Thoreau’s castles in the air (Walden 201)

I’m going to quote a well-quoted paragraph in which Thoreau sums up much of the content of Walden. Taken by itself — if you’re coming to this page without having read the rest of the book… well, read the paragraph and then I’ll tell you what I have in mind: Continue reading

Why Thoreau left the woods (Walden 200)

“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.”

I never noticed until now that he says “Perhaps it seemed to me” instead of just “It seemed to me.” Is he being coy? Does he not want to get into the whole thing about the Emersons? Or is he admitting that’s it’s often hard to know the full reasons why we do what we do?

Several years after moving back to town (but before publishing Walden) he wrote in his journal (January 22, 1852): Continue reading

“Patriotism is a maggot in their heads” and thoughts on exploration (Walden 199)

Last time I ended with this: “Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.” Thoreau has been talking about travel and discovery, but we soon realize that he’s talking about self-discovery, and he follows with this startling passage:

“Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.”

It’s hard to know where to begin. To me at least, it seems like he’s trying to say a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t get any less complicated after the quoted passage. Continue reading

A change of scenery: Thoreau leaves Walden (Walden 198)

Why did Thoreau leave Walden Pond after two and a half years?

Within a month of moving out of his little “hut,” he was back living at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house. Biographer Robert Richardson says “he may have left the pond for no better reason than that Lydia Emerson had invited him to spend the winter helping out while her husband was away in Europe.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 185).

Even if true, of course, Henry wasn’t going to write that. Likely his reasons were complex. He was restless, and though he had accomplished much at Walden (writing his first and as yet unpublished book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, plus early drafts of Walden), his publishing credits were thin. As far as anyone else was concerned, he had little to show for his thirty years of living. He begins the Conclusion: Continue reading

What does Thoreau mean by “Compassion is a very untenable ground”? (Walden 197)

Thoreau believed strongly that we need to witness the power of nature, to observe how it transgresses our limits. And this includes seeing what we perceive as the darker and more grotesque side of nature. As we come to the end of the chapter “Spring,” he’s about to say something startling, something which, if taken out of context, would seem callous and offensive — we’ll get to that a little later. “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Are you cheered when you see vultures circling in the sky, or feasting on road kill? Continue reading

The tonic of wildness (Walden 196)

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden Continue reading

Hawk in flight (Walden 195)

It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it.

Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons

Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons

I observed a very slight and graceful hawk, like a nighthawk,
alternately soaring like a ripple and
a rod or two
over and over,
showing the under side of its wings,
which gleamed like a satin ribbon in the sun,
or like the pearly inside of a shell… Continue reading