Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


The Hermit of Walden*

Twenty miles to the north-west of Boston, lies the village of Concord, the home of the most incisive writer and truest thinker of the west. For this is the home of Emerson; here lovely nature spoke to him, and her he loved well and cherished, and taught the world to reverence. And his teaching was not unheeded; for he had as his disciple the most devoted lover that nature had known, one who has not yet gained the fulness of his praise, whose genius is not yet fully recognised, whose life was shortened by the ardour of his devotion to his love, which made him spend cold wet days along the hillsides, long hours of storm on the river, dark nights of cloud and lightning in the woods, that he might know her the better and tell us of her beauty as none other before him has ever done.

In the woods more than a mile from the village of Concord, Walden Pond is sheltered under a hillside covered with pines. This was the home, or at least the dwelling place, of this lover of nature and thought. Hither he came, in March, 1845, with an axe on his shoulder, and built himself a house, where he could live alone; alone as we should say, but not as he thought, for his only love was with him, nature could be always near to him there, and his strong life needed no man's support.

Henry D. Thoreau was born at Concord in 1817, and graduated at Harvard without honours in 1837. He held our public school education in no very high repute, saying-"It often makes a straight cut ditch out of a free meandering brook." And-"We have a comparatively decent system of common schools-it is time that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women."

He tried two or three different occupations, teaching and land surveying among them, but gave them up, and betook himself to the free life of the woods. He wished to show that a man could live simply and completely by the work of his own hands alone. He lived here by the Pond for a little more than two years, and his book, "Walden" was written during that time, and gives an account of his life there, of his daily work, of his visitors, of the trees, the birds, and, above all, of his thoughts.

We get a clear view of the man from this paragraph by Emerson, whose son in transcendentalism he was:-"Thoreau was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the states; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; he had no temptations to fight against, no appetites, no passion..The bachelor of thought and nature, he chose to be rich by making his wants few and supplying them himself." And again: "The country knows not yet how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task, which none else can accomplish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he was. But he at least is content. His soul was made for the noblest society. He had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world. Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a throne."

There are two ways of looking at such a life; see how the poet Lowell views him:-

"Indolent, unsuccessful, poor, he said activity was mere restlessness, success contemptible, money a curse, and benevolence a superstition. He had no creative imagination, he discovered nothing; but thought every common fact of nature, from moonlight to the planting of acorns by squirrels, a discovery of his own. The itch of originality infected and marred even the charm of his style..He loves the out of the way more than the true, always believes the contrary and wishes to trump your suit."

This is the practical hard-headed politician, the author of the "Biglow Papers," the American Minister at London who speaks without sympathy. Those who have read his books, "Walden," "The Maine Woods," "The Merrimack River," and delighted in his living descriptions will be but little affected by this criticism. The scholarly editor of Harper's Magazine says-"his observation of the phenomena of nature was most thorough, sympathetic and profound, and his descriptions are the best in literature." They are given in slight accurate touches; he makes no show of it, all is simple as nature itself, but a word here and there satisfies our own experience fully and exactly. His master had said, "give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous." Thoreau says, "Let us live as deliberately as nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and musquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or breakfast, gently, and without perturbation..Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows."

"For more than five years" he says "I maintained myself thus, solely by the labour of my hands, and I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study."

He had a sincere and pure purpose in life, and a lofty ideal. And truly he was "tenacem propositi virum," a man steadfast and unflinching, whither his ideal led over rough paths to the lofty upland of simplicity, purity and truth. And he gained his end, accomplished his purpose more than the majority, than the great majority of men. And was not his ideal as high as theirs? Those who live by the day and take thought for the things of the morrow, whose purpose is to die rich and leave their substance unto other, whose ideal is not a "growing and a becoming," but "a having and a resting." Nor may we all teach culture; and it is well that here and there be found one strong soul to lead the spiritual life himself. Look again at his life at Walden: "I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pine and hickories..I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance..My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that 'for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tom-morrow, and overhead for the passing day.' This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting." "The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of the mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music. The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it." "I am no more lonely than the loon on the Pond that laughs so loud. What company has that lonely lake?.And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it." "An elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighbourhood, invisible to most persons, in whose odorous garden I love to stroll sometimes listening to her fables;.for her memory runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell the original of every fable." This reminds one of Longfellow's verses to Agassiz-

And Nature, the old nurse, took
    The child upon her knee,
Saying: "here is a story-book
    Thy father has written for thee.

And he wandered away and away
    With Nature, the dear old nurse,
Who sang to him night and day
    The rhymes of the universe.

Thoreau has given an account of the visitors who came to see "the inside of his house," and "as an excuse for calling, asked for a glass of water." "I told them that I drank at the pond, and pointed thither, offering to lend them a dipper." "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." But the society which gathered there could not always be accommodated with three chairs, for he says, "I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof." Sometimes run-away slaves making towards Canada and the north star; these he helped on their way. Once a Canadian wood-cutter. "A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice and disease which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him." The whole description of him is delightful, it is perfect. He is just such a man as I once met on the upper St. John-a French Canadian who shoved his canoe ashore and lit his pipe at my fire, just a minute, but I can never forget him. "Men of almost every degree of wit called on me. Some who had more wits than they knew what to do with;.men of one idea, like a hen with one chicken, and that a duckling; men of a thousand ideas, and unkempt heads, like those hens which are made to take care of a hundred chickens, all in pursuit of one bug. Men of business thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other."

Thoreau's writings never annoy. When he does not express for you the very sights that you see, and the feelings that accompany them, he proposes some thought so unexpected and novel that you haven't time to resist. He runs against you so directly that you must take it all in good part.

"I have tried trade; but I found that it would take ten years to get under way, and that then I should probably be on my way to the devil." "There is no odour so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with a conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." "If you should ever be betrayed into any of these philanthropies, do not let your left hand know what your right hand does, for it is not worth knowing."

Thoreau tried verse, but his incisiveness could hardly make up for his want of the lyric faculty. The following lines are on the loss of a friend:

"Eternity may not the chance repeat;
    But I must tread my single way alone,
In sad remembrance that we once did meet,
    And know that bliss irrevocably gone."

How pathetic this is: "The youth gets together the materials to build a bridge to the moon, or a temple on the earth, and the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them."

Here is the athlete who is also a thinker: "If you would get exercise go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man swinging dumb-bells for his health when those springs are bubbling in far-off pastures unsought by him. Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking."

These are some of his thoughts on reading: He says "the works of Homer and Virgil are as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost as the morning itself..They only talk of forgetting them who never knew them. It will be soon enough to forget them when we have the learning and the genius which will enable us to attend to and appreciate them. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience..but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing: yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury, and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to." Finally-"If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us."

An English reviewer has called Thoreau a "skulker." But the words of his countryman, the best writer on nature that we now have, are much truer: "Thoreau was a skulker if it appears that he ran away from a noble part to perform an ignoble, or one less noble. The world has a right to the best there is in a man, both in word and deed..Who shall presume, to say the world did not get the best there was in Thoreau-high and much needed service from him? Would you have him stick to school-teaching, and let Walden Pond and the rest go? We should have lost some of the racist and most antiseptic books in English literature, and an example of devotion to principle that provokes and stimulates like a winter morning." The same writer says "He had a deeper centre-board than most men, and carried less sail." "He is for the most part a figure going the other way from that of the eager, money-getting, ambitious crowd."

His master Emerson was the "friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit." And what did Thoreau do but live in the spirit? It is well to have masters to show us higher ways of life, where the morning comes early and the air is clear all the day, but it is better to be strong and go up into the hills and behold the morning for ourselves. Pass Thoreau by if you will, but don't dare to scorn him; he lived an ideal life that we will do well to imitate in many respects. If you doubt the wisdom of his extreme asceticism, on the other hand remember what Caryle says:-"Each one of us here, let the world go how it will, has he not a life of his own to lead? It were well for us not to live as fools and simulacra, but as wise and realities. The world's being saved will not save us, nor the world's being lost destroy us. We should look to ourselves; there being great merit here in the duty of staying at home. And on the whole, to say truth, I never heard of worlds being saved in any other way."

"The Hermit of Walden," University Monthly, Jan. 1884 [back]