Near the end of Walden, Thoreau tells a story, a parable of an artist who decides to make a perfect staff. “Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.”
And so he spends years and years on the project, and “As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him.” His friends grow old and die, but he labors on patiently. His city of Kouroo crumbles, dynasties fall, ages pass, and still he persists.
“When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions….”
The part about time is hyperbole, of course. Though our perception of time is altered when we are deeply involved in something, time will not stop for you, and whatever time you devote to one passion is necessarily subtracted from everything else. Henry recognized this when he left Walden Pond because he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
But here he’s telling us that the slow pursuit of perfection is a worthwhile project. He lived in an age — like ours — in which people were perpetually busy making a living, getting ahead, and dealing with all the crises and demands of their lives. In such a world it’s worthwhile, he believed, to do something slowly and well.
“The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?”
(About “A Year in Walden”)