Passages From Hawthorne’s Note-Books (Part XI)

Personal musings from the renowned American author

This is part eleven of a twelve-part series.
Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here,
part five here, part six here, part seven here, part eight here,
part nine here, part ten here, and part twelve here.


Concord, 1843. — To sit at the gate of Heaven, and watch persons as they apply for admittance, some gaining it, others being thrust away.

To point out the moral slavery of one who deems himself a free man.

A stray leaf from the Book of Fate, picked up in the street.

The streak of sunshine journeying through the prisoner’s cell, — it may be considered as something sent from Heaven to keep the soul alive and glad within him. And there is something equivalent to this sunbeam in the darkest circumstances; as flowers, which figuratively grew in Paradise, in the dusky room of a poor maiden in a great city; the child, with its sunny smile, is a cherub. God does not let us live anywhere or anyhow on earth without placing something of Heaven close at hand, by rightly using and considering which, the earthly darkness or trouble will vanish, and all be Heaven.

When the reformation of the world is complete, a fire shall be made of the gallows; and the hangman shall come and sit down by it in solitude and despair. To him shall come the last thief, the last drunkard, and other representatives of past crime and vice; and they shall hold a dismal merry-making, quaffing the contents of the last brandy-bottle.

The human heart to be allegorized as a cavern. At the entrance there is sunshine, and flowers growing about it. You step within but a short distance, and begin to find yourself surrounded with a terrible gloom and monsters of divers kinds; it seems like hell itself. You are bewildered, and wander long without hope. At last a light strikes upon you. You pass towards it, and find yourself in a region that seems, in some sort, to reproduce the flowers and sunny beauty of the entrance, but all perfect. These are the depths of the heart, or of human nature, bright and peaceful. The gloom and terror may lie deep, but deeper still this eternal beauty.

A man in his progress through life may pick up various matters, — sin, care, habit, riches, — until at last he staggers along under a heavy burden.

To have a lifelong desire for a certain object, which shall appear to be the one thing essential to happiness. At last that object is attained, but proves to be merely incidental to a more important affair, and that affair is the greatest evil fortune that can occur. For instance, all through the winter I had wished to sit in the dusk of evening, by the flickering firelight, with my wife, instead of beside a dismal stove. At last this has come to pass; but it was owing to her illness.

Madame Calderon de la Barca (in “Life in Mexico”) speaks of persons who have been inoculated with the venom of rattlesnakes, by pricking them in various places with the tooth. These persons are thus secured forever after against the bite of any venomous reptile. They have the power of calling snakes, and feel great pleasure in playing with and handling them. Their own bite becomes poisonous to people not inoculated in the same manner. Thus a part of the serpent’s nature appears to be transfused into them.

An auction (perhaps in Vanity Fair) of offices, honors, and all sorts of things considered desirable by mankind, together with things eternally valuable, which shall be considered by most people as worthless lumber.

An examination of wits and poets at a police court, and they to be sentenced by the judge to various penalties or fines, — the house of correction, whipping, etc., — according to the moral offences of which they are guilty.

A volume hound in cowhide. It should treat of breeding cattle, or some other coarse subject.

A young girl inhabits a family graveyard, that being all that remains of rich hereditary possessions.

An interview between General Charles Lee, of the Revolution, and his sister, the foundress and mother of the sect of Shakers.

For a sketch for a child: — the life of a city dove, or perhaps of a flock of doves, flying about the streets, and sometimes alighting on church steeples, on the eaves of lofty houses, etc.

The greater picturesqueness and reality of back courts, and everything appertaining to the rear of a house, as compared with the front, which is fitted up for the public eye. There is much to be learned always, by getting a glimpse at rears. Where the direction of a road has been altered, so as to pass the rear of farm-houses instead of the front, a very noticeable aspect is presented.

A sketch: — the devouring of old country residences by the overgrown monster of a city. For instance, Mr. Beekman’s ancestral residence was originally several miles from the city of New York; but the pavements kept creeping nearer and nearer, till now the house is removed, and a street runs directly through what was once its hall.

An essay on various kinds of death, together with the just before and just after.

The majesty of death to be exemplified in a beggar, who, after being seen, humble and cringing, in the streets of a city for many years, at length, by some means or other, gets admittance into a rich man’s mansion, and there dies, assuming state and striking awe into the breasts of those who had looked down on him.

To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its strange transformations, which are all taken as a matter of course, its eccentricities and aimlessness, with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing ever has been written.

To allegorize life with a masquerade, and represent mankind generally as masquers. Here and there a natural face may appear.

With an emblematical divining-rod, to seek for emblematic gold, — that is, for truth, — for what of Heaven is left on earth.

A task for a subjugated fiend: — to gather up all the fallen autumnal leaves of a forest, assort them, and affix each one to the twig where it originally grew.

A vision of Grub Street, forming an allegory of the literary world.

The emerging from their lurking-places of evil characters on some occasion suited to their action, they having been quite unknown to the world hitherto. For instance, the French Revolution brought out such wretches.

The advantage of a longer life than is now allotted to mortals, the many things that might then be accomplished, to which one lifetime is inadequate, and for which the time spent seems therefore lost, a successor being unable to take up the task where we drop it.

George I. had promised the Duchess of Kendall, his mistress, that, if possible, he would pay her a visit after death. Accordingly, a large raven flew into the window of her villa at Isleworth. She believed it to be his soul, and treated it ever after with all respect and tenderness, till either she or the bird died.

The history of an almshouse in a country village, from the era of its foundation downward, — a record of the remarkable occupants of it, and extracts from interesting portions of its annals. The rich of one generation might, in the next, seek for a house there, either in their own persons or in those of their representatives. Perhaps the son and heir of the founder might have no better refuge. There should he occasional sunshine let into the story; for instance, the good fortune of some nameless infant, educated there, and discovered finally to be the child of wealthy parents.

Pearl, the English of Margaret, — a pretty name for a girl in a story.

The conversation of the steeples of a city, when their bells are ringing on Sunday, — Calvinist, Episcopalian, Unitarian, etc.

Allston’s picture of “Belshazzar’s Feast,” — with reference to the advantages or otherwise of having life assured to us till we could finish important tasks on which we might he engaged.

Visits to castles in the air, — Chateaux en Espagne, etc., — with remarks on that sort of architecture.

To consider a piece of gold as a sort of talisman, or as containing within itself all the forms of enjoyment that it can purchase, so that they might appear, by some fantastical chemic process, as visions.

To personify If; But, And, Though, etc.

A man seeks for something excellent, but seeks it in the wrong spirit and in a wrong way, and finds something horrible; as, for instance, he seeks for treasure, and finds a dead body; for the gold that somebody has hidden, and brings to light his accumulated sins.

An auction of second-hands, — thus moralizing how the fashion of this world passeth away.

Noted people in a town, — as the town-crier, the old fruit-man, the constable, the oyster-seller, the fish-man, the scissors-grinder, etc.

The magic ray of sunshine for a child’s story, — the sunshine circling round through a prisoner’s cell, from his high and narrow window. He keeps his soul alive and cheerful by means of it, it typifying cheerfulness; and when he is released, he takes up the ray of sunshine, and carries it away with him, and it enables him to discover treasures all over the world, in places where nobody else would think of looking for them.

A young man finds a portion of the skeleton of a mammoth; he begins by degrees to become interested in completing it; searches round the world for the means of doing so; spends youth and manhood in the pursuit; and in old age has nothing to show for his life but this skeleton of a mammoth.

For a child’s sketch: — a meeting with all the personages mentioned in Mother Goose’s Melodies, and other juvenile stories.

Great expectation to be entertained in the allegorical Grub Street of the great American writer. Or a search-warrant to be sent thither to catch a poet. On the former supposition, he shall be discovered under some most unlikely form, or shall be supposed to have lived and died unrecognized

An old man to promise a youth a treasure of gold, and to keep his promise by teaching him practically a golden rule.

A valuable jewel to be buried in the grave of a beloved person, or thrown over with a corpse at sea, or deposited under the foundation-stone of an edifice, — and to be afterwards met with by the former owner, in some one’s possession.

A noted gambler had acquired such self-command that, in the most desperate circumstances of his game, no change of feature ever betrayed him; only there was a slight scar upon his forehead, which at such moments assumed a deep blood-red hue. Thus, in playing at brag, for instance, his antagonist could judge from this index when he had a bad hand. At last, discovering what it was that betrayed him, he covered the scar with a green silk shade.

A dream the other night, that the world had become dissatisfied with the inaccurate manner in which facts are reported, and had employed me, with a salary of a thousand dollars, to relate things of public importance exactly as they happen.

A person who has all the qualities of a friend, except that he invariably fails you at the pinch.

* * *

Concord; July 27, 1844. — To sit down in a solitary place or a busy and bustling one, if you please, and await such little events as may happen, or observe such noticeable points as the eyes fall upon around you. For instance, I sat down to-day, at about ten o’clock in the forenoon, in Sleepy Hollow, a shallow space scooped out among the woods, which surround it on all sides, it being pretty nearly circular or oval, and perhaps four or five hundred yards in diameter. At the present season, a thriving field of Indian corn, now in its most perfect growth and tasselled out, occupies nearly half of the hollow; and it is like the lap of bounteous Nature, filled with breadstuff. On one verge of this hollow, skirting it, is a terraced pathway, broad enough for a wheel-track, overshadowed with oaks, stretching their long, knotted, rude, rough arms between earth and sky; the gray skeletons, as you look upward, are strikingly prominent amid the green foliage. Likewise, there are chestnuts, growing up in a more regular and pyramidal shape; white pines, also; and a shrubbery composed of the shoots of all these trees, overspreading and softening the bank on which the parent stems are growing, these latter being intermingled with coarse grass. Observe the pathway; it is strewn over with little bits of dry twigs and decayed branches, and the sear and brown oak-leaves of last year, that have been moistened by snow and rain, and whirled about by harsh and gentle winds, since their verdure has departed. The needle-like leaves of the pine that are never noticed in falling—that fall, yet never leave the tree bare—are likewise on the path; and with these are pebbles, the remains of what was once a gravelled surface, but which the soil accumulating from the decay of leaves, and washing down from the bank, has now almost covered. The sunshine comes down on the pathway, with the bright glow of noon, at certain points; in other places, there is a shadow as deep as the glow; but along the greater portion sunshine glimmers through shadow, and shadow effaces sunshine, imaging that pleasant mood of mind when gayety and pensiveness intermingle. A bird is chirping overhead among the branches, but exactly whereabout you seek in vain to determine; indeed, you hear the rustle of the leaves, as he continually changes his position. A little sparrow, however, hops into view, alighting on the slenderest twigs, and seemingly delighting in the swinging and heaving motion which his slight substance communicates to them; but he is not the loquacious bird, whose voice still comes, eager and busy, from his hidden whereabout. Insects are fluttering around. The cheerful, sunny hum of the flies is altogether summer-like, and so glad-some that you pardon them their intrusiveness and impertinence, which continually impel them to fly against your face, to alight upon your hands, and to buzz in your very ear, as if they wished to get into your head, among your most secret thoughts. In truth, a fly is the most impertinent and indelicate thing in creation, — the very type and moral of human spirits with whom one occasionally meets, and who, perhaps, after an existence troublesome and vexatious to all with whom they come in contact, have been doomed to reappear in this congenial shape. Here is one intent upon alighting on my nose. In a room, now, — in a human habitation, — I could find in my conscience to put him to death; but here we have intruded upon his own domain, which he holds in common with all other children of earth and air; and we have no right to slay him on his own ground. Now we look about us more minutely, and observe that the acorn-cups of last year are strewn plentifully on the bank and on the path. There is always pleasure in examining an acorn-cup, — perhaps associated with fairy banquets, where they were said to compose the table-service. Here, too, are those balls which grow as excrescences on the leaves of the oak, and which young kittens love so well to play with, rolling them over the carpet. We see mosses, likewise, growing on the banks, in as great variety as the trees of the wood. And how strange is. the gradual process with which we detect objects that are right before the eyes! Here now are whortleberries, ripe and black, growing actually within reach of my hand, yet unseen till this moment. Were we to sit here all day, — a week, a month, and doubtless a lifetime, — objects would thus still he presenting themselves as new, though there would seem to be no reason why we should not have detected them all at the first moment.

Now a cat-bird is mewing at no great distance. Then the shadow of a bird flits across a sunny spot. There is a peculiar impressiveness in this mode of being made acquainted with the flight of a bird; it impresses the mind more than if the eye had actually seen it. As we look round to catch a glimpse of the winged creature, we behold the living blue of the sky, and the brilliant disk of the sun, broken and made tolerable to the eye by the intervening foliage. Now, when you are not thinking of it, the fragrance of the white pines is suddenly wafted to you by a slight, almost imperceptible breeze, which has begun to stir. Now the breeze is the softest sigh imaginable, yet with a spiritual potency, insomuch that it seems to penetrate, with its mild, ethereal coolness, through the outward clay, and breathe upon the spirit itself, which shivers with gentle delight. Now the breeze strengthens so much as to shake all the leaves, making them rustle sharply; but it has lost its most ethereal power. And now, again, the shadows of the boughs lie as motionless as if they were painted on the pathway. Now, in the stillness, is heard the long, melancholy note of a bird, complaining above of some wrong or sorrow that man, of her own kind, or the immitigable doom of mortal affairs, has inflicted upon her, the complaining, but unresisting sufferer. And now, all of a sudden, we hear the sharp, shrill chirrup of a red squirrel, angry, it seems, with somebody—perhaps with ourselves—for having intruded into what he is pleased to consider his own domain. And hark! terrible to the ear, here is the minute but intense hum of a mosquito. Instinct prevails over all sentiment; we crush him at once, and there is his grim and grisly corpse, the ugliest object in nature. This incident has disturbed our tranquillity. In truth, the whole insect tribe, so far as we can judge, are made more for themselves, and less for man, than any other portion of creation. With such reflections, we look at a swarm of them, peopling, indeed, the whole air, but only visible when they flash into the sunshine, and annihilated out of which by and by will be those small visible existence when they dart into a region of shadow, to be again reproduced as suddenly. Now we hear the striking of the village clock, distant, but yet so near that each stroke is distinctly impressed upon the air. This is a sound that does not disturb the repose of the scene; it does not break our Sabbath, — for like a Sabbath seems this place, — and the more so, on account of the cornfield rustling at our feet. It tells of human labor; but being so solitary now, it seems as if it were so on account of the sacredness of the Sabbath. Yet it is not; for we hear at a distance mowers whetting their scythes; but these sounds of labor, when at a proper remoteness, do but increase the quiet of one who lies at his ease, all in a mist of his own musings. There is the tinkling of a cow-bell, — a noise how peevishly discordant were it close at hand, but even musical now. But hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive, — the long shriek, heard above all other harshness; for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, — men of business, — in short, of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling scream, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace. As our thoughts repose again after this interruption, we find ourselves gazing up at the leaves, and comparing their different aspects, — the beautiful diversity of green, as the sun is diffused through them as a medium, or reflected from their glossy surface. We see, too, here and there, dead, leafless branches, which we had no more been aware of before than if they had assumed this old and dry decay since we sat down upon the bank. Look at our feet; and here, likewise, are objects as good as new. There are two little round, white fungi, which probably sprung from the ground in the course of last night, — curious productions, of the mushroom tribe, and things with smoke in them which children call puff-balls. Is there nothing else? Yes; here is a whole colony of little ant-hills, — a real village of them. They are round hillocks, formed of minute particles of gravel, with an entrance in the centre, and through some of them blades of grass or small shrubs have sprouted up, producing an effect not unlike trees that overshadow a homestead. Here is a type of domestic industry, — perhaps, too, something of municipal institutions, perhaps likewise—who knows?—the very model of a community, which Fourierites and others are stumbling in pursuit of. Possibly the student of such philosophies should go to the ant, and find that Nature has given him his lesson there. Meantime, like a malevolent genius, I drop a few grains of sand into the entrance of one of these dwellings, and thus quite obliterate it. And behold, here comes one of the inhabitants, who has been abroad upon some public or private business, or perhaps to enjoy a fantastic walk, and cannot any longer find his own door. What surprise, what hurry, what confusion of mind are expressed in all his movements! How inexplicable to him must be the agency that has effected this mischief! The incident will probably be long remembered in the annals of the ant-colony, and be talked of in the winter days, when they are making merry over their hoarded provisions. But now it is time to move. The sun has shifted his position, and has found a vacant space through the branches, by means of which he levels his rays full upon my head. Yet now, as I arise, a cloud has come across him, and makes everything gently sombre in an instant. Many clouds, voluminous and heavy, are scattered about the sky, like the shattered ruins of a dreamer’s Utopia; but I will not send my thoughts thitherward now, nor take one of them into my present observations.

And now how narrow, scanty, and meagre is the record of observations, compared with the immensity that was to be observed within the bounds which I prescribed to myself! How shallow and thin a stream of thought, too, — of distinct and expressed thought, — compared with the broad tide of dim emotions, ideas, associations, which were flowing through the haunted regions of imagination, intellect, and sentiment, — sometimes excited by what was around me, sometimes with no perceptible connection with them! When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man ever takes up a pen a scowl time.

To find all sorts of ridiculous employments for people that have nothing better to do; — as to comb out the cows’ tails, shave goats, hoard up seeds of weeds, etc., etc.

The baby, the other day, tried to grasp a handful of sunshine. She also grasps at the shadows of things in candle-light.

To typify our mature review of our early projects and delusions, by representing a person as wandering, in manhood, through and among the various castles in the air that he had reared in his youth, and describing how they look to him, — their dilapidation, etc. Possibly some small portion of these structures may have a certain reality, and suffice him to build a humble dwelling in which to pass his life.

The search of an investigator for the unpardonable sin: he at last finds it in his own heart and practice.

The trees reflected in the river; — they are unconscious of a spiritual world so near them. So are we.

The unpardonable sin might consist in a want of love and reverence for the human soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, — not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold, philosophical curiosity, — content that it should be wicked in whatever kind and degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart?

There are some faces that have no more expression in them than any other part of the body. The hand of one person may express more than the face of another.

An ugly person with tact may make a bad face and figure pass very tolerably, and more than tolerably. Ugliness without tact is horrible. It ought to be lawful to extirpate such wretches.

To represent the influence which dead men have among living affairs. For instance, a dead man controls the disposition of wealth; a dead man sits on the judgment-seat, and the living judges do but repeat his decisions; dead men’s opinions in all things control the living truth; we believe in dead men’s religions; we laugh at dead men’s jokes; we cry at dead men’s pathos; everywhere, and in all matters, dead men tyrannize inexorably over us.

When the heart is full of care, or the mind much occupied, the summer and the sunshine and the moonlight are but a gleam and glimmer, — a vague dream, which does not come within us, but only makes itself imperfectly perceptible on the outside of us.

Biographies of eminent American merchants, — it would be a work likely to have a great circulation in our commercial country. If successful, there might be a second volume of eminent foreign merchants. Perhaps it had better be adapted to the capacity of young clerks and apprentices.

For the virtuoso’s collection: — Alexander’s copy of the Iliad, enclosed in the jewelled casket of Darius, still fragrant with the perfumes Darius kept in it. Also the pen with which Faust signed away his salvation, with the drop of blood dried in it.

* * *

October 13, 1844. — This morning, after a heavy hoar-frost, the leaves, at sunrise, were falling from the trees in our avenue without a breath of wind, quietly descending by their own weight. In an hour or two after, the ground was strewn with them; and the trees are almost hare, with the exception of two or three poplars, which are still green. The apple and pear trees are still green; so is the willow. The first severe frosts came at least a fortnight ago, — more, if I mistake not.

Sketch of a person, who, by strength of character or assistant circumstances, has reduced another to absolute slavery and dependence on him. Then show that the person who appeared to be the master must inevitably be at least as much a slave as the other, if not more so. All slavery is reciprocal, on the supposition most favorable to the masters.

Persons who write about themselves and their feelings, as Byron did, may be said to serve up their own hearts, duly spiced, and with brain-sauce out of their own heads, as a repast for the public.

To represent a man in the midst of all sorts of cares and annoyances, with impossibilities to perform, and driven almost distracted by his inadequacy. Then quietly comes Death, and releases him from all his troubles; and be smiles, and congratulates himself on escaping so easily.

What if it should be discovered to be all a mistake, that people, who were supposed to have died long ago, are really dead? Byron to be still living, a man of sixty; Burns, too, in extreme old age Bonaparte likewise and many other distinguished men, whose lives might have extended to these limits. Then the private acquaintances, friends, enemies, wives, taken to be dead, to be all really living in this world. The machinery might be a person’s being persuaded to believe that he had been mad; or having dwelt many years on a desolate island; or having been in the heart of Africa or China; and a friend amuses himself with giving this account. Or some traveller from Europe shall thus correct popular errors.

The life of a woman, who, by the old Colony law, was condemned to wear always the letter A sewed on her garment in token of her sin.

To make literal pictures of figurative expressions. For instance, he burst into tears, — a man suddenly turned into a shower of briny drops. An explosion of laughter, — a man blowing up, and his fragments flying about on all sides. He cast his eyes upon the ground, — a man standing eyeless, with his eyes thrown down, and staring up at him in wonderment, etc., etc., etc.

An uneducated countryman, supposing he had a live frog in his stomach, applied himself to the study of medicine, in order to find a cure, and so became a profound physician. Thus some misfortune, physical or moral, may be the means of educating and elevating us.

* * *

Concord, March 12, 1845. — Last night was very cold, and bright starlight; yet there was a mist or fog diffused all over the landscape, lying close to the ground, and extending upwards, probably not much above the tops of the trees. This fog was crystallized by the severe frost; and its little feathery crystals covered all the branches and smallest twigs of trees and shrubs; so that, this morning, at first sight, it appeared as if they were covered with snow. On closer examination, however, these most delicate feathers appeared shooting out in all directions from the branches, — above as well as beneath, — and looking, not as if they had been attached, but had been put forth by the plant, — a new kind of foliage. It is impossible to describe the exquisite beauty of the effect, when close to the eye; and even at a distance this delicate appearance was not lost, but imparted a graceful, evanescent aspect to great trees, perhaps a quarter of a mile off making them look like immense plumes, or something that would vanish at a breath. The so-much admired sight of icy trees cannot compare with it in point of grace, delicacy, and beauty; and, moreover, there is a life and animation in this, not to be found in the other. It was to be seen in its greatest perfection at sunrise, or shortly after; for the slightest warmth impaired the minute beauty of the frost-feathers, and the general effect. But in the first sunshine, and while there was still a partial mist hovering around the hill and along the river, while some of the trees were lit up with an illumination that did not shine, — that is to say, glitter, — but was not less bright than if it had glittered, while other portions of the scene were partly obscured, but not gloomy, — on the contrary, very cheerful, — it was a picture that never can be painted nor described, nor, I fear, remembered with any accuracy, so magical was its light and shade, while at the same time the earth and everything upon it were white; for the ground is entirely covered by yesterday’s snow-storm.

Already, before eleven o’clock, these feathery crystals have vanished, partly through the warmth of the sun, and partly by gentle breaths of wind; for so slight was their hold upon the twigs that the least motion, or thought almost, sufficed to bring them floating down, like a little snow-storm, to the ground. In fact, the fog, I suppose, was a cloud of snow, and would have scattered down upon us, had it been at the usual height above the earth.

All the above description is most unsatisfactory.

This is part eleven of a twelve-part series.
Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here,
part five here, part six here, part seven here, part eight here,
part nine here, part ten here, and part twelve here.