Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 4



LECTURE 4

 

29 November 1843, Wednesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Unitarian Church, Vestry
“ANCIENT POETS”

 

NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 25 October 1843, Ralph Waldo Emerson, then serving as curator for the Concord Lyceum, wrote to Thoreau, “If as we have heard, you will come home to Thanksgiving, you must bring something that will serve for Lyceum lecture—the craving thankless town!” In the same letter, Emerson asked, “Where are my translations of Pindar for the Dial? Fail not to send me something good and strong” (C, p. 149). Since May of that year, Thoreau had been residing in the Staten Island home of Emerson’s brother William, tutoring the family’s children, attempting to establish contacts with the literary world of New York City, and battling both illness and an equally chronic homesickness. Emerson soon had his answer because on 8 November he and the other two curators were able to announce the first seven lectures in what would eventually expand to an eighteen-lecture season, with “H. D. Thoreau, of New York city” slated for the fourth presentation on 29 November (see advertisement below). Thoreau left New York City for Concord on 15 November, purportedly for a holiday visit. When he returned to Staten Island in early December, however, it was for two weeks only, enough time to retrieve his belongings and end both his employment and his residence away from Concord. As noted by Lyceum secretary A. G. Fay, “Nov. 29th A Lecture was read before the Lyceum by H. D. Thoreau upon the Ancient Poets” (MassLyc, p. 158). In January of 1844, Thoreau published a condensed version of his lecture in the Dial, “condensed” because under the title of the essay he wrote, “Extracts from a Lecture on Poetry, Read before the Concord Lyceum, November 29, 1843, by Henry D. Thoreau” (EEM, p. 154). Also in that issue of the Dial was his translation of Pindar requested by Emerson three months earlier.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The following advertisement appeared in the Concord Freeman on 10, 17, and 24 November 1843:

CONCORD LYCEUM.
The Curators are enabled to announce the following Lectures:
 Wednesday Evening, Nov. 8, introductory lecture by Dr. Chs. Jackson, of Boston. Agricultural Chemistry
 Thursday Evening, Nov. 16, R. W. Emerson, of Concord. New England Character.
 Thursday Evening, Nov. 23, O. A. Brownson, of Boston. On Demagogues.
 Wednesday Evening, Nov. 29, H. D. Thoreau, of New York city.
 Thursday Evening, Dec. 7, Rev. Henry Giles, of England. Daniel O’Connel and Irish agitation.
 Thursday Evening, Dec. 14, Rev. Henry Giles, of England.
 Wednesday Evening, Dec. 20, John S. Keyes, Esq., of Concord.
 The lectures will commence precisely at 7 o’clock.—All interested are invited to attend.

 
Curators,
 
Samuel Hoar,
R. W. EMERSON,
Chas. W. Goodnow.
Concord, Nov. 8, ’43.

In a review of the Dial in the 25 January 1844 New-York Daily Tribune, the printed version of Thoreau’s lecture was singled out for praise: “We deeply desire to quote many pages, by different writers, from this number, but must be content for to-day with the following extracts from a Lecture on Poetry, by HENRY D. THOREAU, a young disciple and companion of Emerson, in whom the true spirit of the author’s philosophy is reproduced, without the egotism and indifference to practical life we have regretted to see it cherish in less genial natures.”
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The manuscript leaves Thoreau read from apparently were lost as a consequence either of his submitting them as printer’s copy for the Dial or of his using them in writing one or another of the early drafts of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. We know from the title of the essay version of the lecture in the Dial that at least three of the “Ancient Poets” Thoreau lectured on were Homer, Ossian, and Chaucer; no evidence exists to indicate that he lectured on any other poets, ancient or otherwise. Very likely, the authoritative text of the essay, “Homer. Ossian. Chaucer.” in EEM (pp. 154-73), which takes between thirty-five and forty minutes to read aloud, represents somewhat more than half of the lecture Thoreau read.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission