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

Page 94 of 99

Not only must men talk, but for the most part must talk about talk,---even about books, or dead and buried talk. Sometimes my friend expects a few periods from me. Is he exorbitant? He thinks it is my turn now. Sometimes my companion thinks he has said a good thing, but I don't see the difference. He looks just as he did before. Well, it is no loss. I suppose he has plenty more.

Then I have seen very near and intimate, very old friends introduced by very old strangers, with liberty given to talk. The stranger, who knows only the countersign, says, "Jonas---Eldred," giving those names which will make a title good in a court of law. (It may be presumed that God does not know the Christian names of men.) Then Jonas, like a ready soldier, makes a remark,---a benediction on the weather it may be,---and Eldred swiftly responds, and unburdens his breast, and so the action begins. They bless God and nature many times gratuitously, and part mutually well pleased, leaving their cards. They did not happen to be present at each other's christening.

Sometimes I have listened so attentively and with so much interest to the whole expression of a man that I did not hear one word he was saying, and saying too with the more vivacity observing my attention.

But a man may be an object of interest to me though his tongue is pulled out by the roots. 462

Men sometimes do as if they could eject themselves like bits of pack-thread from the end of the tongue.

Scholars have for the most part a diseased way of looking at the world. They mean by it a few cities and unfortunate assemblies of men and women, who might all be concealed in the grass of the prairies. They describe this world as old or new, healthy or diseased, according to the state of their libraries,---a little dust more or less on their shelves. When I go abroad from under this shingle or slate roof, I find several things which they have not considered. Their conclusions seem imperfect.

As with two eyes we see and with two ears we hear, with the like advantage is man added to man. Making no complaint, offering no encouragement, one human being is made aware of the neighboring and contemporaneous existence of another. Such is the tenderness of friendship. We never recognize each other as finite and imperfect beings, but with a smile and as strangers. My intercourse with men is governed by the same laws with my intercourse with nature.

Buonaparte said that the three-o'clock-in-the-morning courage was the rarest, but I cannot agree with him.[499] Fear does not awake so early. Few men are so degenerate as to balk nature by not beginning the day well.

I hold in my hands a recent volume of essays and 463 poems, in its outward aspect like the thousands which the press sends forth, and, if the gods permitted their own inspiration to be breathed in vain, this might be forgotten in the mass, but the accents of truth are as sure to be heard on earth as in heaven. The more I read it the more I am impressed by its sincerity, its depth and grandeur. It already seems ancient and has lost the traces of its modern birth. It is an evidence of many virtues in the writer. More serenely and humbly confident, this man has listened to the inspiration which all may hear, and with greater fidelity reported it. It is therefore a true prophecy, and shall at length come to pass. It has the grandeur of the Greek tragedy, or rather its Hebrew original, yet it is not necessarily referred to any form of faith. The slumbering, heavy depth of its sentences is perhaps without recent parallel. It lies like the sward in its native pasture, where its roots are never disturbed, and not spread over a sandy embankment.

On fields o'er which the reaper's hand has passed,

Lit by the harvest moon and autumn sun,

My thoughts like stubble floating in the wind

And of such fineness as October airs,

There, after harvest, could I glean my life,

A richer harvest reaping without toil,

And weaving gorgeous fancies at my will,

In subtler webs than finest summer haze.

In October the air is really the fine element the poets describe.[500] The fields emit a dry and temperate 464 odor. There is something in the refined and elastic air which reminds us of a work of art. It is like a verse of Anacreon or a tragedy of schylus.

All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden's hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!

I hate museums; there is nothing so weighs upon my spirits. They are the catacombs of nature. One green bud of spring, one willow catkin, one faint trill from a migrating sparrow would set the world on its legs again. The life that is in a single green weed is of more worth than all this death. They are dead nature collected by dead men. I know not whether I muse most at the bodies stuffed with cotton and sawdust or those stuffed with bowels and fleshy fibre outside the cases.

Where is the proper herbarium, the true cabinet of shells, and museum of skeletons, but in the meadow where the flower bloomed, by the seaside where the tide cast up the fish, and on the hills and in the valleys where the beast laid down its life and the skeleton of the traveller reposes on the grass? What right have mortals to parade these things on their legs again, with their wires, and, when heaven has decreed that they shall return to dust again, to return them to sawdust? Would you have a dried specimen of a world, or a pickled one?

Embalming is a sin against heaven and earth,---against heaven, who has recalled the soul and set free the servile elements, and against the earth, which is 465 thus robbed of her dust. I have had my right-perceiving senses so disturbed in these haunts as to mistake a veritable living man for a stuffed specimen, and surveyed him with dumb wonder as the strangest of the whole collection. For the strangest is that which, being in many particulars most like, is in some essential particular most unlike.

It is one great and rare merit in the old English tragedy that it says something. The words slide away very fast, but toward some conclusion. It has to do with things, and the reader feels as if he were advancing. It does not make much odds what message the author has to deliver at this distance of time, since no message can startle us, but how he delivers it,---that it be done in a downright and manly way. They come to the point and do not waste the time.

They say that Carew was a laborious writer, but his poems do not show it. They are finished, but do not show the marks of the chisel. Drummond was indeed a quiddler, with little fire or fibre, and rather a taste for poetry than a taste of it.

After all, we draw on very gradually in English literature to Shakespeare, through Peele and Marlowe, to say nothing of Raleigh and Spenser and Sidney. We hear the same great tone already sounding to which Shakespeare added a serener wisdom and clearer expression. Its chief characteristics of reality and unaffected manliness are there. The more we read of the 466 literature of those times, the more does acquaintance divest the genius of Shakespeare of the in some measure false mystery which has thickened around it, and leave it shrouded in the grander mystery of daylight. His critics have for the most part made their [sic] contemporaries less that they might make Shakespeare more.

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