“Thoreau” — Charles Ives

“Thoreau” — Charles Ives

Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear “the Symphony.” The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity—a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism which teaches slavery. In music, in poetry, in all art, the truth as one sees it must be given in terms which bear some proportion to the inspiration. In their greatest moments the inspiration of both Beethoven and Thoreau express profound truths and deep sentiment, but the intimate passion of it, the storm and stress of it, affected Beethoven in such a way that he could not but be ever showing it and Thoreau that he could not easily expose it. They were equally imbued with it, but with different results. A difference in temperament had something to do with this, together with a difference in the quality of expression between the two arts. “Who that has heard a strain of music feared lest he would speak extravagantly forever,” says Thoreau. Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to emotion … that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but of the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn’t always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective and tends to subjective expression, and poetry more objective tending to objective expression. Hence the poet when his muse calls for a deeper feeling must invert this order, and he may be reluctant to do so as these depths often call for an intimate expression which the physical looks of the words may repel. They tend to reveal the nakedness of his soul rather than its warmth. It is not a matter of the relative value of the aspiration, or a difference between subconsciousness and consciousness but a difference in the arts themselves; for example, a composer may not shrink from having the public hear his “love letter in tones,” while a poet may feel sensitive about having everyone read his “letter in words.” When the object of the love is mankind the sensitiveness is changed only in degree.

But the message of Thoreau, though his fervency may be inconstant and his human appeal not always direct, is, both in thought and spirit, as universal as that of any man who ever wrote or sang—as universal as it is nontemporaneous—as universal as it is free from the measure of history, as “solitude is free from the measure of the miles of space that intervene between man and his fellows.” In spite of the fact that Henry James (who knows almost everything) says that “Thoreau is more than provincial—that he is parochial,” let us repeat that Henry Thoreau, in respect to thought, sentiment, imagination, and soul, in respect to every element except that of place of physical being—a thing that means so much to some—is as universal as any personality in literature. That he said upon being shown a specimen grass from Iceland that the same species could be found in Concord is evidence of his universality, not of his parochialism. He was so universal that he did not need to travel around the world to PROVE it. “I have more of God, they more of the road.” “It is not worth while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” With Marcus Aurelius, if he had seen the present he had seen all, from eternity and all time forever.

Thoreau’s susceptibility to natural sounds was probably greater than that of many practical musicians. True, this appeal is mainly through the sensational element which Herbert Spencer thinks the predominant beauty of music. Thoreau seems able to weave from this source some perfect transcendental symphonies. Strains from the Orient get the best of some of the modern French music but not of Thoreau. He seems more interested in than influenced by Oriental philosophy. He admires its ways of resignation and self-contemplation but he doesn’t contemplate himself in the same way. He often quotes from the Eastern scriptures passages which were they his own he would probably omit, i.e., the Vedas say “all intelligences awake with the morning.” This seems unworthy of “accompanying the undulations of celestial music” found on this same page, in which an “ode to morning” is sung—”the awakening to newly acquired forces and aspirations from within to a higher life than we fell asleep from … for all memorable events transpire in the morning time and in the morning atmosphere.” Thus it is not the whole tone scale of the Orient but the scale of a Walden morning—”music in single strains,” as Emerson says, which inspired many of the polyphonies and harmonies that come to us through his poetry. Who can be forever melancholy “with Aeolian music like this”?

This is but one of many ways in which Thoreau looked to Nature for his greatest inspirations. In her he found an analogy to the Fundamental of Transcendentalism. The “innate goodness” of Nature is or can be a moral influence; Mother Nature, if man will but let her, will keep him straight—straight spiritually and so morally and even mentally. If he will take her as a companion, and teacher, and not as a duty or a creed, she will give him greater thrills and teach him greater truths than man can give or teach—she will reveal mysteries that mankind has long concealed. It was the soul of Nature not natural history that Thoreau was after. A naturalist’s mind is one predominantly scientific, more interested in the relation of a flower to other flowers than its relation to any philosophy or anyone’s philosophy. A transcendent love of Nature and writing “Rhus glabra” after sumac doesn’t necessarily make a naturalist. It would seem that although thorough in observation (not very thorough according to Mr. Burroughs) and with a keen perception of the specific, a naturalist—inherently—was exactly what Thoreau was not. He seems rather to let Nature put him under her microscope than to hold her under his. He was too fond of Nature to practice vivisection upon her. He would have found that painful, “for was he not a part with her?” But he had this trait of a naturalist, which is usually foreign to poets, even great ones; he observed acutely even things that did not particularly interest him—a useful natural gift rather than a virtue.

The study of Nature may tend to make one dogmatic, but the love of Nature surely does not. Thoreau no more than Emerson could be said to have compounded doctrines. His thinking was too broad for that. If Thoreau’s was a religion of Nature, as some say,—and by that they mean that through Nature’s influence man is brought to a deeper contemplation, to a more spiritual self-scrutiny, and thus closer to God,—it had apparently no definite doctrines. Some of his theories regarding natural and social phenomena and his experiments in the art of living are certainly not doctrinal in form, and if they are in substance it didn’t disturb Thoreau and it needn’t us… “In proportion as he simplifies his life the laws of the universe will appear less complex and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost; that is where they should be, now put the foundations under them.” … “Then we will love with the license of a higher order of beings.” Is that a doctrine? Perhaps. At any rate, between the lines of some such passage as this lie some of the fountain heads that water the spiritual fields of his philosophy and the seeds from which they are sown (if indeed his whole philosophy is but one spiritual garden). His experiments, social and economic, are a part of its cultivation and for the harvest—and its transmutation, he trusts to moments of inspiration—”only what is thought, said, and done at a certain rare coincidence is good.”

Thoreau’s experiment at Walden was, broadly speaking, one of these moments. It stands out in the casual and popular opinion as a kind of adventure—harmless and amusing to some, significant and important to others; but its significance lies in the fact that in trying to practice an ideal he prepared his mind so that it could better bring others “into the Walden-state-of-mind.” He did not ask for a literal approval, or in fact for any approval. “I would not stand between any man and his genius.” He would have no one adopt his manner of life, unless in doing so he adopts his own—besides, by that time “I may have found a better one.” But if he preached hard he practiced harder what he preached—harder than most men. Throughout Walden a text that he is always pounding out is “Time.” Time for inside work out-of-doors; preferably out-of-doors, “though you perhaps may have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor house.” Wherever the place—time there must be. Time to show the unnecessariness of necessities which clog up time. Time to contemplate the value of man to the universe, of the universe to man, man’s excuse for being. Time FROM the demands of social conventions. Time FROM too much labor for some, which means too much to eat, too much to wear, too much material, too much materialism for others. Time FROM the “hurry and waste of life.” Time FROM the “St. Vitus Dance.” BUT, on the other side of the ledger, time FOR learning that “there is no safety in stupidity alone.” Time FOR introspection. Time FOR reality. Time FOR expansion. Time FOR practicing the art, of living the art of living. Thoreau has been criticized for practicing his policy of expansion by living in a vacuum—but he peopled that vacuum with a race of beings and established a social order there, surpassing any of the precepts in social or political history. “…for he put some things behind and passed an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws were around and within him, the old laws were expanded and interpreted in a more liberal sense and he lived with the license of a higher order”—a community in which “God was the only President” and “Thoreau not Webster was His Orator.” It is hard to believe that Thoreau really refused to believe that there was any other life but his own, though he probably did think that there was not any other life besides his own for him. Living for society may not always be best accomplished by living WITH society. “Is there any virtue in a man’s skin that you must touch it?” and the “rubbing of elbows may not bring men’s minds closer together”; or if he were talking through a “worst seller” (magazine) that “had to put it over” he might say, “forty thousand souls at a ball game does not, necessarily, make baseball the highest expression of spiritual emotion.” Thoreau, however, is no cynic, either in character or thought, though in a side glance at himself, he may have held out to be one; a “cynic in independence,” possibly because of his rule laid down that “self-culture admits of no compromise.”

It is conceivable that though some of his philosophy and a good deal of his personality, in some of its manifestations, have outward colors that do not seem to harmonize, the true and intimate relations they bear each other are not affected. This peculiarity, frequently seen in his attitude towards social-economic problems, is perhaps more emphasized in some of his personal outbursts. “I love my friends very much, but I find that it is of no use to go to see them. I hate them commonly when I am near.” It is easier to see what he means than it is to forgive him for saying it. The cause of this apparent lack of harmony between philosophy and personality, as far as they can be separated, may have been due to his refusal “to keep the very delicate balance” which Mr. Van Doren in his “Critical Study of Thoreau” says “it is necessary for a great and good man to keep between his public and private lives, between his own personality and the whole outside universe of personalities.” Somehow one feels that if he had kept this balance he would have lost “hitting power.” Again, it seems that something of the above depends upon the degree of greatness or goodness. A very great and especially a very good man has no separate private and public life. His own personality though not identical with outside personalities is so clear or can be so clear to them that it appears identical, and as the world progresses towards its inevitable perfection this appearance becomes more and more a reality. For the same reason that all great men now agree, in principle but not in detail, in so far as words are able to communicate agreement, on the great fundamental truths. Someone says: “Be specific—what great fundamentals?” Freedom over slavery; the natural over the artificial; beauty over ugliness; the spiritual over the material; the goodness of man; the Godness of man; have been greater if he hadn’t written plays. Some say that a true composer will never write an opera because a truly brave man will not take a drink to keep up his courage; which is not the same thing as saying that Shakespeare is not the greatest figure in all literature; in fact, it is an attempt to say that many novels, most operas, all Shakespeares, and all brave men and women (rum or no rum) are among the noblest blessings with which God has endowed mankind—because, not being perfect, they are perfect examples pointing to that perfection which nothing yet has attained.

Thoreau’s mysticism at times throws him into elusive moods—but an elusiveness held by a thread to something concrete and specific, for he had too much integrity of mind for any other kind. In these moments it is easier to follow his thought than to follow him. Indeed, if he were always easy to follow, after one had caught up with him, one might find that it was not Thoreau.

It is, however, with no mystic rod that he strikes at institutional life. Here again he felt the influence of the great transcendental doctrine of “innate goodness” in human nature—a reflection of the like in nature; a philosophic part which, by the way, was a more direct inheritance in Thoreau than in his brother transcendentalists. For besides what he received from a native Unitarianism a good part must have descended to him through his Huguenot blood from the “eighteenth-century French philosophy.” We trace a reason here for his lack of interest in “the church.” For if revealed religion is the path between God and man’s spiritual part—a kind of formal causeway—Thoreau’s highly developed spiritual life felt, apparently unconsciously, less need of it than most men. But he might have been more charitable towards those who do need it (and most of us do) if he had been more conscious of his freedom. Those who look today for the cause of a seeming deterioration in the influence of the church may find it in a wider development of this feeling of Thoreau’s; that the need is less because there is more of the spirit of Christianity in the world today. Another cause for his attitude towards the church as an institution is one always too common among “the narrow minds” to have influenced Thoreau. He could have been more generous. He took the arc for the circle, the exception for the rule, the solitary bad example for the many good ones. His persistent emphasis on the value of “example” may excuse this lower viewpoint. “The silent influence of the example of one sincere life … has benefited society more than all the projects devised for its salvation.” He has little patience for the unpracticing preacher. “In some countries a hunting parson is no uncommon sight. Such a one might make a good shepherd dog but is far from being a good shepherd.” It would have been interesting to have seen him handle the speculating parson, who takes a good salary—more per annum than all the disciples had to sustain their bodies during their whole lives—from a metropolitan religious corporation for “speculating” on Sunday about the beauty of poverty, who preaches: “Take no thought (for your life) what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink nor yet what ye shall put on … lay not up for yourself treasure upon earth … take up thy cross and follow me”; who on Monday becomes a “speculating” disciple of another god, and by questionable investments, successful enough to get into the “press,” seeks to lay up a treasure of a million dollars for his old age, as if a million dollars could keep such a man out of the poor-house. Thoreau might observe that this one good example of Christian degeneracy undoes all the acts of regeneracy of a thousand humble five-hundred-dollar country parsons; that it out-influences the “unconscious influence” of a dozen Dr. Bushnells if there be that many; that the repentance of this man who did not “fall from grace” because he never fell into it—that this unnecessary repentance might save this man’s own soul but not necessarily the souls of the million head-line readers; that repentance would put this preacher right with the powers that be in this world—and the next. Thoreau might pass a remark upon this man’s intimacy with God “as if he had a monopoly of the subject”—an intimacy that perhaps kept him from asking God exactly what his Son meant by the “camel,” the “needle”—to say nothing of the “rich man.” Thoreau might have wondered how this man NAILED DOWN the last plank in HIS bridge to salvation, by rising to sublime heights of patriotism, in HIS war against materialism; but would even Thoreau be so unfeeling as to suggest to this exhorter that HIS salvation might be clinched “if he would sacrifice his income” (not himself) and come—in to a real Salvation Army, or that the final triumph, the supreme happiness in casting aside this mere $10,000 or $20,000 every year must be denied him—for was he not captain of the ship—must he not stick to his passengers (in the first cabin—the very first cabin)—not that the ship was sinking but that he was … we will go no further. Even Thoreau would not demand sacrifice for sacrifice sake—no, not even from Nature.

Property from the standpoint of its influence in checking natural self-expansion and from the standpoint of personal and inherent right is another institution that comes in for straight and cross-arm jabs, now to the stomach, now to the head, but seldom sparring for breath. For does he not say that “wherever a man goes, men will pursue him with their dirty institutions”? The influence of property, as he saw it, on morality or immorality and how through this it mayor should influence “government” is seen by the following: “I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I did, then thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough—

Nec bella fuerunt,
Faginus astabat dum
Scyphus ante dapes—

You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Have virtue and the people will be virtuous.” If Thoreau had made the first sentence read: “If all men were like me and were to live as simply,” etc., everyone would agree with him. We may wonder here how he would account for some of the degenerate types we are told about in some of our backwoods and mountain regions. Possibly by assuming that they are an instance of perversion of the species. That the little civilizing their forbears experienced rendered these people more susceptible to the physical than to the spiritual influence of nature; in other words; if they had been purer naturists, as the Aztecs for example, they would have been purer men. Instead of turning to any theory of ours or of Thoreau for the true explanation of this condition—which is a kind of pseudo-naturalism—for its true diagnosis and permanent cure, are we not far more certain to find it in the radiant look of humility, love, and hope in the strong faces of those inspired souls who are devoting their lives with no little sacrifice to these outcasts of civilization and nature. In truth, may not mankind find the solution of its eternal problem—find it after and beyond the last, most perfect system of wealth distribution which science can ever devise—after and beyond the last sublime echo of the greatest socialistic symphonies—after and beyond every transcendent thought and expression in the simple example of these Christ-inspired souls—be they Pagan, Gentile, Jew, or angel.

However, underlying the practical or impractical suggestions implied in the quotation above, which is from the last paragraph of Thoreau’s Village, is the same transcendental theme of “innate goodness.” For this reason there must be no limitation except that which will free mankind from limitation, and from a perversion of this “innate” possession: And “property” may be one of the causes of this perversion—property in the two relations cited above. It is conceivable that Thoreau, to the consternation of the richest members of the Bolsheviki and Bourgeois, would propose a policy of liberation, a policy of a limited personal property right, on the ground that congestion of personal property tends to limit the progress of the soul (as well as the progress of the stomach)—letting the economic noise thereupon take care of itself—for dissonances are becoming beautiful—and do not the same waters that roar in a storm take care of the eventual calm? That this limit of property be determined not by the VOICE of the majority but by the BRAIN of the majority under a government limited to no national boundaries. “The government of the world I live in is not framed in after-dinner conversation”—around a table in a capital city, for there is no capital—a government of principles not parties; of a few fundamental truths and not of many political expediencies. A government conducted by virtuous leaders, for it will be led by all, for all are virtuous, as then their “innate virtue” will no more be perverted by unnatural institutions. This will not be a millennium but a practical and possible application of uncommon common sense. For is it not sense, common or otherwise, for Nature to want to hand back the earth to those to whom it belongs—that is, to those who have to live on it? Is it not sense, that the average brains like the average stomachs will act rightly if they have an equal amount of the right kind of food to act upon and universal education is on the way with the right kind of food? Is it not sense then that all grown men and women (for all are necessary to work out the divine “law of averages”) shall have a direct not an indirect say about the things that go on in this world?

Some of these attitudes, ungenerous or radical, generous or conservative (as you will), towards institutions dear to many, have no doubt given impressions unfavorable to Thoreau’s thought and personality. One hears him called, by some who ought to know what they say and some who ought not, a crabbed, cold-hearted, sour-faced Yankee—a kind of a visionary sore-head—a cross-grained, egotistic recluse,—even non-hearted. But it is easier to make a statement than prove a reputation. Thoreau may be some of these things to those who make no distinction between these qualities and the manner which often comes as a kind of by-product of an intense devotion of a principle or ideal. He was rude and unfriendly at times but shyness probably had something to do with that. In spite of a certain self-possession he was diffident in most company, but, though he may have been subject to those spells when words do not rise and the mind seems wrapped in a kind of dull cloth which everyone dumbly stares at, instead of looking through—he would easily get off a rejoinder upon occasion. When a party of visitors came to Walden and some one asked Thoreau if he found it lonely there, he replied: “Only by your help.” A remark characteristic, true, rude, if not witty. The writer remembers hearing a schoolteacher in English literature dismiss Thoreau (and a half hour lesson, in which time all of Walden,—its surface—was sailed over) by saying that this author (he called everyone “author” from Solomon down to Dr. Parkhurst) “was a kind of a crank who styled himself a hermit-naturalist and who idled about the woods because he didn’t want to work.” Some such stuff is a common conception, though not as common as it used to be. If this teacher had had more brains, it would have been a lie. The word idled is the hopeless part of this criticism, or rather of this uncritical remark. To ask this kind of a man, who plays all the “choice gems from celebrated composers” literally, always literally, and always with the loud pedal, who plays all hymns, wrong notes, right notes, games, people, and jokes literally, and with the loud pedal, who will die literally and with the loud pedal—to ask this man to smile even faintly at Thoreau’s humor is like casting a pearl before a coal baron. Emerson implies that there is one thing a genius must have to be a genius and that is “mother wit.” … “Doctor Johnson, Milton, Chaucer, and Burns had it. Aunt Mary Moody Emerson has it and can write scrap letters. Who has it need never write anything but scraps. Henry Thoreau has it.” His humor though a part of this wit is not always as spontaneous, for it is sometimes pun shape (so is Charles Lamb’s)—but it is nevertheless a kind that can serenely transport us and which we can enjoy without disturbing our neighbors. If there are those who think him cold-hearted and with but little human sympathy, let them read his letters to Emerson’s little daughter, or hear Dr. Emerson tell about the Thoreau home life and the stories of his boyhood—the ministrations to a runaway slave; or let them ask old Sam Staples, the Concord sheriff about him. That he “was fond of a few intimate friends, but cared not one fig for people in the mass,” is a statement made in a school history and which is superficially true. He cared too much for the masses—too much to let his personality be “massed”; too much to be unable to realize the futility of wearing his heart on his sleeve but not of wearing his path to the shore of “Walden” for future masses to walk over and perchance find the way to themselves. Some near-satirists are fond of telling us that Thoreau came so close to Nature that she killed him before he had discovered her whole secret. They remind us that he died with consumption but forget that he lived with consumption. And without using much charity, this can be made to excuse many of his irascible and uncongenial moods. You to whom that gaunt face seems forbidding—look into the eyes! If he seems “dry and priggish” to you, Mr. Stevenson, “with little of that large unconscious geniality of the world’s heroes,” follow him some spring morning to Baker Farm, as he “rambles through pine groves … like temples, or like fleets at sea, full-rigged, with wavy boughs and rippling with light so soft and green and shady that the Druids would have forsaken their oaks to worship in them.” Follow him to “the cedar wood beyond Flint’s Pond, where the trees covered with hoary blue berries, spiring higher and higher, are fit to stand before Valhalla.” Follow him, but not too closely, for you may see little, if you do—”as he walks in so pure and bright a light gilding its withered grass and leaves so softly and serenely bright that he thinks he has never bathed in such a golden flood.” Follow him as “he saunters towards the holy land till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever it has done, perchance shine into your minds and hearts and light up your whole lives with a great awakening, light as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.” Follow him through the golden flood to the shore of that “holy land,” where he lies dying as men say—dying as bravely as he lived. You may be near when his stern old aunt in the duty of her Puritan conscience asks him: “Have you made your peace with God”? and you may see his kindly smile as he replies, “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” Moments like these reflect more nobility and equanimity perhaps than geniality—qualities, however, more serviceable to world’s heroes.

The personal trait that one who has affection for Thoreau may find worst is a combative streak, in which he too often takes refuge. “An obstinate elusiveness,” almost a “contrary cussedness,” as if he would say, which he didn’t: “If a truth about something is not as I think it ought to be, I’ll make it what I think, and it WILL be the truth—but if you agree with me, then I begin to think it may not be the truth.” The causes of these unpleasant colors (rather than characteristics) are too easily attributed to a lack of human sympathy or to the assumption that they are at least symbols of that lack instead of to a supersensitiveness, magnified at times by ill health and at times by a subconsciousness of the futility of actually living out his ideals in this life. It has been said that his brave hopes were unrealized anywhere in his career—but it is certain that they started to be realized on or about May 6, 1862, and we doubt if 1920 will end their fulfillment or his career. But there were many in Concord who knew that within their village there was a tree of wondrous growth, the shadow of which—alas, too frequently—was the only part they were allowed to touch. Emerson was one of these. He was not only deeply conscious of Thoreau’s rare gifts but in the Woodland Notes pays a tribute to a side of his friend that many others missed. Emerson knew that Thoreau’s sensibilities too often veiled his nobilities, that a self-cultivated stoicism ever fortified with sarcasm, none the less securely because it seemed voluntary, covered a warmth of feeling. “His great heart, him a hermit made.” A breadth of heart not easily measured, found only in the highest type of sentimentalists, the type which does not perpetually discriminate in favor of mankind. Emerson has much of this sentiment and touches it when he sings of Nature as “the incarnation of a thought,” when he generously visualizes Thoreau, “standing at the Walden shore invoking the vision of a thought as it drifts heavenward into an incarnation of Nature.” There is a Godlike patience in Nature,-in her mists, her trees, her mountains—as if she had a more abiding faith and a clearer vision than man of the resurrection and immortality! There comes to memory an old yellow-papered composition of school-boy days whose peroration closed with “Poor Thoreau; he communed with nature for forty odd years, and then died.” “The forty odd years,”—we’ll still grant that part, but he is over a hundred now, and maybe, Mr. Lowell, he is more lovable, kindlier, and more radiant with human sympathy today, than, perchance, you were fifty years ago. It may be that he is a far stronger, a far greater, an incalculably greater force in the moral and spiritual fibre of his fellow-countrymen throughout the world today than you dreamed of fifty years ago. You, James Russell Lowells! You, Robert Louis Stevensons! You, Mark Van Dorens! with your literary perception, your power of illumination, your brilliancy of expression, yea, and with your love of sincerity, you know your Thoreau, but not my Thoreau—that reassuring and true friend, who stood by me one “low” day, when the sun had gone down, long, long before sunset. You may know something of the affection that heart yearned for but knew it a duty not to grasp; you may know something of the great human passions which stirred that soul—too deep for animate expression—you may know all of this, all there is to know about Thoreau, but you know him not, unless you love him!

And if there shall be a program for our music let it follow his thought on an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden—a shadow of a thought at first, colored by the mist and haze over the pond:

Low anchored cloud,
Fountain head and
Source of rivers…
Dew cloth, dream drapery—
Drifting meadow of the air….

but this is momentary; the beauty of the day moves him to a certain restlessness—to aspirations more specific—an eagerness for outward action, but through it all he is conscious that it is not in keeping with the mood for this “Day.” As the mists rise, there comes a clearer thought more traditional than the first, a meditation more calm. As he stands on the side of the pleasant hill of pines and hickories in front of his cabin, he is still disturbed by a restlessness and goes down the white-pebbled and sandy eastern shore, but it seems not to lead him where the thought suggests—he climbs the path along the “bolder northern” and “western shore, with deep bays indented,” and now along the railroad track, “where the Aeolian harp plays.” But his eagerness throws him into the lithe, springy stride of the specie hunter—the naturalist—he is still aware of a restlessness; with these faster steps his rhythm is of shorter span—it is still not the tempo of Nature, it does not bear the mood that the genius of the day calls for, it is too specific, its nature is too external, the introspection too buoyant, and he knows now that he must let Nature flow through him and slowly; he releases his more personal desires to her broader rhythm, conscious that this blends more and more with the harmony of her solitude; it tells him that his search for freedom on that day, at least, lies in his submission to her, for Nature is as relentless as she is benignant.

He remains in this mood and while outwardly still, he seems to move with the slow, almost monotonous swaying beat of this autumnal day. He is more contented with a “homely burden” and is more assured of “the broad margin to his life; he sits in his sunny doorway … rapt in revery … amidst goldenrod, sandcherry, and sumac … in undisturbed solitude.” At times the more definite personal strivings for the ideal freedom, the former more active speculations come over him, as if he would trace a certain intensity even in his submission. “He grew in those seasons like corn in the night and they were better than any works of the hands. They were not time subtracted from his life but so much over and above the usual allowance.” “He realized what the Orientals meant by contemplation and forsaking of works.” “The day advanced as if to light some work of his—it was morning and lo! now it is evening and nothing memorable is accomplished…” “The evening train has gone by,” and “all the restless world with it. The fishes in the pond no longer feel its rumbling and he is more alone than ever…” His meditations are interrupted only by the faint sound of the Concord bell—’tis prayer-meeting night in the village—”a melody as it were, imported into the wilderness…” “At a distance over the woods the sound acquires a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept… A vibration of the universal lyre… Just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to the eyes by the azure tint it imparts.” … Part of the echo may be “the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by the wood nymph.” It is darker, the poet’s flute is heard out over the pond and Walden hears the swan song of that “Day” and faintly echoes… Is it a transcendental tune of Concord? ‘Tis an evening when the “whole body is one sense,” … and before ending his day he looks out over the clear, crystalline water of the pond and catches a glimpse of the shadow—thought he saw in the morning’s mist and haze—he knows that by his final submission, he possesses the “Freedom of the Night.” He goes up the “pleasant hillside of pines, hickories,” and moonlight to his cabin, “with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.”

3 thoughts on ““Thoreau” — Charles Ives”

  1. Thoreau’s enlightenment was his revelation. Where is a difference between the two? Sensation is the path. Sensation and memory creates intelligence. Intelligence creates wisdom by understanding knowledge. How else to know the Creator except through the creation? The naming of what is and what is not is mental macrame.


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