The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume VII (of 20)

Page 77 of 99

There is a memorable interval between the written and the spoken language, the language read and the language heard. The one is transient, a sound, a tongue, a dialect, and all men learn it of their mothers. It is loquacious, fragmentary,---raw material. The other is a reserved, select, matured expression, a deliberate word addressed to the ear of nations and generations. The one is natural and convenient, the other divine and instructive. The clouds flit here below, genial, refreshing with their showers and gratifying with their tints,---alternate sun and shade, a grosser heaven adapted to our trivial wants; but above them repose the blue firmament and the stars. The stars are written words and stereotyped on the blue parchment of the skies; the fickle clouds that hide them from our view, which we on this side need, though heaven does not, these are our daily colloquies, our vaporous, garrulous breath.

Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. The herd of men, the generations who speak the Greek and Latin, are not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius, whose mother tongue speaks everywhere, and is learned by every child who hears. The army of the Greeks and Latins are not coternary, though contemporary, with Homer and Plato, Virgil and Cicero. In the transition ages, nations who loudest spoke the Greek and Latin tongues, whose mother's milk they were, learned not 370 their nobler dialects, but a base and vulgar speech. The men of the Middle Ages who spoke so glibly the language of the Roman and, in the Eastern Empire, of the Athenian mob, prized only a cheap contemporary learning. The classics of both languages were virtually lost and forgotten. When, after the several nations of Europe had acquired in some degree rude and original languages of their own, sufficient for the arts of life and conversation, then the few scholars beheld with advantage from this more distant standpoint the treasures of antiquity, and a new Latin age commenced, the era of reading. Those works of genius were then first classical. All those millions who had spoken Latin and Greek had not read Latin and Greek. The time had at length arrived for the written word, the scripture, to be heard. What the multitude could not hear, after the lapse of centuries a few scholars read. This is the matured thought which was not spoken in the market-place, unless it be in a market-place where the free genius of mankind resorts to-day. There is something very choice and select in a written word. No wonder Alexander carried his Homer in a precious casket on his expeditions. A word which may be translated into every dialect, and suggests a truth to every mind, is the most perfect work of human art; and as it may be breathed and taken on our lips, and, as it were, become the product of our physical organs, as its sense is of our intellectual, it is the nearest to life itself.[394] It is the simplest and purest channel by which a revelation may be transmitted from age to age. How it subsists itself whole and undiminished till the 371 intelligent reader is born to decipher it! There are the tracks of Zoroaster, of Confucius and Moses, indelible in the sands of the remotest times.

There are no monuments of antiquity comparable to the classics for interest and importance. It does not need that the scholar should be an antiquarian, for these works of art have such an immortality as the works of nature, and are modern at the same time that they are ancient, like the sun and stars, and occupy by right no small share of the present. This palpable beauty is the treasured wealth of the world and the proper inheritance of each generation. Books, the oldest and the best, stand rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have not to plead their cause, but they enlighten their readers and it is gained. When the illiterate and scornful rustic earns his imagined leisure and wealth, he turns inevitably at last---he or his children---to these still higher and yet inaccessible circles; and even when his descendant has attained to move in the highest rank of the wise men of his own age and country, he will still be sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and inefficiency of his intellectual wealth, if his genius will not permit him to listen with somewhat of the equanimity of an equal to the fames of godlike men, which yet, as it were, form an invisible upper class in every society.[395]

I have carried an apple in my pocket to-night---a sopsivine, they call it---till, now that I take my handkerchief 372 out, it has got so fine a fragrance that it really seems like a friendly trick of some pleasant dmon to entertain me with.[396] It is redolent of sweet-scented orchards, of innocent, teeming harvests. I realize the existence of a goddess Pomona, and that the gods have really intended that men should feed divinely, like themselves, on their own nectar and ambrosia. They have so painted this fruit, and freighted it with such a fragrance, that it satisfies much more than an animal appetite. Grapes, peaches, berries, nuts, etc., are likewise provided for those who will sit at their sideboard. I have felt, when partaking of this inspiring diet, that my appetite was an indifferent consideration; that eating became a sacrament, a method of communion, an ecstatic exercise, a mingling of bloods, and [a] sitting at the communion table of the world; and so have not only quenched my thirst at the spring but the health of the universe.

The indecent haste and grossness with which our food is swallowed have cast a disgrace on the very act of eating itself. But I do believe that, if this process were rightly conducted, its aspect and effects would be wholly changed, and we should receive our daily life and health, Antus-like, with an ecstatic delight, and, with upright front, an innocent and graceful behavior, take our strength from day to day. This fragrance of the apple in my pocket has, I confess, deterred me from eating of it. I am more effectually fed by it another way.

It is, indeed, the common notion that this fragrance 373 is the only food of the gods, and inasmuch as we are partially divine we are compelled to respect it.

Tell me, ye wise ones, if ye can,

Whither and whence the race of man.

For I have seen his slender clan

Clinging to hoar hills with their feet,

Threading the forest for their meat.

Moss and lichens, bark and grain

They rake together with might and main,

And they digest them with anxiety and pain.

I meet them in their rags and unwashed hair,

Instructed to eke out their scanty fare---

Brave race---with a yet humbler prayer.

Beggars they are, aye, on the largest scale.

They beg their daily bread at heaven's door,

And if their this year's crop alone should fail,

They neither bread nor begging would know more.

They are the titmen of their race,

And hug the vales with mincing pace

Like Troglodytes, and fight with cranes.

We walk 'mid great relations' feet.

What they let fall alone we eat.

We are only able

To catch the fragments from their table.

These elder brothers of our race,

By us unseen, with larger pace

Walk o'er our heads, and live our lives,

Embody our desires and dreams,

Anticipate our hoped-for gleams.

We grub the earth for our food. 374

We know not what is good.

Where does the fragrance of our orchards go,

Our vineyards, while we toil below?

A finer race and finer fed

Feast and revel above our head.

The tints and fragrance of the flowers and fruits

Are but the crumbs from off their table,

While we consume the pulp and roots.

Sometimes we do assert our kin,

And stand a moment where once they have been.

We hear their sounds and see their sights,

And we experience their delights.

But for the moment that we stand

Astonished on the Olympian land,

We do discern no traveller's face,

No elder brother of our race,

To lead us to the monarch's court

And represent our case;

But straightway we must journey back,

Retracing slow the arduous track,

Without the privilege to tell,

Even, the sight we know so well.[397]

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