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Henry David Thoreau by John Lautermilch

Henry David Thoreau by John Lautermilch

“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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.” [Walden] – Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau wrote these lines in 1854 and as I read them, I wonder what Thoreau would say today if he knew that his work was heavily quoted on inspirational plaques, social media statuses and other media. I suspect that his response would question whether we read the words and find them appealing or if we might know the words intimately and let them feed our souls.

My focus with the Pretzels & Bullfights articles is to lead us on a journey through poetic movements. Last month, we began our exploration of Transcendentalism, a literary movement that occurred to the greatest extent in America concurrent with the early Romantic period. Transcendentalists believed that knowledge was not limited to what is experienced through the senses but also grew from intuition and contemplation of the spirit.

True to the foundation of the Romantic Period, the transcendentalist understanding of truth incorporated the Romantic reliance on the natural world as a platform of expression. Authors and poets in the Transcendentalist period viewed the hardships of life and limitations of society as barriers between self and spirit. They absorbed the natural world as a way to free thought from distracting influences. As a result of moving beyond limitations, the human mind and spirit could grow beyond all imagined potential.

Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 and true to his life-long beliefs, it is said that one of his first memories was of viewing the night sky “looking through the stars to see if I could see God behind them.” (I would wish such wondrous memories for any child.) His father managed a pencil factory while his mother rented rooms for income to help support the four children and household. Thoreau was very close to his only brother, John, who paid tuition for Henry to attend Harvard College.

While at Harvard, Henry read a small book titled “Nature” that was written by his neighbor and future friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Nature” struck such a chord with Thoreau’s beliefs that he continued to explore the thoughts expressed for the remainder of his life. Through his friendship with Emerson, Thoreau learned of Transcendentalism and as a result, became one of the most influential Transcendentalist writers of all time.

Unlike Emerson who was the reluctant father of the Transcendentalist movement, Thoreau did not exist quietly in the shadows. Not only was Thoreau an American author, poet, and philosopher, but he was also an abolitionist and tax resister. He authored the essay “Civil Disobedience” as an argument for individual resistance to civil government as a moral opposition to an unjust state. He lectured against the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the work of leading abolitionists.

“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; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For

In 1845, Thoreau moved to a small hut that he built for himself on property owned by Emerson, Walden Pond, where he lived in solitude for two years. He needed to remove himself from distractions to concentrate on his thoughts and writing and the urgent need to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 at Emerson’s request. He moved into the Emerson house to help manage the household while Emerson was on an extended trip to Europe.

Over several years, Thoreau continuously revised his manuscript, tediously compressing the two years, two months and two days that he spent at Walden Pond into a single calendar year. He used the passage of four seasons to symbolize human development. In 1854, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods.

Although Thoreau devoted much of his creative energy to his book, he was also a poet, philosopher and essayist. Many of Thoreau’s poems were published in The Dial (1840-1844), a transcendentalist magazine. I’ve selected the following poem to share as an example of his poetry.

The Inward Morning

Packed in my mind lie all the clothes
Which outward nature wears,
And in its fashion’s hourly change
It all things else repairs.

In vain I look for change abroad,
And can no difference find,
Till some new ray of peace uncalled
Illumes my inmost mind.

What is it gilds the trees and clouds,
And paints the heavens so gay,
But yonder fast-abiding light
With its unchanging ray?

Lo, when the sun streams through the wood,
Upon a winter’s morn,
Where’er his silent beams intrude,
The murky night is gone.

How could the patient pine have known
The morning breeze would come,
Or humble flowers anticipate
The insect’s noonday hum–

Till the new light with morning cheer
From far streamed through the aisles,
And nimbly told the forest trees
For many stretching miles?

I’ve heard within my inmost soul
Such cheerful morning news,
In the horizon of my mind
Have seen such orient hues,

As in the twilight of the dawn,
When the first birds awake,
Are heard within some silent wood,
Where they the small twigs break,

Or in the eastern skies are seen,
Before the sun appears,
The harbingers of summer heats
Which from afar he bears.

– Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s work demands that the reader feel the depth of the lines. His journals are prime examples of the beauty of prose while his poetry infuses nature in each breath. I’m Beth Winter and I thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights as I aim the spotlight on Henry David Thoreau.

“Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And the next thing you’ll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you’ll be in as much trouble as I am!” – Henry David Thoreau


American Transcendentalism Web
Henry David Thoreau Online
The Literature Network
John Laudermilch
Emerson Central