The Closing Years.

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


As early as 1855 Thoreau’s health had begun to be a matter of some anxiety to himself and to his friends. Frequent mention has been made by those who knew him personally of the iron endurance and sturdy strength of limb which enabled him to outstrip the companions of his walks and open-air pursuits. Emerson, who was himself little qualified for an outdoor life, marvelled at his friend’s indefatigable energy in tree-felling and field-work; while Channing and others who accompanied him to the mountains suffered acutely from the exposure, which Thoreau seemed not to feel Nevertheless, this power of prolonged endurance was due, there is reason to believe, far more to an indomitable spirit than to a natural strength of constitution; for, idealist as he was, he was too apt to compel his body at all times to keep pace with his mind, and if he was somewhat exacting in his demands on his friends, he had still less consideration for his own weaknesses. “The physique given him at birth,” says Dr. E.W. Emerson, “was unusually slight. I have never seen a person with more sloping shoulders, and seldom a narrower chest. Yet he made his frame all that it could be made.” It will be remembered that his college career was interrupted by an illness which kept him for some time from his studies; and as early as 1841 there is reference in the journal to a bronchial attack, which is significant when read in connection with the story of his closing years. “I am confined to the house,” he wrote, “by bronchitis, and so seek to content myself with that quiet and serene life there is in a warm corner by the fireside, and see the sky through the chimney-top. Sickness should not be allowed to extend farther than the body. As soon as I find my chest is not of tempered steel and my heart of adamant, I bid good-bye to them, and look out for a new nature. I will be liable to no accidents.” This last sentiment is eminently illustrative of Thoreau’s philosophy of life.

  In the autumn of 1855 we find him writing of the “months of feebleness” that had preceded, and of his satisfaction at partly regaining his health, though he would have liked” to know first what it was that ailed him.” During the winter that followed he was able to walk afield as usual, and boasts that he had made it a part of his business “to wade in the snow and take the measure of the ice,” and that, in spite of his recent ill-health, he was probably the greatest walker in Concord. In the spring of 1857 he refers to his “two-year-old invalidity,” from which we see that the disquieting symptoms had not wholly abated; and it cannot be doubted that he at all times subjected himself to considerable risks both by the severity of his exertions in carrying heavy loads and taking long walks—“always doing ideal work” is Channing’s expression—and also in the recklessness with which he exposed himself to all extremes of weather, and all changes of season, regardless alike of frost and sun, wind and snow, the chills of midnight and the mists of the early morning. For the present, however, we hear no more of his illness, and he continued to lead the same equable contented state of life which has already been described.

  For several years after the appearance of Walden in 1854 Thoreau did not publish more of his writings, though he was busily engaged in various literary plans, chief among which was his projected book on the Indians. His relations with editors and publishers, partly no doubt owing to his own unaccomodating temperament, had not always been of the most amicable kind; his essays were repeatedly refused by papers and magazines on account of their religious unorthodoxy, and it is said an editor once begged Emerson to persuade Thoreau to write an article containing no allusion to God. In 1859, when, at Emerson’s suggestion, he contributed his paper on “Chesuncook” (the Maine Woods) to the Atlantic Monthly, of which Mr. Lowell was then editor, a fresh point of difference arose. A sentence in which Thoreau had spoken in his idealistic style of the “living spirit” of the pine tree (“it is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still”) was struck out under editorial censorship, without the permission of the author, and this being an indignity to which Thoreau would never submit, he sent no more of his essays to the Atlantic Monthly until the editorship had passed into other hands. The sentence in question was, of course, restored when the article on “Chesuncook” was included in the volume on The Maine Woods.

On 3d February 1859 Thoreau records in his diary the death of his father, who had lived to the age of seventy-two. This was the third time he had mourned the loss of a near relative, his brother having died, as narrated, in 1842, and his sister Helen in 1849. “Five minutes before 3 P.M. father died. I have touched a body which was flexible and warm, yet tenantless-warmed by what fire? I perceive that we partially die ourselves, through sympathy, at the death of each of our friends or near relatives. Each such experience is an assault on our vital force. After long watching around the sick-bed of a friend we too partially give up the ghost with him, and are the less to be identified with this state of things.”

  In the following letter to Mr. Daniel Ricketson he gives an interesting account of his father’s character:

“CONCORD, 12th February 1859.

  “FRIEND RICKETSON—I thank you for your kind letter. I sent you the notice of my father’s death as much because you knew him as because you know me. I can hardly realise that he is dead. He had been sick about two years, and at last declined rather rapidly though steadily. Till within a week or ten days before he died he was hoping to see another spring, but he then discovered that this was a vain expectation, and thinking that he was dying, he took his leave of us several times within a week before his departure. Once or twice he expressed a slight impatience at the delay. He was quite conscious to the last, and his death was so easy that though we had all been sitting around the bed for an hour or more expecting that event, as we had sat before, he was gone at last almost before we were aware of it.

  “I am glad to read what you say about his social nature. I think I may say that he was wholly unpretending, and there was this peculiarity in his aim, that though he had pecuniary difficulties to contend with the greater part of his life, he always studied merely how to make a good article, pencil or other (for he practiced various arts), and was never satisfied with what he had produced. Nor was he ever in the least disposed to put off a poor one for the sake of pecuniary gain, as if he laboured for a higher end.

  “Though he was not very old, and was not a native of Concord, I think that he was, on the whole, more identified with Concord street than any man now alive, having come here when he was about twelve years old, and set up for himself as a merchant here at the age of twenty-one, fifty years ago.

  “As I sat in a circle the other evening with my mother and sister, my mother’s two sisters, and my father’s two sisters, it occurred to me that my father, though 71, belonged to the youngest four of the eight who recently composed our family.

  “How swiftly at last, but unnoticed, a generation passes away! Three years ago I was called, with my father, to be a witness to the signing of our neighbour Mr. Frost’s will. Mr. Samuel Hoar, who was there writing it, also signed it. I was lately required to go to Cambridge to testify to the genuineness of the will, being the only one of the four who could be there, and now I am the only one alive.

  “My mother and sister thank you heartily for your sympathy. The latter in particular agrees with you in thinking that it is communion with still living and healthy nature alone which can restore to sane and cheerful views. I thank you for your invitation to New Bedford, but I feel somewhat confined here for the present. I did not know but we should see you the day after Alger was here. It is not too late for a winter walk in Concord. It does me good to hear of spring birds and singing ones too, for spring seems far away from Concord yet I’m going to Worcester to read a parlor lecture on the 2 2d, and shall see Blake and Brown. What if you were to meet me there? or go with me from here? You would see them to good advantage. Cholmondeley has been here again, after going as far south as Virginia, and left for Canada about three weeks ago. He is a good soul, and I am afraid that I did not sufficiently recognise him.

  “Please remember me to Mrs. Ricketson, and to the rest of your family. —Yours,


  After his father’s death Thoreau carried on the family business, pencil-making and the preparation of plumbago, on behalf of his mother and his younger sister Sophia. This same year, 1859, was destined to be one of the most memorable in his experience. We have seen how he was, from the first, an ardent abolitionist, how he had withdrawn allegiance from the State of Massachusetts awing to its sanction of slavery, and had delivered lectures and published essays on the subject at a time when the outspoken profession of abolitionist principles was neither safe nor comfortable; and how he had himself concealed escaped slaves and assisted their flight to Canada. Truehearted American though he was, he had little respect for the patriotic feelings of those of his fellow-countrymen who could combine a pride in their national liberties with an indifference to abolition; and on one of the occasions when a runaway slave was surrendered to his owners by the Massachusetts Government, he is said to have proposed to his townsmen at Concord that the monument which commemorated American independence should be coated with black paint.

  When he was introduced to John Brown in 1857 he doubtless recognised in him the “ one righteous man “whose advent he had heralded in the essay on Slavery in Massachusetts, which he had written and published several years before, and it is not difficult to imagine the intensity of admiration with which he must have followed the phases of the great emancipator’s career. Himself an individualist, and, as regards politics, less a man of action than a man of thought, he reverenced in Brown the very qualities in which he was himself deficient. “His was a more sour and saturnine hatred of injustice,” says Channing; “his life was more passive, and he lost the glory of action which fell to the lot of Brown. Thoreau worshipped a hero in a mortal disguise, under the shape of that homely son of justice; his pulses thrilled and his hands involuntarily clenched together at the mention of Captain Brown.” The final effort of Brown’s heroism was now at hand, and the events that followed proved to be in some respects the crowning point of Thoreau’s life also.

  In October 1859 John Brown, who was just entering on his sixtieth year, was again in Concord, and it was from Mr. Sanborn’s house that he started on his last and fateful expedition against the Virginian slaveholders. The very evening before his departure he addressed another meeting in the Concord Town Hall, where Thoreau and Sanborn (their friendship being now the closer for their devotion to the same cause) were among his most earnest listeners. On 16th October Brown was arrested at Harper’s Ferry, and then ensued those seven weeks of suspense and anxiety and vituperation which ended in his trial and death. To Thoreau—the shy solitary idealist—belongs the lasting honour of having spoken the first public utterance on behalf of John Brown, at a time when a torrent of ridicule and abuse was being poured by the American press on the so-called crazy enthusiast whose life was to pay forfeit for his boldness. Notice was given by Thoreau that he would speak in the Town Hall on Sunday evening, 30th October, on the subject of John Brown’s condition and character; and when this course was deprecated by certain Republicans and Abolitionists as hasty and ill-advised, they received the emphatic assurance that he had not sent to them for advice, but to announce his intention of speaking. A large and attentive audience, composed of men of all parties, assembled to hear Thoreau’s address,—the “Plea for Captain John Brown,” which is in every respect one of the very finest of his writings. In the plainest and most unequivocal terms, and with all his accustomed incisiveness of style and expression, he avowed his absolute approval of the conduct of a man who was indicted as a rebel and traitor. “It was his peculiar doctrine,” he said, “that a man has a perfect right. to interfere by force with the slaveholder in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his methods who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave.” When we read the magnificent and heart-stirring passages in which he eulogised the heroic character of John Brown, we can well believe Emerson’s statement that the address was heard “by all respectfully, by many with a sympathy that surprised themselves”:

  “If this man’s acts and words do not create a revival, it will be the severest possible satire on the acts and words that do. It is the best news that America has ever heard It has already quickened the feeble pulse of the North, and infused more and more generous blood into her veins and heart, than any number of years of what is called commercial and political prosperity could. . . . Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung? Is it indispensable to any northern man? Is there no resource but to cast this man also to the Minotaur? If you do not wish it, say so distinctly. While these things are being done, beauty stands veiled, and music is a screeching lie. Think of him—of his rare qualities!—such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand; no mock hero, nor the representative of any party. A man such as the sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land. To whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant; sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity; and the only use to which you can put him is to hang him at the end of a rope! You who pretend to care for Christ crucified, consider what you are about to do to him who offered himself to be the saviour of four millions of men.”

  On 1st November Thoreau read the same “Plea for John Brown” as the fifth lecture in the “Fraternity Course” in the Tremont Temple, Boston;1 from the following letter, addressed to Mr. Harrison Blake, it appears that he was desirous of reading it at Worcester also:

“CONCORD, 31st October.

  “MR. BLAKE—I spoke to my townsmen last evening on “The character of Captain Brown, now in the clutches of the Slaveholder.” I should like to speak to any company in Worcester who may wish to hear me, and will come if only my expenses are paid. I think that we should express ourselves at once, while Brown is alive. The sooner the better. Perhaps Higginson may like to have a meeting. Wednesday evening would be a good time. The people here are deeply interested in the matter. Let me have an answer as soon as may be.


  The following extract from Mr. Alcott’s diary refers to the same subject:

  “4th Nov. 1859.—Thoreau calls, and reports about the reading of his lecture on Brown at Boston and Worcester. Thoreau has good right to speak fully his mind concerning Brown, and has been the first to speak and celebrate the hero’s courage and magnanimity. It is these which he discerns and praises. The men have much in common—the sturdy manliness, straightforwardness, and independence. It is well they met, and that Thoreau saw what he sets forth as none else can. Both are sons of Anak and dwellers in Nature—Brown taking more to the human side and driving straight at institutions, while Thoreau contents himself with railing at, and letting them otherwise alone. He is the proper panegyrist of the virtues he owns himself so largely, and so comprehends in another.

  “5th Nov.—Dine with Sanborn. Ricketson from New Bedford arrives. He and Thoreau take supper with us. Thoreau talks freely and enthusiastically about Brown, denouncing the Union, the President, the States, and Virginia particularly; wishes to publish his late speech, and has seen Boston publishers, but failed to find any to publish it for him.”2

  The time was indeed short; and from the first it could scarcely have been hoped that Brown’s life would be spared. Those few weeks were probably the only period in Thoreau’s career when he turned in vain to nature for the customary comfort and repose. “Though we wear no crape,” he said, “the thought of that man’s position and probable fate is spoiling many a man’s day here at the North for other thinking. If any one who has seen him here can pursue successfully any other train of thought, I do not know what he is made of. If there is any such who gets his usual allowance of sleep, I will warrant him to fatten easily under any circumstances which do not touch his body or purse. I put a piece of paper and a pencil under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.” He has also put on record the stunned, incredulous feelings with which he received, on 2d December, the news of the execution. On that a day solemn service in commemoration of Brown’s martyrdom was held in the Town Hall at Concord, when addresses were delivered by Thoreau, Alcott, Emerson, and other abolitionists, and a funeral-hymn, composed by Sanborn, was sung by those assembled.3 Seven months later, when Thoreau read at North Elba his address on “The Last Days of John Brown,” his thoughts were still monopolised by the same subject. “I never hear,” he said, “of any particularly brave and earnest man, but my first thought is of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He has earned immortality.”

  Thoreau regarded the whole episode of Brown’s capture and trial as a touchstone designed to bring out into a strong light the nature of the American Government. That it afforded a touchstone of his own character few will deny. It has been well remarked4 that “this instant and unequivocal indorsement of Brown by Thoreau, in the face of the most overwhelming public opinion even among antislavery men, throws a flood of light upon him. It is the most significant act of his life. It clinches him. It makes the colors fast.” The “Plea for Captain John Brown,” which bears in every sentence unmistakable signs of the intensity of feeling under which it was written, must have convinced even those of Thoreau’s hearers who were least in accord with him that they saw before them no cynical misanthrope who had placed himself in unreasonable antagonism to the social opinions of his townsmen, but a man of humaner sympathies and larger aspirations than their own.5 And indeed the judgment of the good people of Concord had already changed concerning the eccentric recluse who, some twelve years before, had excited their contemptuous surprise by his sojourn in the Walden woods; they had learnt to appreciate the kindness and courtesy that underlay his rough exterior, and the shrewd wisdom which found expression in his trenchant and outspoken words. He thus came to be respected and honoured in the very quarter where honour is proverbially most difficult to attain for the prophet who is not willing to prophesy smooth things; and his fellow-citizens recognised the superiority of character “which addressed all men with a native authority.”

  Nor had the lapse of years and the increase of experience failed to exercise a mellowing effect on Thoreau’s own temperament; and his intimate friends have noted how the foibles and crudeness which marked the less pleasing side in his distinctive and self-assertive personality were gradually losing their sharpness as he grew older, while he still retained all the freshness and originality of his genius, and looked forward to the future with the same unbounded confidence as ever. “No man,” says Channing, “had a better unfinished life. His anticipations were vastly rich: more reading was to be done over Shakespeare and the Bible; more choice apple-trees to be set in uncounted springs,—for his chief principle was faith in all things, thoughts, and times, and he expected, as he said, ‘to live for forty years.’ . . . He had now attained the middle age, his health sound to all appearance, his plans growing more complete, more cherished; new lists of birds and flowers projected, new details to be gathered upon trees and plants . . . . Here was a great beginning in a condition of matchless incompleteness to be adjusted by no one but the owner.” This prospect, unhappily, was not destined to be realised; but there is satisfaction in the thought that it was his championship of John Brown which formed the last public act of Thoreau’s career, and that no act could possibly have been more characteristic and significant.

  Meantime we have an interesting glimpse into Thoreau’s private life at Concord in a letter to Mr. Ricketson which was written about this time:

  “4th November 1860.—Why will you waste so many regards on me, and not know what to think of my silence? Infer from it what you might from the silence of a dense pine-wood It is its natural condition, except when the winds blow, and the jays scream, and the chicaree winds up his clock. My silence is just as inhuman as that, and no more. You know that I never promised to correspond with you, and so, when I do, I do more than I promised.

  “Such are my pursuits and habits that I rarely go abroad; and it is quite a habit with me to decline invitations to do so. Not that I could not enjoy such visits, if I were not otherwise occupied. I have enjoyed very much my visits to you, and my rides in your neighbourhood, and am sorry that I cannot enjoy such things oftener; but life is short, and there are other things also to be done. Not to have written a note for a year is with me a very venial offence. I think that I do not correspond with any one so often as once in six months. I am very busy after my fashion, little as there is to show for it, and feel as if—I could not spend many days nor dollars in travelling; for the shortest visit must have a fair margin to it, and the days thus affect the weeks, you know. Nevertheless we cannot forego these luxuries altogether. “Some are accustomed to write many letters, others very few. I am one of the last At any rate, we are pretty sure, if we write at all, to send those thoughts which we cherish to that one who, we believe, will most religiously attend to them. I have a very pleasant recollection of your fireside, and I trust that I shall revisit it—also of your shanty and the surrounding regions.”

  It was in November 1860, immediately after the date of this letter, and four months after the delivery of his address at North Elba on “The Last Days of John Brown,” that his fatal illness had its beginning. He took a severe cold while counting the rings on trees, at a time when the ground was covered with a deep snow; this led to a bronchial affection, which was increased by his persistence in keeping a lecturing engagement at Waterbury, and the precautions which he afterwards exercised were too late, as consumption had then set in. It is to be noted that his grandfather, the emigrant from St. Helier, had died of consumption; so that it is possible that Thoreau inherited consumptive tendencies from that source. In the spring of 1861 he was advised by his doctor to travel (“to the sick,” he had written in Walden, “the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery”), and he was now willing to do in sickness what he had always refused to do in health, though even now he preferred to remain within the boundaries of the States. His plans are thus described in a letter to Mr. Blake, from which it will be seen that there was a marked and mournful difference between this invalid journey and the vigorous “excursions” of his happier days:

“CONCORD, 3d May 1861.

  “I am still as much an invalid as when you and B. were here, if not more of one, and at this rate there is danger that the cold weather may come again before I have got over my bronchitis. The doctor accordingly tells me that I must ‘clear out’ to the West Indies, or somewhere—he does not seem to care much where. But I decide against the West Indies, on account of their muggy heat in the summer, and the South of Europe on account of the expense of time and money, and have at last concluded that it will be most expedient for me to try the air of Minnesota, say somewhere about St. Paul’s. I am only waiting to be well enough to start. Hope to get off within a week or ten days.

  “The inland air may help me at once, or it may not. At any rate, I am so much of an invalid that I shall have to study my comfort in travelling to a remarkable degree—stopping to rest, etc., if need be. I think to get a through ticket to Chicago, with liberty to stop frequently on the way, making my first stop of consequence at Niagara Falls, several days or a week at a private boarding-house; then a night or day at Detroit; and as much at Chicago as my health may require. At Chicago I can decide at what point to strike the Mississippi, and take a St. Paul’s. I trust to find a private boarding-house in one or various agreeable places in that region and spend my time there. I expect, and shall be prepared to be gone three months; and I would like to return by a different route, perhaps Mackinaw and Montreal.

  “I have thought of finding a companion, of course, yet not seriously, because I had no right to offer myself as companion to anybody, having such a peculiarly private and all-absorbing but miserable business as my health, and not altogether his, to attend to, causing me to stop here and go there, etc., unaccountably. Nevertheless I have just now decided to let you know of my intention, thinking it barely possible that you might like to make a part or the whole of this journey at the same time, and that perhaps your own health may be such as to be benefited by it. Pray let me know if such a statement offers any temptations to you.”

  Mr. Blake being unable to accompany Thoreau in this journey to Minnesota, his place was taken by Horace Mann, junior, a connection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. In a letter addressed to Mr. Sanborn from Minnesota, on 26th June, Thoreau speaks of himself as better in health than when he left home, but still far from well, having performed the journey in a very dead-and-alive manner, though he much enjoyed the weeks they spent in the neighbourhood of St. Paul’s and the novel sights of the Mississippi. “The grand feature hereabouts,” he wrote, “is of course the Mississippi River. Too much can hardly be said of its grandeur, and of the beauty of this portion of it. St. Paul’s is a dozen miles below the Falls of St. Anthony, or near the head of uninterrupted navigation on the main stream, about two thousand miles from its mouth. There is not a ‘rip’ below that; and the river is almost as wide in the upper as the lower part of its course. Steamers go up to the Sauk Rapids, above the falls, and then you are fairly in the pine-woods and lumbering country. Thus it flows from the pine to the palm.” From St. Paul’s Thoreau and his companion made a further expedition some three hundred miles up the Minnesota or St. Peter’s River, in order to witness a gathering of the Sioux Indians at Redwood, where an annual payment was made to the tribe by the United States Government. “A regular council was held with the Indians, who had come in on their ponies, and speeches were made on both sides through an interpreter, quite in the described mode-the Indians, as usual, having the advantage in point of truth and earnestness, and therefore of eloquence. They were quite dissatisfied with the white man’s treatment of them, and probably have reason to be so. In the afternoon the half-naked Indians performed a dance, at the request of the governor, for our amusement and their own benefit; and then we took leave of them, and of the officials who had come to treat with them.”

  One of the sights which most interested Thoreau, during this tour in the West, was that of the aboriginal crab-apple. “I never saw the crabapple,” he writes in the essay on “Wild Apples,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862, “till May 1861, thus it was a half-fabulous tree to me. At last I had occasion to go to Minnesota, and on entering Michigan, I began to notice from the cars a tree with handsome rose-coloured flowers. At first I thought it some variety of thorn, but it was not long before the truth flashed on me that this was my long-sought crab-apple. But the cars never stopped before one, and so I was launched on the bosom of the Mississippi without having touched one, experiencing the fate of Tantalus. On arriving at St. Anthony’s Falls, I was sorry to be told that I was too far north for the crab-apple. Nevertheless I succeeded in finding it about eight miles west of the falls; touched it and smelled it, and secured a lingering corymb of flowers for my herbarium.”

  Meantime the spark which had been kindled by John Brown’s heroism had not been quenched by his death, and the war between the northern and southern States had already commenced in the spring of 1861. We are told that the misfortunes of the North in the early years of the war affected Thoreau so powerfully that. he used to say he could never recover while the war lasted, and he told his friends in these dark days that he was “sick for his country.” There is a reference to this sub1ect in his letter from Minnesota to Mr. Sanborn. “I am not even so well informed as to the progress of the war as you suppose. The people of Minnesota have seemed to me more cold, to feel less implicated in this war than the people of Massachusetts. However, I have dealt partly with those of southern birth, and have seen but little way beneath the surface. I was glad to be told yesterday that there was a good deal of weeping here at Redwing the other day, when the volunteers stationed at Fort Snelling followed the regulars to the seat of war. They do not weep when their children go up the river to occupy the deserted forts, though they may have to fight the Indians there. I do not even know what the attitude of England is at present.” “Had Thoreau retained health and life,” says Colonel Wentworth Higginson, “there is no telling but what our civil war might have brought out a wholly new aspect of him, as it did for so many.”

  The journey to Minnesota was not productive of any lasting improvement in Thoreau’s health. When he visited Mr. Ricketson at New Bedford a few weeks later (on which occasion an ambrotype portrait was taken at Mr. Ricketson’s request), his racking cough impressed his friend with the conviction that his strength was fast failing, though his face, “except for a shade of sadness in the eyes,” did not betray the change. But in the course of the winter that followed it became evident that the disease had reached a point at which it could not be arrested, and that there was no longer any hope of saving his life. Then it was that the exaltation of spirit over matter, of the mind over the body, which had throughout his life been one of Thoreau’s prominent characteristics, was still more strongly manifested as he neared his death; whatever his friends might feel, he himself appeared to be unaffected by his illness; he looked at himself, as it were, from an outer standpoint, surveying, without alarm and without anxiety, this intrusion into his bodily system of a weakness to which his mind at least should never be subject. The story of his last illness has been written by more than one eyewitness, by none so powerfully and pathetically as by his friend Channing:

  “With an unfaltering trust in God’s mercies, and never deserted by his good genius, he most bravely and unsparingly passed down the inclined plane of a terrible malady, pulmonary consumption, working steadily at the completing of his papers to his last hours, or so long as he could hold the pencil in his trembling fingers. His state of mind during this, his only decided illness, deserves notice as in part an idiosyncrasy. He accepted it heroically, but in no wise after the traditional manner. He experienced that form of living death when the very body refuses sleep, such is its deplorable dependence on the lungs now slowly consumed by atoms; in its utmost terrors refusing aid from any opiate in causing slumber, and declaring uniformly that he preferred to endure with a clear mind the worst penalties of suffering rather than be plunged in a turbid dream by narcotics. He ineffably retired into his inner mind, into that unknown, unconscious, profound world of existence, where he excelled; there he held inscrutable converse with just men made perfect, or what else, absorbed in himself. An ineffable reserve shrouded this to him unforeseen fatality; he never had reason to believe in what he could not appreciate, nor accepted formulas of mere opinions; the special vitalization of all his beliefs, self-consciously, lying in the marrow of his theology.”

  It was one of Thoreau’s maxims that work of some kind is as necessary for those who are sick as for those who are strong, and it is recorded by his sister Sophia, who, with their mother’s help, tenderly nursed him in his illness, that to the last day of his life he never ceased to call for the manuscripts on which he was engaged. He had again become a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which was now edited by Mr. Fields in the place of Mr. Lowell, and during the last few months of his life he accomplished, in his sister’s words, “a vast amount of labour,” in preparing these papers for the press, and in completing the records of his visits to the Maine Woods. There was something fitting in the fact that in this dosing scene of his life his thoughts should be occupied with the Indian, whom he resembled not only in his sympathy with wild nature, but also in his stoical reserve, unfaltering self-command, and passive acquiescence in whatever his destiny had in store for him.

  His unfailing patience and fortitude are described as wonderful by those who witnessed them; it was impossible to be sad in his presence, or to realise that one so cheerful and contented was on the verge of death. When. he could not sleep he would ask his sister to arrange the furniture so as to cast weird shadows on the walls, and he expressed the wish that his bed were in spiral form, that he might curl up in it as in a shell; at other times, when rest was not altogether denied him, he would interest his friends by a narration of his strange and fantastic dreams, saying that “ sleep seemed to hang round his bed in festoons.” As long as sufficient strength remained to him, he resolutely took his seat at table with his mother and sister, insisting that “it would not be social to take his meals alone,” and when he could no longer walk, his bed was brought down into the front parlour of the house, where he was visited by many of his neighbours and townsmen, from whom, during the whole course of his illness, he received such touching and gratifying tokens of kindness and affection that he would sometimes protest he would be ashamed to stay in the world after so much had been done for him. We may be sure that Emerson was a frequent visitor, and that Blake, Channing, Alcott, and other friends did not forget him at this time. Several of the remarks which he made on these occasions were very memorable and characteristic. When Channing, the faithful and intimate companion of his walks and studies, hinted at the weary change that had now come over his life, and how “solitude began to peer out curiously from the dells and wood-roads,” he whispered in reply, “It is better some things should end.” He said to Alcott that he “should leave the world without a regret.” Nor in these last weary months of suffering did he lose his shrewd humour and native incisiveness of speech. “Well, Mr. Thoreau, we must all go,” said a well-meaning visitor, who thought to comfort the dying man by the ordinary platitudes. “When I was a boy,” answered Thoreau, “I learnt that I must die, so I am not disappointed now; death is as near to you as it is to me.” When asked whether he “had made his peace with God,” he quietly replied that “he had never quarrelled with him.” He was invited by another acquaintance to enter into a religious conversation concerning the next world. “One world at a time,” was the prompt retort.

  It would, however, be an injustice to Thoreau to represent his death-bed as nothing but a scene of stoical fortitude and iron self-restraint-there are other and not less admirable traits of tenderness and love. From his window, which looked out on the village street, he saw passing and repassing some of his favourite children, whom he had so often conducted in their merry expeditions after the huckleberry or water-lily. “Why don’t they come to see me?” he said to his sister. “I love them as if they were my own”; and it is pleasant to read that after receiving an invitation they often visited him, and enjoyed these last meetings scarcely less than the first. The sound of music had the same charm for him to the end, and on hearing a street musician play some old tune that had been familiar to him in childhood, he is said to have shed tears and asked his mother to give the man some money.

  The thought of death was never a cause of anxiety to him; but terrible, indeed, to a man of Thoreau’s temperament must have been the death-in-life of that long and dreary winter, when the daily walk and converse with nature, which had seemed necessities of his existence, were now but memories of the past, and even the daily record in the journal must needs be discontinued, since there was in fact nothing to record. Yet of this outer life, in which ‘for twenty-five years he had so faithfully and unremittingly busied himself, he now spoke no word, and we are told that no stranger could have imagined from his demeanour that “ he ever had a friend in field or wood.” Once only, as he stood at his window, did he allude to what must have been so constantly in his thoughts. “I cannot see on the outside at all,” he said to his friend Channing; adding, “We thought ourselves great philosophers in those wet days, when we used to go out and sit down by the wall-sides.” There is on this point a singular and pathetic similarity between Thoreau’s last illness and that of Richard Jefferies, who of all men was nearest to Thoreau in passionate devotion to open-air life. “My prison bars,” wrote Jefferies in one of his latest essays,6 “are but a sixteenth of an inch thick; I could snap them with a fillip-only the window-pane, to me as impenetrable as the twenty-foot wall of the Tower of London . . . . To-day through the window-pane I see a lark high up against the gray cloud, and hear his song. I cannot walk about and arrange with the buds and gorse-bloom; how does he know it is the time for him to sing? Without my book and pencil and observing eye, how does he understand that the hour has come? Without me to tell him, how does this lark to-day, that I hear through the window, know it is his hour?” Such thoughts must often have arisen in Thoreau’s, as in Jefferies’, mind; though his sterner and more reticent nature would not yield them the expression in which Jefferies found relief.

  In the last of his published letters, written for him by his sister’s hand some six weeks before his death, we see the indomitable spirit which upheld him through all:

  “21st March 1862.—I thank you for your very kind letter, which, ever since I received it, I have intended to answer before I died, however briefly. I am encouraged to know that, so far as you are concerned, I have not written my books in vain. I was particularly gratified, some years ago, when one of my friends and neighbors said, ‘I wish you would write another book—write it for me.’ He is actually more familiar with what I have written than I am myself.

  “I am pleased when you say that in the Week you like especially ‘those little snatches of poetry interspersed through the book,’ for these, I suppose, are the least attractive to most readers. I have not been engaged in any particular work on botany, or the like, though, if I were to live, should have much to report on natural history generally.

  “You ask particularly after my health. I suppose that I have not many months to live; but, of course, I know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.”

  It was on 6th May 1862, a beautiful spring morning, that the end came. At eight o’clock, shortly after enjoying the odour of a bunch of hyacinths from a friend’s garden, he asked to be raised upright in his bed; his breathing became gradually fainter and fainter, until he died without pain or struggle in the presence of his mother and sister, his last audible words being “moose” and “Indian”—the thought still intent on the scenes that had detained it so long.

  He was buried, beside his brother John, in “Sleepy Hollow,” the quiet Concord burial-ground, close to the spot which became the grave of Nathaniel Hawthorne two years later. An address was given at the funeral by Emerson,7 who paid a just and noble tribute to the genius of his friend, and one of Thoreau’s poems, “Sic Vita,” was read by Alcott. “While we walked in procession up to the church,” says one who was present8 “though the bell tolled the forty-four years he had numbered, we could not deem that he was dead whose ideas and sentiments were so vivid in our souls. As the fading image of pathetic clay lay before us, strewn with wild-flowers and forest sprigs, thoughts of its former occupant seemed blent with all the local landscapes. We still recall with emotion the tributary words so fitly spoken by friendly and illustrious lips. The hands of friends reverently lowered the body of the lonely poet into the bosom of the earth, on the pleasant hill-side of his native village, whose prospects will long wait to unfurl themselves to another observer so competent to discriminate their features, and so attuned to their moods.” His grave is marked by a red stone, which bears no inscription but his name and date of death.

  Thoreau’s collections of plants, Indian relics, and the like, were bequeathed by him to the Society of Natural History at Boston, of which he was an honorary member. The family business of pencil-making was carried on for some years after his death by his sister Sophia, who herself lived till 1876. The last remaining member of the family was Miss Maria Thoreau, the sister of Thoreau’s father, who outlived her brother and her brother’s children, and died in Maine at an advanced age in 1881. But though the family is thus extinct in New England, the name of Thoreau is indelibly associated with the scenes amidst which he lived and died; and it has been well remarked that “the village of Concord is his monument, covered with suitable inscriptions by himself.” A cairn of stones marks the site of the hut on the shore of Walden Pond, where the poet-naturalist spent the two most memorable years of his life, and wrote the greater part of his most memorable volume.9

  The sense of irreparable personal loss, which Thoreau’s death impressed on the minds of those who knew him intimately, is very noticeable in their records of him,—alike in Emerson’s Memoir, and Channing’s “Memorial Verses,” and Sanborn’s Monograph, and the writings of Blake, Ricketson, and Alcott.10 Perhaps there is no better expression of this feeling than in Louisa Alcott’s beautiful stanzas on “Thoreau’s Flute”:

“We sighing said, Our Pan is dead;
His pipe hangs mute beside the river,
Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music’s airy voice is fled.
Spring mourns as for untimely frost:
The bluebird chants a requiem;
The willow-blossom waits for him;
The Genius of the wood is lost.’

“Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
There came a low harmonious breath;
‘For such as he there is no death;
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man’s aims his nature rose.
The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent,
And turned to poetry life’s prose.

. . . . . . .

“‘To him no vain regrets belong
Whose soul, that finer instrument,
Gave to the world no poor lament,
But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
O lonely friend! he still will be
A potent presence, though unseen
Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;
Seek not for him-he is with thee.’”

  “My greatest skill,” says Thoreau himself, in words that might well stand as his epitaph, “has been to want but little. For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it. And then I think of those amongst men who will know that I love them, though I tell them not.”

1 The Liberator of 4th Nov. 1859 contains an account of this lecture at Boston. “This exciting theme,” it says, “seemed to have awakened ‘the hermit of Concord’ from his usual state of philosophic indifference, and he spoke with real enthusiasm for an hour and a half. A very large audience listened to this lecture, crowding the hall half an hour before the time of its commencement, and giving hearty applause to some of the most energetic expressions of the speaker.”
2 Quoted in Sanborn’s Life and Letters of John Brown, 1885.
3 These speeches may be read in Echoes from Harper’s Ferry, Boston, 1860.
4 John Burroughs, in the Century.
5 Yet Professor Nichol (American Literature) speaks of Thoreau as “lethargic, self-complacently defiant, and too nearly a stoico-epicurean adiaphorist (!) to discompose himself in party or even in national strifes.” Full justice is done to this zeal in the anti-slavery cause by Dr. Japp (H. A. Page) in his book on Thoreau.
6 Hours of Spring, 1886.
7 Afterwards published in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1862, and prefixed to Excursions, 1863.
8 W. R. Alger: Solitudes of Nature and of Man.
9 The following is an extract from the journal of the greatest of the many pilgrims who have since visited these scenes. A half-hour at Hawthorne’s and Thoreau’s graves. I got out and went up, of course, on foot, and stood a long while and pondered. They lie close together in a pleasant wooded spot well up the cemetery hill, Sleepy Hollow.’ . . . Then to Walden Pond, that beautifully embower’d sheet of water, and spent over an hour there. On the spot in the woods where Thoreau had his solitary house is now quite a cairn of stones, to mark the place; I too carried one and deposited on the heap.”—Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America, September 1881.
10 It is said that Emerson conversed more often and more tenderly of Thoreau than of any other of his friends.

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