Henry David Thoreau: as American Naturalist-Poet

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      LIFE.—Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) America's poet-naturalist, was born in 1817 at Concord, Massachusetts. He was one of the youngest of the famous Concord group of writers and the only one who could claim Concord as his birthplace He was a lifelong student of nature, and he loved the district around Concord. As a boy he knew its woods and streams because he had hunted and fished in them. After his graduation from Harvard in 1837, he substituted for the fishing rod and gun, the spyglass, microscope, measuring tape, and surveying instruments, and continued his out-of-door investigations.

Henry David Thoreau, American Naturalist-Poet
Henry David Thoreau

      Thoreau taught school with his brother and lectured, but in order to add to his slender income also did work unusual for a Harvard graduate, such as odd jobs of carpentering, planting trees, and surveying. He also assisted his father in his business of pencil making, and together they made the best pencils in New England. Whatever he undertook, he did thoroughly. He had no tolerance for the shoddy or for compromises. Exact workmanship was part of his religion. "Drive a nail home," he writes in Walden, "and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction."

      Like so many of the transcendentalists, Thoreau desired to surround his life with a "wide margin of leisure" in order that he might live in his higher faculties and not be continuously dwarfed with the mere drudgery of earning his sustenance. He determined to divest himself of as many of the burdens of civilization as possible, to lead the simple life, and to waste the least possible time in the making of mere money. The leisure thus secured, he spent in studying birds, plants, trees, fish, and other objects of nature, in jotting down a record of his experiences, and in writing books.

      Since he did not marry and incur responsibilities for others, he was free to choose his own manner of life. His regular habit was to reserve half of every day for walking in the woods; but for two years and two months he lived alone in the forest, in a small house that he himself built upon a piece of Emerson's property beside Walden Pond, about a mile south of Concord. Thoreau found that he could earn enough in six weeks to support himself in this simple way for the rest of the year. He thus acquired the leisure to write books that are each year read with increasing interest. The record of his life at Walden forms the basis for his best known work. A few people practice the return to nature for a short time, but Thoreau spent his available life with nature.

      He was a pronounced individualist, carrying out Emerson's doctrine by becoming independent of others' opinions. What he thought right, he said or did. He disapproved, for example, of slavery, and consequently refused to pay his poll tax to a government that upheld slavery. When he was imprisoned because of non-payment, Emerson visited him and asked, "Why are you here, Henry?" Thoreau merely replied, "Why are you not here?"

      His intense individualism made him angular, and his transcendental love of isolation caused him to declare that he had never found "the companion that was so companionable as solitude"; but he was, nevertheless, spicy, original, loyal to friends, a man of deep family affection, stoical in his ability to stand privations, and Puritanic in his conviction about the moral aim of life. His last illness, induced by exposure to cold, confined him for months away from the out of doors that he loved. In 1862, at the age of forty-five, he said, as he lay on his deathbed, "When I was a very little boy, I learned that I must die, and I set that down, so, of course, I am not disappointed now." He was buried not far from Emerson's lot in the famous Sleepy Hollow cemetery at Concord.

      WORKS.—Only two of his books were published during his lifetime. These were A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854). The first of these, usually referred to as The Week, is the record of a week spent in a rowboat on the rivers mentioned in the title. The clearness and exactness of the descriptions are remarkable. Whenever he investigated nature, he took faithful notes so that when he came to write a more extended description or a book, he might have something more definite than vague memory impressions on which to rely. When he describes in The Week a mere patch of the river bank, this definiteness of observation is manifest:—

 "The dead limbs of the willow were rounded and adorned by the climbing milkania, Milkania scandens, which filled every crevice in the leafy bank, contrasting agreeably with the gray bark of its supporter and the balls of the button-bush."

      This book did not prove popular, and almost three fourths of the edition were left on his hands. This unfortunate venture caused him to say, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which were written by myself."

      Walden is the book by which Thoreau is best known. It is crisper, livelier, more concise and humorous, and less given to introspective philosophizing than The Week. Walden, New England's Utopia, is the record of Thoreau's experiment in endeavoring to live an ideal life in the forest. This book differs from most of its kind in presenting actual life, in not being mainly evolved from the inner consciousness on the basis of a very little experience. He thus states the reason why he withdrew to the forest:—

 "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear."

      His food during his twenty-six months of residence there cost him twenty-seven cents a week. "I learned," he says, "from my two years' experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one's necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength…. I am convinced both by faith and experience that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship, but a pastime." This book has, directly or indirectly, caused more to desire the simple life and a return to nature than any other work in American literature.

      In Walden he speaks of himself as a "self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms." His companionship with nature became so intimate as to cause him to say, "Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me." When a sparrow alighted upon his shoulder, he exclaimed, "I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." When nature had some special celebration with the trees, such as decking them with snow or ice or the first buds of spring, he frequently tramped eight or ten miles "to keep an appointment with a beech-tree or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines." It is amusing to read how on such a walk he disturbed the daytime slumbers of a large owl, how the bird opened its eyes wide, "but their lids soon fell again, and he began to nod," and how a sympathetic hypnotization began to take effect on Thoreau. "I too," he says, "felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour, as he sat thus with his eyes half open, like a cat, winged brother of the cat."

      In spite of some Utopian philosophy and too much insistence on the self-sufficiency of the individual, Walden has proved a regenerative force in the lives of many readers who have not passed the plastic stage. The book develops a love for even commonplace natural objects, and, like poetry, discloses a new world of enjoyment. Walden is Thoreau's most vital combination of his poetic apprehension of wild nature with his philosophy and aggressive individualism.

      Almost all of his work is autobiographical, a record of actual experience. The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866) are records of his tramps in the places named in the titles-, but these works do not possess the interest of Walden.

      His voluminous manuscript Journal is an almost daily record of his observations of nature, mingled with his thoughts, from the time when he left college until his last sickness. At periods for nearly fifty years after his death, various works have been compiled from this Journal. The volumes published under the titles, Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881), Summer (1884), Winter (1887), Autumn (1892), and Notes on New England Birds (1910) were not arranged by him in their present form. Editors searched his Journal for entries dealing with the same season or type of life, and put these in the same volume. Sometimes, as, for instance, in Winter, paragraphs separated by an interval of nineteen years in composition become neighbors. In spite of the somewhat fragmentary nature of these works, lovers of Thoreau become intensely interested in them. His Journal in the form in which he left it was finally published in 1906, in fourteen volumes containing 6811 printed pages. He differs from the majority of writers because the interest in his work increases with the passing of the years.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Thoreau's object was to discover how to live a rich, full life with a broad margin of leisure. Intimate companionship with nature brought this secret to him, and he has taught others to increase the joys of life from sympathetic observation of everyday occurrences.

      A mere unimaginative naturalist may be a bore; but Thoreau regarded nature with the eyes of a poet. His ear was thrilled with the vesper song of the whippoorwill, the lisping of the chickadee among the evergreens, and the slumber call of the toads. For him the bluebird "carries the sky on its back." The linnets come to him "bearing summer in their natures." When he asks, "Who shall stand godfather at the christening of the wild apples?" his reply shows rare poetic appreciation of nature's work:—

 "We should have to call in the sunrise and the sunset, the rainbow and the autumn woods and the wild flowers, and the woodpecker and the purple finch and the squirrel and the jay and the butterfly, the November traveler and the truant boy, to our aid."

      He is not only a poet-naturalist, but also a philosopher, who shows the influence of the transcendental school, particularly of Emerson. Some of Thoreau's philosophy is impractical and too unsocial, but it aims to discover the underlying basis of enchantment. He thus sums up the philosophy which his life at Walden taught him:—

 "I learned this at least by my experiment—that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

      The reason why he left Walden shows one of his pronounced transcendental characteristics, a dread of repetition. He gives an account of only his first year of life there, and adds, "the second year was similar to it." He says:—

 "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond side."

      He does not demand that other human beings shall imitate him in devoting their lives to a study of nature. He says, "Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour." He thus expresses his conception of the fundamental basis of happiness in any of the chosen avenues of life:—

 "Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails."

      His insistence on the necessity of a moral basis for a happy life is a characteristic that he shared in common with the great authors of the New England group, but he had his own individual way of impressing this truth. He thought life too earnest a quest to tolerate the frivolous or the dilettante, and he issued his famous warning that no one can "kill time without injuring eternity." His aim in studying nature was not so much scientific discovery as the revelation of nature's joyous moral message to the spiritual life of man. He may have been unable to distinguish between the song of the wood thrush and the hermit thrush. To him the most important fact was that the thrush is a rare poet, singing of "the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest." "The thrush sings," says Thoreau, in his Journal, "to make men take higher and truer views of things."

      The sterling honesty and directness of Thoreau's character are reflected in his style. He says, "The one great rule of composition—and if I were a professor of rhetoric I should insist on this—is to speak the truth." This was his aim in presenting the results of the experience of his soul, as well as of his senses. If he exaggerated the importance of a certain way of regarding things, he did so only because he thought the exaggeration was necessary to secure attention for that particular truth, which would even then not be apprehended at its full value. His style has a peculiar flavor, difficult to describe. Lowell's characterization of Thoreau's style has hardly been surpassed. "His range was narrow, but to be a master is to be a master. There are sentences of his as perfect as anything in the language, and thoughts as clearly crystallized; his metaphors and images are always fresh from the soil."

      Thoreau's style shows remarkable power of description. No American has surpassed him in unique description of the most varied incidents in the procession of all the seasons. We shall find frequent illustrations of this power scattered through his Journal:—

 "June 1, 1857. I hear the note of a bobolink concealed in the top of an apple tree behind me…. He is just touching the strings of his theorbo, his glassichord, his water organ, and one or two notes globe themselves and fall in liquid bubbles from his teeming throat. It is as if he touched his harp within a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the trembling string … the meadow is all bespattered with melody. His notes fall with the apple blossoms, in the orchard."

      Even more characteristic is an entry in his Journal for June 11, 1840, where he tries to fathom the consciousness of the solitary bittern:—

 "With its patient study by rocks and sandy capes, has it wrested the whole of her secret from Nature yet? It has looked out from its dull eye for so long, standing on one leg, on moon and stars sparkling through silence and dark, and now what a rich experience is its! What says it of stagnant pools, and reeds, and damp night fogs? It would be worth while to look in the eye which has been open and seeing in such hours and in such solitudes. When I behold that dull yellowish green, I wonder if my own soul is not a bright invisible green. I would fain lay my eye side by side with its and learn of it."

      In this entry, which was probably never revised for publication, we note three of his characteristics: his images "fresh from the soil," adding vigor to his style; his mystic and poetic communion with nature; and the peculiar transcendental desire to pass beyond human experience and to supplement it with new revelations of the gospel of nature.

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