Thoreau’s Journal (Part V)

Extracts from the transcendentalist author’s personal writings

This is the final part in a five-part series.
Read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.


Friday, November 14.

Some of my friends make singular blunders. They go out of their way to talk with certain young women of whom they think or have heard that they are pretty, and take pains to introduce me to them. That may be a reason why they should look at them, but it is not a reason why they should talk with them. I confess that I am lacking a sense, perchance, in this respect, and I derive no pleasure from talking with a young woman half an hour simply because she has regular features. The society of young women is the most unprofitable I have ever tried. They are so light and flighty that you can never be sure whether they are there or not there. I prefer to talk with the more staid and settled, — settled for life in every sense.

* * *

November 15.

I think it would be good discipline for Channing, who writes poetry in a sublimo-slipshod style, to write Latin, for then he would be compelled to say something always, and frequently have recourse to his grammar and dictionary. Methinks that what a man might write in a dead language could be more surely translated into good sense in his own language, than his own language could be translated into good Latin or the dead language.


Sunday, April 4.

I have got to that pass with my friend that our words do not pass with each other for what they are worth. We speak in vain; there is none to hear. He finds fault with me that I walk alone, when I pine for want of a companion; that I commit my thoughts to a diary even on my walks, instead of seeking to share them generously with a friend; curses my practice even. Awful as it is to contemplate, I pray that, if I am the cold intellectual skeptic whom he rebukes, his curse may take effect, and wither and dry up those sources of my life, and my journal no longer yield me pleasure nor life.

* * *

April 16.

How many there are who advise you to print! how few who advise you to lead a more interior life! In the one case there is all the world to advise you; in the other there is none to advise you but yourself. Nobody ever advised me not to print but myself. Nobody ever advised me not to print but myself. The public persuade the author to print, as the meadow invites the brook to fall into it. Only he can be trusted with gifts who can present a face of bronze to expectations.

* * *

April 17.

When I was young and compelled to pass my Sunday in the house without the aid of interesting books, I used to spend many an hour till the wished-for sundown watching the martins soar, from an attic window; and fortunate indeed did I deem myself when a hawk appeared in the heavens, though far toward the horizon against a downy cloud, and I searched for hours until I had found its mate. They at least took my thoughts from earthly things.

* * *

April 18.

2 p.m. to river.

Going through Dennis’s field with C., saw a flock of geese on east side of river near willows, — twelve great birds on the troubled surface of the meadow delayed by the storm. We lay on the ground behind an oak and our umbrella, eighty rods off, and watched them. Soon we heard a gun go off but could see no smoke in the mist and rain; and the whole flock rose, spreading their great wings, and flew with clangor a few rods and lit in the water again, then swam swiftly toward our shore with outstretched necks. I knew them first from ducks by their long necks. Soon appeared the man running toward the shore in vain in his great coat; but he soon retired in vain. We remained close under our umbrella by the tree, ever and anon looking through a peep-hole between the umbrella and the tree at the birds. On they came, sometimes in two, sometimes in three, squads, warily, till we could see the steel-blue and green reflections from their necks.1 We held the dog close the while, — C., lying on his back in the rain, had him in his arms, — and thus we gradually edged round on the ground in this cold, wet, windy storm, keeping our feet to the tree, and the great wet calf of a dog with his eyes shut so meekly in our arms. We laughed well at our adventure. They swam fast and warily, seeing our umbrellas. Occasionally one expanded a gray wing. They showed white on breasts. And not until after half an hour, sitting cramped and cold and wet on the ground, did we leave them.

* * *

April 19.

That oak by Derby’s is a grand object seen from any side. It stands like an athlete and defies the tempests in every direction. It has not a weak point. It is an agony of strength. Its branches look like stereotyped gray lightning on the sky. But I fear a price is set upon its sturdy trunk and roots, for ship timber, for knees to make stiff the sides of ships against the Atlantic billows. Like an athlete it shows its well developed muscles.

* * *

Scared up three blue herons in the little pond close by, quite near us. It was a grand sight to see them rise, — so slow and stately, so long and limber, with an undulating motion from head to foot, undulating also their large wings, undulating in two directions, and looking warily about them. With this graceful, limber, undulating motion they arose, as if so they got under way, their two legs trailing parallel far behind like an earthy residuum to be left behind. They are large, like birds of Syrian lands, and seemed to oppress the earth and hush the hillside to silence, as they winged their way over it looking back toward us. It would affect tour thoughts, deepen and perchance darken our reflections, if such huge birds flew in numbers in our sky, — have the effect of magnetic passes. They are few and rare.

* * *

To see the larger and wilder birds you must go forth in the great storms like this. At such times they frequent our neighborhood and trust themselves in our midst. A life of fair-weather walks might never show you the goose sailing on our waters, or the great heron feeding here. When the storm increases, then these great birds that carry the mail of the seasons lay to. To see wild life you must go forth at a wild season. When it rains and blows, keeping men indoors, then the lover of Nature must forth. Then returns Nature to her wild estate. In pleasant, sunny weather you may catch butterflies, but only when the storm rages that lays prostrate the forest and wrecks the mariner, do you come upon the feeding grounds of wildest fowl, of heron and geese.

* * *

July 26.

By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.

The grandest picture in the world is the sunset sky. In your higher moods what man is there to meet? You are of necessity isolated. The mind that perceives clearly any natural beauty is in that instant withdrawn from human society. My desire for society is infinitely increased, my fitness for any actual society is diminished.

Went to Cambridge and Boston to-day. Dr. Harris says that my great moth is the Attacus luna; may be regarded as one of several emperor moths. They are rarely seen, being very liable to be snapped up by birds. Once, as he was crossing the college yard, he saw the wings of one coming down, which reached the ground just at his feet. What a tragedy! The wings came down as the only evidence that such a creature had soared, wings large and splendid which were designed to bear a precious burthen through the upper air. So most poems, even epics, are like the wings come down to earth while the poet whose adventurous flight they evidence has been snapped up [by] the ravenous vulture of this world. If this moth ventures abroad by day, some birds will pick out the precious cargo and let the sails and rigging drift, as when the sailor meets with a floating spar and sail and reports a wreck seen in a certain latitude and longitude. For what were such tender and defenceless organizations made? The one I had, being put into a large box, beat itself—its wings, etc.—all to pieces in the night in its efforts to get out, depositing its eggs, nevertheless, on the sides of its prison. Perchance the entomologist never saw an entire specimen, but as he walked one day, the wings of a larger species than he had ever seen came fluttering down. The wreck of an argosy in the air.

* * *

August 7.

When I think of the thorough drilling to which young men are subjected in the English universities, acquiring a minute knowledge of Latin prosody and of Greek particles and accents, so that they can not only turn a passage of Homer into English prose or verse but readily a passage of Shakespeare into Latin hexameter or elegiacs, — that this and the like of this is to be liberally educated, — I am reminded how different was the education of the actual Homer and Shakespeare. The worthies of the world and liberally educated have always in this sense got along with little Latin and less Greek.

* * *

If I were to choose a time for a friend to make a passing visit to this world for the first time, in the full possession of all his faculties, perchance it would be at a moment when the sun was setting with splendor in the west, his light reflected far and wide through the clarified air after a rain, and a brilliant rainbow, as now, o’erarching the eastern sky. Would he be likely to think this a vulgar place to live, where one would weary of existence and be compelled to devote his life to frivolity and dissipation? If a man travelling from world to world were to pass through this world at such a moment, would he not be tempted to take up his abode here?

* * *

Wednesday, August 11.

Alcott here the 9th and 10th. He, the spiritual philosopher, is, and has been for some months, devoted to the study of his own genealogy, — he whom only the genealogy of humanity, the descent of man from God should concern! He has been to his native town of Wolcott, Ct., on this errand, has faithfully perused the records of some fifteen towns, has read the epitaphs in as many churchyards, and wherever he found the name Alcock, excerpted it and all connected with it: for he is delighted to discover that the original name was All-cock and meant something, that some grandfather or great-grandfather bore it, — Philip Alcock, — (though his son wisely enough changed it to Alcott). He who wrote of Human Culture, eh who conducted the Conversations on the Gospels, he who discoursed of Sleep, Health, Worship, Friendship, etc., last winter, now reading the wills and the epitaphs of the Alcocks with the zeal of a professed antiquarian and genealogist! He has discovered that one George Alcock (afterwards Deacon George) came over with Winthrop in 1630 and settled in Roxbury. Has read Eliot’s account of him in the Church records and been caught by a passage in which [his] character is described by Eliot as being of “good savior,” I think it is. But he has by no means made out his descent from him. Only knows that that family owned lands in Woodstock, Connecticut. Nevertheless the similarity of name is enough and he pursues the least trace of it. Has visited a crockery dealer in Boston who trades with Alcocks of Staffordshire (?), England, great potters, who took a prize at the World’s Fair. Has, through him, obtained a cup or so with the name of the maker, Alcock, on it. Has it at his house. Has got the dealer to describe the persons of those Staffordshire Alcocks, and finds them to be of the right type, even to their noses. He knew they must be so. Has visited the tomb of Dr. John Alcock in the Granary Burying Ground, read and copied it. Has visited also the only bearer of the name in Boston, a sail-maker perchance, — though there is no evidence of the slightest connection except through Adam, — and communicated with him. He says I should survey Concord and put down every house exactly as it stands with the name. Admires the manuscript of the old records, — more pleasing than print. Has some design to collect and print epitaphs. Thinks they should be collected and printed verbatim et literatim, every one in every yard, with a perfect index added, so that persons engaged in such pursuits as himself might be absolutely sure when they turned to the name Alcock, for instance, to find it, if it was there, and not have to look over the whole yard. Talks of going to England—says it would be in his way—to visit the Alcocks of Staffordshire. Has gone now to find where lie the three thousand acres granted to the Roxbury family in 16—. “on the Assabett,” and has talked with a lawyer about the possibility of breaking the title, etc., etc.; from time to time pulling out a long note book from his bosom, with epitaphs and the like copied into it. Had copied into it the epitaph of my grandmother-in-law, which he came across in some graveyard (in Charlestown?), thinking “it would interest me”!

* * *

Sunday, August 22.

The ways by which men express themselves are infinite, — the literacy through their writings, and often they do not mind with what air they walk the streets, being sufficiently reported otherwise. But some express themselves chiefly by their gait and carriage, with swelling breasts or elephantine roll and elevated brows making themselves moving and adequate signs of themselves, having no other outlet. If their greatness had signalized itself sufficiently in some other ways, though it were only in picking locks, they could afford to dispense with the swagger.

* * *

September 13.

I must walk more with free senses. It is as bad to study stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without looking. Carlyle said that how to observe was to look, but I say that it is rather to see, and the more you look the less you will observe. I have the habit of attention to such excess that my senses get no rest, but suffer from a constant strain. Be not preoccupied with looking. Go not to the object; let it come to you. When I have found myself ever looking down and confining my gaze to the flowers, I have thought it might be well to get into the habit of observing the clouds as a corrective; but no, that study would be just as bad. What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of they eye.

* * *

December 15.

Saw a small flock of geese go over. One’s life, the enterprise he is here upon, should certainly be a grand fact to consider, not a mean or insignificant one. A man should not live without a purpose, and that purpose must surely be a grand one. But is this fact of “our life” commonly but a puff of air, a flash in the pan, a smoke, a nothing? It does not afford arena for a tragedy.


August 18.

What means this sense of lateness that so comes over one now, as if the rest of the year were downhill, and if we had not performed anything before, we should not now? The season of lowers or of promise may be said to be over, and now is the season of fruits: but where is our fruit? The night of the year is approaching. What have we done with our talent? All nature prompts and reproves us. How early in the year it begins to be late! The sound of the crickets even in the spring makes our hearts beat with its awful reproof, while it encourages with its seasonable warning. It matters not by how little we have fallen behind; it seems irretrievably late. The year is full of warnings of its shortness, as is life. The sound of so many insects and the sight of so many flowers affect us so, the creak of the cricket and the sight of the prunella and autumnal dandelion. They say, For the night cometh in which no man may work.

* * *

October 12.

To-day I have had the experience of borrowing money for a poor Irishman who wishes to get his family to this country. One will never know his neighbors till he has carried a subscription paper among them. Ah, it reveals many and sad facts to stand in this relation to them. To hear the selfish and cowardly excuses some make, that if they help any they must help the Irishman who lives with them! And him they are sure never to help. Others, with whom public opinion weighs, will think of it, trusting you never will raise the sum and so they will not be called on again, who give stingily after all. What a satire in the fact that you are much more inclined to call on a certain slighted and so-called crazy woman in moderate circumstances rather than on the president of the bank! But some are generous and save the town from the distinction which threatened it, and some, even, who do not lend, plainly would if they could.

* * *

November 2.

What is nature unless there is an eventful human life passing within her? Many joys and many sorrows are the lights and shadows in which she shows most beautiful.

* * *

November 9.

P. M. to Fair Haven Hill by boat with W. E. C.

We rowed against a very powerful wind, sometimes scarcely making any headway. It was with difficulty often that we moved our paddles through the air for a new stroke. As C. said, it seemed to blow out of a hole. We had to turn our oars edgewise to it. … Landed and walked over Conant’s Indian rye-field, and I picked up two good arrowheads. The river with its waves has a very wild look southward, and I see the white caps of the waves in Fair Haven Bay. Went into the woods by Holden Swamp and sat down to hear the wind roar amid the tree-tops. What an incessant straining of the trees! It is a music that wears better than the opera, methinks. This reminds me how the telegraph wire hummed coarsely in the tempest as we passed under it.

Hitherto it had only rained a little from time to time, but now it began suddenly in earnest. We hastily rowed across to the firm ground of Fair Haven Hill side, drew up our boat and turned it over in a twinkling on to a clump of alders covered with cat-briars which kept up the lee side, and crawled under it. There we lay half an hour on the damp ground and cat-briars, hardly able to see out to the storm, which we heard on our roof through the thick alder stems, much pleased with the tightness of our roof, which we frequently remarked upon. We took immense satisfaction in the thoroughness of our protection against the rain which it afforded. Remembered that such was the origin of the Numidian architecture and, as some think, of the nave (ship) in Gothic architecture, and if we had had a dry bed beneath us, and an ugly gap under the windward side of the boat through [which] the wind drew had been stopped, we should have lain there longer.

At length, as it threatened to be an all-night storm, we crawled out again and set sail homeward. It now began to rain harder than ever, and the wind was so strong and gusty and blew so nearly at right angles with the river that we found it impossible to keep the stream long at a time with our sail set, sitting on one side till the water came in plentifully that the side might act as a keel, but were repeatedly driven ashore amid the button-bushes, and then had to work our way to the other side slowly and start again. What with water in the boat and in our clothes we were now indifferent to wet. At length it began to rain so much harder than before, the great drops seeming to flat down the waves and suppress the wind and feeling like hail on our hands and faces, that as we remembered it had only sprinkled before. By this time, of course, we were wet quite through and through, and C. began to inquire and jest about the condition of our money—a singular prudence methought—and buried his wallet in his pocket handkerchief and returned it to his pocket again. He thought that bank-bills would be spoiled. It had never occurred to me if a man got completely wet through how it might affect the bank-bills in his wallet, it is so rare a thing for me to have any there. At length we both took to rowing so vigorously to keep ourselves warm, and so got home, just after candlelight.

* * *

November 14.

P. M. to Anursnack.

From this hill I am struck with the smoothness and washed appearance of all the landscape. All these russet fields and swells look as if the withered grass had been combed by the flowing water; not merely the sandy roads but the fields are swept. All waters—the rivers and ponds and swollen brooks—and many new ones are now seen through the leafless trees—are blue as indigo, reservoirs of dark indigo amid the general russet and reddish-brown and gray. October answers to that period in the life of man when he is no longer dependent on his transient moods, when all his experience ripens into wisdom; but every root, branch, and leaf of him glows with maturity. What he has been and done in his spring and summer appears. He bears his fruit.

* * *

December 8.

I was amused by R. W. E.’s telling me that he drove his own calf out of the yard as it was coming in with the cow, not knowing it to be his own, a drove going by at the time.

* * *

December 22.

Surveying the last three days. They have not yielded much that I am aware of. All I find is the old bound-marks, and the slowness and dullness of farmers reconfirmed. They even complain that I walk too fast for them. Their legs have become stiff from toil. This coarse and hurried outdoor work compels me to live grossly or be inattentive to my diet, — that is the worst of it. Like work, like diet; that, I find, is the rule. Left to my chosen pursuits, I should never drink tea nor coffee, nor eat meat. The diet of any class or generation is the natural result of its employment and locality. It is remarkable how unprofitable it is for the most part to talk with farmers. They commonly stand on their good behavior and attempt to moralize or philosophize in a serious conversation. Sportsmen and loafers are better company. For society a man must not be too good or well disposed, to spoil his natural disposition. The bad are frequently good enough to let you see how bad they are, but the good as frequently endeavor [to] get between you and themselves.

I have dined out five times and tea’d once within a week. Four times there was tea on the dinner-table, always meat, but once baked beans, always pie but no puddings. I suspect tea has taken the place of cider with farmers. I am reminded of Haydon the painter’s experience when he went about painting the nobility. I go about to the houses of the farmers and squires in like manner. This is my portrait-paining, when I would fain be employed on higher subjects. I have offered myself much more earnestly as a lecturer than a surveyor; yet I do not get any employment as a lecturer, was not invited to lecture once last winter, but I can get surveying enough, which a hundred others in this country can do as well as I, though it is not boasting much to say that a hundred others in New England cannot lecture as well as I on my themes. But they who do not make the highest demand on you shall rue it. It is because they make a low demand on themselves. All the while that they use only your humbler faculties, your higher, unemployed faculties like an invisible cimitar are cutting them in twain. Woe be to the generation that lets any higher faculty in its midst go unemployed! That is to deny God and know him not, and he accordingly will know not of them.

This is the final part in a five-part series.
Read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.
  1. Thoreau queries this passage in pencil.