Last week I finished reading Thoreau’s “Walden.” Truly it was a joyful experience revisiting a childhood inspiration, and now I think I have the maturity to take the parts that still resonate and leave the parts that don’t. I also can really appreciate his artistic sensibility and the way he captured his love for the natural the world around him with his words for us to enjoy nearly two centuries later.
For one final post on this writer’s exceptional work, I will share a few passages that stuck with me, and a little bit about why 🙂
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind…
..It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.Economy p6
COMMENTARY: The opening lines of this passage may be Thoreau’s most famous. It has certainly always resonated deeply for me. In this passage, as in many others in this book, Thoreau decries the ways of his fellow men and women, who he thought toiled all their lives either to keep up appearances and get ahead with others, or otherwise busy themselves with things that don’t really matter
I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment…. I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer. Men and oxen exchange work; but if we consider necessary work only, the oxen will be seen to have greatly the advantage, their farm is so much the larger… Certainly no nation that live simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals… I should never have broken a horse or bull and taken him to board for any work he might do for me, for fear I should become a horse-man or a herds-man merely.Economy, p57
COMMENTARY: Thoreau here describes his oft-repeated preference for simple lifestyle that is free from the burden of having many possessions (in this case animals). He is turning conventional wisdom about the desirability of property on its head, and saying, “No thanks. I don’t want the headache. I think I’ll pass.”
For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.Economy, p72
COMMENTARY: Thoreau here basically says, “I needed to work only six weeks out of the year to pay for my expenses. The rest of the time I did what I wanted. So suck it!” I added that last part. But to me it sounds like a glorious trade off.
With respect to landscape,–
“I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute.”
I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, p86
COMMENTARY: In this section, in which Thoreau describes surveying many farms but ultimately opting not to purchase any of them, he makes a distinction between what is commonly thought of as ownership or possession of land, and the experience of truly “owning” its beauty, as the poet does through his poetry. The farmer, he says, knows nothing of this.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swatch and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, p94
COMMENTARY: This is another famous Thoreau passage. In fact, this is the one I used used for my college entrance essay. Still awesome stuff.
[Here Thoreau describes a man he met, presumably during his time in Walden] There was a certain positive originality, however slight, to be detected in him, and I occasionally observed that he was thinking for himself and expressing his own opinion, a phenomenon so rare that I would, any day walk ten miles to observe it… Though he hesitated, and perhaps failed to express himself distinctly, he always had a presentable thought behind…. He suggested that there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life, however permanently humble and illiterate, who take their own view always, or do not pretend to see at all; who are as bottomless even as Walden Pond was thought to be, though they may be dark and muddy.Visitors, p156
COMMENTARY: Here I detect one of Thoreau’s primary criticism of his fellow people… that all too often they didn’t think for themselves! Indeed, this quality absolutely exudes from “Walden.” With every line, one feels that one is reading the exact words that Thoreau wishes to use, without him shifting, backpedaling, or side-stepping for fear of what others will think. Yet neither are his words brutal or hateful. They unerringly straight-shooting and direct, in the service of his higher aims: describing his ideal of how people could live.
[Here Thoreau relates a conversation he had with an Irishman] I purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one… I told him, that as he worked so hard at bogging, he required thick boots and stout clothing, which yet were soon soiled and worn out, but I wore light shoes and thin clothing, which cost not half so much… and in an hour or two, without labor, but as a recreation, I could, if I wished, catch as many fish as I should want for two days, or earn enough money to support me a week. If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement. John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms a-kimbo, and both appeared to be wondering if they had capital enough to begin such a course with, or arithmetic enough to carry it through.Baker Farm, p219
COMMENTARY: Thoreau is describing his attempt to convert a “bogger” (which I believe amounts to some sort of low status manual laborer) to his frugal, “live simply” philosophy. The man and his wife apparently just stared at him, not getting it because, as he seems to suggest, they haven’t properly done the math to see how bad they’ve got it. I have frequently felt this way when trying to explain to others the value of good financial planning.
We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. While such a sun holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors.Spring, p330
COMMENTARY: In this chapter, Thoreau talks of the beauty of spring at Walden as it emerges from the cold of winter. He suggests that all of us would do well to forget our preoccupations with the past, with our imagined failures, sins, and vices, and instead glory in the redemption available by truly living in the present moment.
I learned this, at least by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. 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.Conclusion, p340
COMMENTARY: Another famous Thoreau passage, and one of my favorites! To me it is the ultimate invitation to live nobly and truly in the service of your dreams and ideals 🙂
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finger will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any.Conclusion, p345
COMMENTARY: Here Thoreau offers soothing advice that we all appreciate our lives, however “mean” they are. He also extols the virtue, not I think of poverty (even though it sort of sounds like it), but simplicity. He makes the rather ingenious point that everyone, poor or rich, can experience the same joys of nature (such as the setting sun and the melting snow). Do not despair if your neighbor has a bigger boat then you do! Enjoy your raft. You can ride it Huckleberry Finn style, and go adventuring!