience was not gathered, as is usually the case, by foreign travel or a varied manner of life, but by shrewd native sense and keen practical insight. There was a wonderful fitness, Emerson tells us, between his body and mind. He was expert as a walker, swimmer, runner, rower, and in all outdoor employments; he could measure any given distance or height by foot or eye with extraordinary precision, could estimate the exact weight of anything put into his hands, and from a box containing a bushel or more of loose pencils could take up just a dozen pencils at every grasp.

  He has sometimes been called an ascetic; but if he seldom used flesh or wine, tea or coffee, and other supposed “necessaries” of diet, this abstinence was assuredly due to the fact that he found he thus increased, rather than diminished, the pleasure of existence. The rare delicacy of his nature showed itself in his abhorrence of every form of sensuality or grossness, and in his expressed desire to live “as tenderly and daintily as one would pluck a flower.” Yet seldom has there been a greater lover of healthy physical life; “we need pray for no higher heaven,” he says, “than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life.” The keenness of his senses was extraordinary, and the perceptions of colour, sound, smell, and taste are always spoken of in his diaries as luxuries for which he can never be sufficiently grateful. “Colour,” says Channing, “was a treat to Thoreau; he saw the seasons and the landscapes through their colours; and all hours, and fields, and woods spoke in varied hues, which impressed him with sentiment.” “God’s voice,” says Thoreau, “is but a clear bell sound. I drink in a wonderful health, a cordial, in sound. The effect of the slightest tinkling in the horizon measures my own soundness. I thank God for sound. I think I will not trouble myself for any wealth when I can be so cheaply enriched.” Music had at all times a peculiar attraction for him (he was himself a skilful player on the flute), and is repeatedly mentioned in the diaries and letters as one of the supreme delights of life. The musical-box, given him by Richard Fuller, an old college friend, was a great pleasure to him, as we have seen from some passages in his letters. “I could go about the world,” he says, “listening for the strains of music.” And again: “When I hear music I fear no danger; I am invulnerable; I see no foe; I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest I hear music below; it washes the dust off my life and everything I look at. The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death or disappointment at the end of it.” The faint musical hum of the telegraph wires along the railroad which he often used as a pathway is the subject of several passages in the journal. “When the telegraph harp trembles and wavers, I am most affected, as if it were approaching to articulation. It sports so with my heart-strings. When the harp dies away a little, then I revive for it. It cannot be too faint. I almost envy the Irish whose shanty in the Cut is so near that they can hear this music daily, standing at their door.” So, too, of the other senses. “Methinks,” he writes in the journal, “that I possess the sense of smell in greater perfection than usual, and have the habit of smelling every plant I pluck.” And again, in Walden, “I have been thrilled to think that I owed a mental perception to the commonly gross sense of taste, that I have been inspired through the palate, that some berries which I had eaten on a hill-side had fed my genius.”

  But, if we wish to discover the central and distinctive quality of Thoreau’s character, we must look beyond the above-mentioned faculties to the inner secret of his power—the ideality that dominated all his thoughts and actions. He was a transcendentalist in a far deeper and more literal sense than the majority of those who bore that name. This point is admirably stated by Emerson in his brief, memoir:

  “His robust sense, armed with stout hands, keen perceptions, and strong will, cannot yet account for the superiority which shone in his simple and hidden life. I must add the cardinal fact that there was an excellent wisdom in him, proper to a rare class of men, which showed him the material world as a means and symbol. This discovery, which sometimes yields to poets a certain casual and interrupted light, serving for the ornament of their writing, was in him an unsleeping insight; and whatever faults or obstructions of temperament might cloud it, he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. This was the muse and genius that ruled his opinions, conversation, studies, work, and course of life. This made him a searching judge of men. At first glance he measured his companion, and though insensible to some fine traits of culture, could very well report his weight and calibre. And this made the impression of genius which his conversation often gave.”

  It was this uncompromising ideality that gave to his character a certain external coldness and remoteness. “I love Henry,” said one of his friends, “but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” The misunderstandings thus generated were keenly felt by Thoreau himself, who rightly attributes them to his own extreme sensibility and exacting disposition. “If I have not succeeded in my friendships,” he says in his journal,2 “it was because I demanded more of them, and did not put up with what I could get; and I got no more partly because I gave so little. I must be dumb to those who do not, as I believe, appreciate my actions, not knowing the springs of them.” There are a number of such passages in the diaries (perhaps not to be taken very literally), in which his over-sensitive nature seems to be tormented by unnecessary doubts as to his relations with his friends, and this rigid strictness of ideal is especially observable in his essays on Love and Friendship, the latter of which forms a portion of one of the best-known chapters in the Week. It has been suggested, however, with a certain amount of probability, that the tone of Thoreau’s utterances on this subject was largely affected by his own early disappointment in love, and that his stoical discourse on Friendship was in reality “an anodyne to lull his pains.”3 It is only fair to add that Ellery Channing, who, as Thoreau’s most intimate friend, should be an authority on this point, asserts positively that the essay on Friendship was “poetical and romantic,” and that to read it literally would be to accuse its author of stupidity. “The living actual friendship and affection,” says Channing, “which makes time a reality, no one knew better. He meant friendship, and meant nothing else, and stood by it without the slightest abatement.” How deeply Thoreau valued the society of true friends is also apparent from his own words. “What a difference, whether in all your walks you meet only strangers, or in one house is one who knows you, and whom you know. To have a brother or a sister! To have a gold mine on your farm! To find diamonds in the gravel-heaps before your door! How rare these things are!” Thus it was that the very value which Thoreau set on his friendships was his chief difficulty in maintaining them, their rarity being to him the measure of their worth; so that, with a few exceptions, he turned to nature for what he could not find in man. “If I am too cold,” he says, “for human friendships, I trust I shall not be too cold for natural influences. It appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.” It has been well said of Thoreau that his affections were deep but not expansive.

  What has been said of Thoreau’s capacity for friendship holds good also of his general capacity for social intercourse; it has been remarked by Emerson that “the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.” Himself animated by a dauntless spirit of independence and self-help, he could scarcely sympathise with the foibles and weaknesses of ordinary men and women, nor feel pity for the petty sufferings and ailments that resulted therefrom. We are told by Channing that “he wasted none of his precious jewels, his moments, upon epistles to the class of Rosa Matilda invalids, some of whom, like leeches, fastened upon his horny cuticle, but did not draw”; he was convinced that men had no miseries to complain of “except those of indigestion and laziness, manufactured to their own order.” If he appeared at times cold and unsympathetic, it was because he viewed life from a different standpoint from that of the average man. “My acquaintances,” he says, “sometimes imply that I am too cold, but each thing is warm enough for its kind. Cold! I am most sensible of warmth in winter days. It is not that I am too cold, but that our warmth and coldness are not of the same nature. Hence when I am absolutely warmest, I may be coldest to you.” In nature Thoreau could enjoy the warmth and comfort of which his neighbours imagined him to be destitute; the wildness of nature was “a kind of thoroughwort and boneset” to his intellect. Finding, therefore, that ordinary society was “not often so instructive” as the silence it broke, he preferred to spend his leisure time in the forests and meadows. “It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him. There, at last, my nerves are steadied, my senses and my mind do their office.” While admitting the limitations of Thoreau’s character, one cannot avoid the conviction that in thus courting solitude in preference to society he was following the inevitable bent of his natural genius.

  To a man of this temperament, who needed leisure, breathing-space, and elbow-room, and could not endure to be shut up in polite drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, where the guests jostled each other, mentally and bodily, and where all true individuality was hidden and wasted, the frivolities and formalities of conventional society could not be otherwise than a burden and an irritant. Under such conditions he became contradictory and pugnacious, and marred the course of conversation by the promptitude with which he negatived every proposition that might be advanced, most of all when he detected any signs of hypocrisy, foppishness, or dilettantism. “His mental appearance,” says Channing, “at times almost betrayed irritability; his words were like quills on the fretful porcupine. Like a cat, he would curl up his spine and spit at a fop or monkey, and despised those who were running well downhill to damnation.” He had an especial dislike for the cant of self-seeking reformers and self-styled philanthropists, who would not keep their distance, but rubbed their neighbours “with the greasy cheek of their kindness,” and has put on record an inimitable description of one of these gentry whose acquaintance he made in his father’s house at Concord. “It was difficult to keep clear of the slimy benignity with which he sought to cover you, before he took you fairly into his bowels. He addressed me as Henry within one minute from the first time I laid eyes on him; and when I spoke, he said with sultry, drawling sympathy, ‘Henry, I know all you would say, I understand you perfectly; you need not explain anything to me.’ “The sharp sayings, and still more “accusing silences,” as Emerson terms them, which Thoreau dealt out to all pretentious personages, had, of course, the effect of getting him the reputation of cynicism and misanthropy; those readers, however, who rightly appreciate his character, will distinguish between the normal churlishness, which certainly was not one of his failings, and the occasional acridity of speech which he deliberately adopted in his intercourse with his fellow-citizens. “If he had any affectation in his sincere and aspiring nature,” writes one who knew him well, “it was a sort of inherited petulance, that covered a sensitive and affectionate nature, easily wounded by the scornful criticism which his new departure sometimes brought upon him.” “I do not wish to flatter my townsmen,” says Thoreau in Walden, “nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us; we need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot.” By the habit of applying this intellectual stimulus to sluggish minds, he was too often led into exaggerated and paradoxical statements—a danger which he himself noticed and deplored. “My companion tempts me to certain licences of speech, to reckless and sweeping expressions, which I am wont to regret that I have used. I find that I have used more harsh, extravagant, and cynical expressions concerning mankind and individuals than I intended. I find it difficult to make to him a sufficiently moderate statement. I think it is because I have not his sympathy in my sober and constant view. He asks for a paradox, an eccentric statement, and too often I give it him.”

  To style Thoreau a misanthrope is to misunderstand his whole nature, and to do him a great injustice. He loved to study all forms of innocent and healthy character, and in one of his works he quotes, as specially applicable to himself, Terence’s famous maxim of regard for our common humanity. “I love,” he says in the Week, “to see the herd of men feeding heartily on coarse and succulent pleasures, as cattle on the husks and stalks of vegetables. Though there are many crooked and crabbed specimens of humanity among them, run all to thorn and rind, and crowded out of shape by adverse circumstances, yet fear not that the race will fail or waver in them.” Had Thoreau been the mere fastidious recluse that some critics have supposed him, he could not have drawn his sympathetic and humorous sketches of the sturdy Concord farmers, or of the hearty unsophisticated wood-chopper by whom he was visited at Walden, or of the aged brown-coated fisherman who haunted the banks of the Musketaquid, or of the drunken Dutchman on board a New York steamboat, or of the merry old oysterman who gave him hospitality at Cape Cod. For idealist and enthusiast though he was, he possessed a true vein of humour, which is none the less piquant because it is expressed in a manner so dry, pithy, and laconic. It is pleasant, too, to note that the gravity which was habitual with the hermit and philosopher could melt, when occasion arose, into merriment and good-fellowship, and that when he laughed “the operation was sufficient to split a pitcher.” He was fond of playing on his flute, and would at times sing “Tom Bowling” and other nautical songs with much gusto and animation; and it is even recorded that he once or twice startled his friends by performing an improvised dance.

  Reference has already been made to his sympathy with children, and his remarkable power of interesting and amusing them. He would tell them stories, sing to them, and play on his flute, or perform various pieces of jugglery for their entertainment—an accomplishment which he had probably learnt from his eccentric uncle, Charles Dunbar, in whose oddities he always took much interest. But it was in the huckleberry expeditions that his services were in greatest request, for then he would drive the hay-cart in which the children journeyed to the hills where the berries abounded,—and who knew each knoll and dingle so intimately as Thoreau?—“leading the frolic with his jokes and laughter as they jolted along.” When we read the delightful accounts of his kindness and helpfulness on these occasions, we know how to estimate the charges of misanthropy and churlishness. “Though shy of general society,” says the writer of the reminiscences in Fraser,” Thoreau was a hero among children, and the captain of their excursions. He was the sine qua non of the Concord huckleberry party, which is in that region something of an institution. To have Thoreau along with them was to be sure of finding acres of bushes laden with the delicious fruit. . . . A child stumbles and falls, losing his carefully gathered store of berries; Thoreau kneels beside the weeping unfortunate, and explains to him and to the group that nature has made these little provisions for next year’s crop. If there were no obstacles, and little boys did not fall occasionally, how would berries be scattered and planted? and what would become of huckleberryings? He will then arrange that he who has thus suffered for the general good shall have the first chance at the next pasture.”

  The severity of Thoreau’s ideal was not less conspicuous in matters of business than in his relations towards his friends. He was absolutely and austerely faithful to his inner sense of right, keeping his engagements with stern regularity, and never failing in the full discharge of his duty to those who engaged him as surveyor or handicraftsman, laying out, as Channing expresses it, “every molecule of fidelity upon his employer’s interests.” Himself thus inflexible in his probity, he expected and exacted a corresponding uprightness in others; and where this was not exhibited, he made no polite pretence of concealing his dissatisfaction. “He was a man,” says John Burroughs,5 “so thoroughly devoted to principle and to his own aims in life, that he seems never to have allowed himself one indifferent or careless moment; he was always making the highest demands upon himself and upon others. No meanness, hypocrisy, or dishonesty, whether on the part of rich or poor, could escape the rigorous censure of “that terrible Thoreau,” as his acquaintances called him; nor would he waste on thriftless applicants one cent of the money which he had earned by his own conscientious labours. He maintained sincerity to be the chief of all virtues. “The old mythology,” he wrote, “is incomplete without a god or a goddess of sincerity, on whose altars we might offer up all the products of our farms, our workshops, and our studies. This is the only panacea.”

  “A Yankee stoic” is a term that has been happily applied to Thoreau. Though cosmopolitan in his philosophical views, he was American to the backbone in sentiment and manner, and did not study to conceal his indifference or aversion for English and European fashions. He possessed in large measure the American qualities of self-consciousness and self-assertion, and avows in Walden his intention “to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning,” in order to wake up his neighbours. “As a true patriot,” he says elsewhere, “I should be ashamed to think that Adam in Paradise was more favourably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country.” And as America was the most favoured of countries, so did he extol his native Concord as the most favoured of towns. This preference, however, was not due, as some have supposed, to mere parochialism and narrowness of mind—for parochialism, the study of the little instead of the great, was certainly not one of Thoreau’s failings—but was, as Emerson has pointed out, a half-serious half-humorous way of reasserting the old stoical maxim that all places are the same to a wise man, and that “the best place for each is where he stands.” On the same principle, being asked at table what dish he preferred, he is said to have answered, “The nearest.”

  Not even the suspicion of provincial prejudice can attach to Thoreau’s literary tastes. It is true that his earnest practical mind could not relish the subtleties of metaphysical works, the dulness of moral treatises, or the floweriness of romance; and he was usually averse to reading the magazines and journals of the day, the “news” in which he was interested being other than that which newspapers report. But he read largely and widely nevertheless, and his discrimination never deteriorated into fastidiousness and partiality. The class of books which he most highly valued was undoubtedly the “sacred scriptures,” as he calls them, of the poets and philosophers of Persia and India—the Bhagvat Geeta, Vishnu Sarma, Laws of Menu, Saadi, and other “bibles” of the old Oriental religions. These he studied chiefly in French and German translations, which he accumulated with such zeal that he is said to have had the best library of such books in the country; and this was supplemented, in 1855, by a handsome present of volumes in English, French, Latin, Greek, and Sanscrit, sent him by Mr. Cholmondeley, a young English friend. There are numerous citations from these ancient writings in Thoreau’s own works, and so great was his reverence for them that he jealously asserted their claim to the title of “scriptures” in common with those of Jewish origin. When a young visitor from Harvard College informed him that he was studying “the Scriptures” Thoreau quickly retorted, “But which?” “It would be worthy of the age,” he says in his Week, “to print together the collected Scriptures or Sacred Writings of the several nations, the Chinese, the Hindoos, the Persians, the Hebrews, and others, as the Scripture of mankind. Such a juxtaposition and comparison might help to liberalise the faith of men. This would be the Bible, or Book of Books, which let the missionaries carry to the uttermost parts of the earth.”

  Thoreau’s classical studies were not confined to his early years, but were fully maintained in after-life, Homer, Æschylus, Virgil, and the poets of the Greek Anthology being his chief favourites. Classical learning is eulogised in both the Week and Walden, as being the most heroic and tranquillising of all branches of reading. “I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature.” “The value of the classic languages,” says one who knew Thoreau well,6 “was never better exemplified than in their influence on his training. They were real ‘humanities’ to him, linking him with the great memories of the race, and with high intellectual standards, so that he could never, like some of his imitators, treat literary art as a thing unmanly and trivial. I remember how that fine old classical scholar, the late John Glen King, of Salem, used to delight in Thoreau as being ‘the only man who thoroughly loved both nature and Greek.”‘ His reading in Greek and Latin included not only the “classics” proper, but many old-fashioned authorities on agriculture and natural history, such as Aristotle, Ælian, Theophrastus, Cato, Varro, and Pliny.

  His respect for Linnæus was, according to Channing, “transcendent.” He furthermore loved to study Froissart and the old-fashioned chronicles, and such voyages as those of Drake and Purchas, with any books of travel that came in his way. Among poets the old English worthies were most to his liking; he read and appreciated old ballad-writers, Chaucer, Spenser, Ossian, Herbert, Cowley, Quarles, and, above all others, Milton, whose “Lycidas” was often on his lips. For modern writers he cared comparatively little, the chief exceptions being Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, and Carlyle. He admired Ruskin, but thought him somewhat bigoted, finding in him, as he expressed it, “too much about art for me and the Hottentots.” For Carlyle he felt and expressed the sincerest admiration, as may be seen in the essay which he contributed to Graham’s Magazine in 1847. He was, if Emerson’s verdict may be trusted, a good reader and critic. “He would pass by many delicate rhythms, but he would have detected every live stanza or line in a volume, and knew very well where to find an equal poetic charm in prose.” All his reading was done with a pen or pencil in his hand, and he had separate notebooks in which to jot down either facts or poetry.

  There was another and wholly different branch of reading to which Thoreau devoted a considerable portion of his time—the records of the native Indian tribes, which he extracted with much labour and research from the histories of the Jesuit missionaries, the early New England chroniclers, and various other sources of information. Everything connected with the Indians had a strange interest and fascination for him; he noted and admired their natural instinct of woodcraft, their immobility and self-possession, and their mysterious sense of remoteness to the white man; he several times visited Maine in order to study their language and habits, and never failed to converse with the wandering parties who sometimes pitched their tents for a few weeks on the banks of the Concord river. His collection of Indian relics had been commenced while he was still a youth, and the soil of Concord—an old settlement of Indian tribes—was rich in these treasures, arrow-heads, pottery, and stone implements being often turned up by the plough. Regularly every spring, when the fields had been washed bare by rains and thawing snow, would Thoreau set out to gather his crop of arrow-heads, and his extraordinary keenness of sight in detecting these relics was often a cause of wonder to less observant minds. “I do not see where you find your Indian arrowheads,” once remarked the companion of his walk. “Here is one,” replied Thoreau on the instant, picking one up and, presenting it to his astonished friend.

  This remarkable sympathy, on the part of one of the most advanced of modern thinkers, with the spirit of a savage and decaying race is accounted for by Thoreau’s strong natural inclination to the uncultivated and wild. “There is in my nature,” he avows, “a singular yearning to all wildness”; he saw in wildness the universal tonic of life, the “preservation of the world”; “life consists with wildness; the most alive is the wildest.” He loved the sea and all desert places; preferred the wild apple to the cultured orchard, and the dreariest swamp to the most fragrant garden; and it cheered him to see the young forest-pines springing up anew in the fertile corn-land. The Indian, the human representative of wild life in New England, thus attracted his sympathies, just as the sympathies of George Borrow were attracted to the roaming gipsy tribes. “We talk of civilising the Indian,” he says, “but that is not the name for his improvement. By the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest life he preserves his intercourse with his native gods, and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with nature.”

  This inclination of Thoreau to wild nature was not, as some critics have suggested, a symptom of an unhealthy temperament, but rather a method of retaining the excellent soundness of his mind. “His whole life,” it has been said,7 “was a search for the doctor.” This was not the case. He went to nature, not as a sickly valetudinarian, seeking a cure for his ailments, but as a sane and healthy man, the secret of whose health lay in this very familiarity with the open air. Walking was a necessity of Thoreau’s existence; he demanded four hours at least each day for sauntering at leisure over hills, and woods, and fields, taking short cuts when he could, and avoiding for the most part the grit and noise of the busier highroads. The direction of his walks was usually, owing to some strange and indefinable attraction, towards the west or south-west, as at once the home of wildness and the goal of human migration; every sunset which he saw (and sunset was one of his habitual times for walking) inspired him with the desire to go to a West “as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down.” The old Marlboro road which led south-west from Concord, through a spacious tract of open country abounding in patches of scrub-oak and wild apples, was one of his favourite haunts; so, too, were Walden woods and the “Cliffs” which overhang Fairhaven, the wide bay formed by a bend of the river two miles south of the village. The river was much frequented by him at all seasons of the year; for in summer he made almost daily voyages in his boat, which he kept moored in Ellery Channing’s riverside garden, and in winter the frozen stream offered a convenient pathway. “Not till winter,” he says, “can we take possession of the whole of our territory. I have three great highways ranging out from one centre which is near my door. I may walk down the main river, or up either of its two branches. With the river I am not compelled to walk in the tracks of horses.” The Ponds, especially Walden and White Ponds, were another constant attraction; his fondness for the shore of White Pond has been commemorated in some lines by Ellery Channing:

“One whom often here glad Nature found
Seated beneath yon thorn, or on the ground
Poring content, when frosty Autumn bore
Of wilding fruit to earth that bitter store;
And when the building winter spanned in ice
Thy trembling limbs, soft lake I then each device
Traced in white figures on thy seamed expanse
This child of problems caught in gleeful trance.
Oh, welcome he to thrush and various jay,
And echoing veery, period of the day!
To each clear hyla trilling the new spring,
And late gray goose buoyed on his icy wing;
Bold walnut-buds admire the gentle hand,
While the shy sassafras their rings expand
On his approach, and thy green forest wave,
White Pond! to him fraternal greetings gave.
The far white clouds that fringe the topmost pine
For his delight their fleecy folds decline;
The sunset worlds melted their ore for him,
And lightning touched his thought to seraphim.
Clear wave, thou wert not vainly made, I know,
Since this sweet man of Nature thee could owe
A genial hour, and hope that flies afar,
And revelations from thy guiding star.”

  On these expeditions Thoreau was generally unaccompanied, unless Ellery Channing or one of his few chosen friends happened to be with him. Offers of companionship were not rarely forthcoming, but these he for the most part declined with that frankness which was all his own. “Would he not walk with them?” some acquaintances would ask. “He did not know; there was nothing so important to him as his walk; he had no walks to throw away on company.” But for those who succeeded in gaining this privilege a rare treat was assured. “His powers of conversation,” says one who was thus favoured,8 “were extraordinary. I remember being surprised and delighted at every step with revelations of laws and significant attributes in common things. . . . The acuteness of his senses was marvellous; no hound could scent better, and he could hear the most faint and distant sound without even laying his ear to the ground like an. Indian. As we penetrated farther and farther into the woods he seemed to gain a certain transformation, and his face shone with a light that I had not seen in the village.” The account of Thoreau’s skilful and genial leadership of the Concord huckleberry-parties has already been quoted, and from the same authority we have an equally charming description of how he would guide his friends to the haunts of the water-lily.9 “Upon such occasions his resources for our entertainment were inexhaustible. He would tell stories of the Indians who once dwelt thereabouts, till the children almost looked to see a red man skulking with his arrow on shore; and every plant or flower on the bank or in the water, and every fish, turtle, frog, lizard about us, was transformed by the wand of his knowledge from the low form into which the spell of our ignorance had reduced it, into a mystic beauty. One of his surprises was to thrust his hand softly into the water, and as softly raise up before our astonished eyes a large bright fish, which lay as contentedly in his hand as if they were old acquaintances.”

  His extraordinary sympathy with animals was one of the most singular and pleasing features in Thoreau’s character. Like St. Francis, he felt a sense of love and brotherhood towards the lower races, and regarded them not as brute beasts, without sensibility or soul, but as possessing “the character and importance of another order of men.” He protested against the conceited self-assurance with which man sets down the intelligence of animals as mere “instinct,” while overlooking their real wisdom and fitness of behaviour. They were his “townsmen and fellow-creatures,” whose individuality must be recognised as much as his own, and who must be treated with courtesy and gentleness. “There was in his face and expression,” says Mr. Conway, “a kind of intellectual furtiveness; no wild thing could escape him more than it could be harmed by him. The gray huntsman’s suit which he wore enhanced this expression. . . . The cruellest weapons of attack, however, which this huntsman took with him were a spy-glass for birds, a microscope for the game that would hide in smallness, and an old book in which to press plants.”

  The strange influence which Thoreau was able to exercise over beasts, and birds, and fish was doubtless chiefly due to the power of his humane sympathy, partly, also, to his habits of patient silence and watchfulness, in which he resembled the hermits of the Middle Ages. Emerson tells us that he knew how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, should come to him and watch him.” His hut at Walden was inhabited by other creatures besides himself; the birds would flit fearlessly through the room; the red squirrel raced over the roof, while moles and hares stabled in the cellar; and chickadees perched on the armfuls of wood which he carried across his threshold. Once, as he was hoeing in a garden, a sparrow alighted on his shoulder, which he regarded as “a greater honor than any epaulet he could have worn.” Nor was this all, for his mingled firmness and sympathy enabled him to take all sorts of liberties with the wildest of wild creatures. “Snakes coiled round his leg, the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunters.”10 A story is told how a squirrel, which he had taken home for a few days in order to observe its habits, refused to be set at liberty, returning again and again to its new friend with embarrassing persistence, climbing up his knee, sitting on his hand, and at last gaining the day by hiding its head in the folds of his waistcoat—an appeal which Thoreau was not able to withstand.

  Thoreau was essentially a “poet-naturalist,” as Ellery Channing entitled him, and not a man of science. He was, indeed, an honorary member and correspondent of the Boston Natural History Society; but he declined, as a rule, to write memoirs of his experiences in this branch of study, on the ground that he could not properly detach the mere external record of observation from the inner associations with which such facts were connected in his mind—in a word, the natural history of the subject could not be separated from the poetry and idealism. His whole method, as we have seen, was different from that of the scientific anatomist; he observed but he did not kill, making it his object to hold his bird “in the affections” rather than in the hand. His diaries testify to the immense diligence and keenness of his communion with nature, and his unflagging interest in the seasons and all they bring with them. “As a child looks forward to the coming of the summer, so could we contemplate with quiet joy the circle of the seasons returning without fail eternally.” He noted and recorded the habits of animals, the tracks of the fox and otter, the migrations and song of birds, the croak of frogs and chirp of crickets, the spawning and nests of fishes, the blossoming of flowers, the fall of leaves, the height of the river, the temperature of ponds and springs, and innumerable other phenomena of outdoor life. Like all true naturalists, he loved birds, and many are the entries in his journal respecting the kinds that are native at Concord the bobolink, the robin, the song-sparrow, the whip-poor-will, the cat-bird, and the blue-bird, which, as he beautifully said of it, “carries the sky on its back.” He loved to be awakened’ in the early summer mornings by the song of birds, and nothing cheered him so much in the midst of a winter storm as a bird’s chirp or whistle. Other favourite creatures were the bull-frog and the little “peeping hyla”; while the huge snapping-turtle, the eggs of which he sometimes hatched in his yard, was, in Channing’s phrase, “his pride and consolation.” “If Iliads are not composed in our day,” said Thoreau, “snapping-turtles are hatched and arrive at maturity.”

  The neighbourhood of Concord, with its wide tracts of meadow and woodland, was a fine field for the naturalist; and Thoreau, in his characteristic love of paradox, was fond of asserting that it surpassed all other places as a centre of observation—a foible for which he was gently bantered by Emerson. He talked about nature, it was wittily remarked, “as if she had been born and brought up at Concord.” Ne quid quæsiveris extra ta Concordiamque was his humorous maxim. He contended that all the important plants of America were included in the flora of Massachusetts, and after reading Kane’s Arctic Voyage he expressed his conviction that most of the Arctic phenomena might be noted at Concord—an assertion which he partly substantiated by the discovery of red snow and one or two Labrador plants.11 He had thoughts of constructing a complete calendar for the natural phenomena of Concord, and believed that if he waked up from a trance the time of year would be as plain to him from the plants as the time of day from a dial. Of all flowers the water-lily was his favourite, but there were none that he did not know and love; even the growth of the sturdy aboriginal weeds gave him a sense of satisfaction. He often walked miles to note the condition of some rare tree or shrub, and congratulated himself that the time thus spent was more profitably laid out than in a good many social visits. “On one occasion,” says a friend who visited him at Concord, “he mentioned the hibiscus beside the river—a rare flower in New England—and when I desired to see it, told me it would open ‘about Monday and not stay long.’ I went on Tuesday afternoon and was a day too late—the petals lay on the ground.”

  Such were the points in Thoreau’s personality which made him an object of interest and wonder from the first to his own friends and acquaintances, and afterwards to a far wider circle. We can well believe that a man gifted with such an intense and genuine individuality often found himself, as Emerson tells us, in “dramatic situations,” and that in any debatable matter there was no person whose judgment was awaited by his townsmen with keener expectation. As his fame spread he gained an increasing number of admiring friends, some of whom travelled long distances to see and converse with him. “I have repeatedly known young men of sensibility,” says Emerson, “converted in a moment to the belief that this was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do.”

1 Moncure Conway, Fraser, April 1866.
2 1st February 1852.
3 Mr. R. L. Stevenson: Preface to Men and Books.
4 Mr. Edward Hoar, of Concord.
5 The Century, July 1882.
6 T. Wentworth Higginson: Short Studies of American Authors.
7 Mr. Lowell, in My Study Windows.
8 Moncure Conway, Fraser, April 1866.
9 Ibid.
10 Memoir, by R. W. Emerson.
11 There is an entry in the journal for 20th January 1857 which well illustrates this whim of Thoreau’s. “At R. W. E.’s this evening I was called out to see E.’s cave in the snow. It was a hole about two and a half feet wide and six feet long, in a drift, a little winding, and he had got a lamp at the inner extremity. . . . What was most surprising to me, when E. crawled into the extremity of his cave, and shouted at the top of his voice, it sounded ridiculously faint, as if he were a quarter of a mile off. The voice was in fact muffled by the surrounding snow walls, and I saw that we might lie in that hole screaming for assistance in vain, while travellers were passing along twenty feet distant. So you need only make a snow-house in your yard and pass an hour in it to realise a good deal of Esquimaux life.”

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.