Thoreau occupies a singular place in American Literature. He is usually identified with Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, yet any serious study of his work makes it clear that he is unique in World Literature.
Biographies of Thoreau often describe him as an American philosopher. Yet like Whitman, Thoreau is much more: a prophet, of nature and wilderness and of being truly “American.” It is this quality that makes me pick up Thoreau and Whitman again and again.
Here are some quotes this week from his journals about, the woods, emotion, poetry, and truly seeing things.
The Journal 1837–1861
The season of fruits is arrived. The dog’s-bane has a pretty, delicate bell-like flower. The Jersey tea abounds. I see the marks of the scythes in the fields, showing the breadth of each swath the mowers cut. Filberts are formed, and you may get the berry stains out of your hands with their husks, if you have any. Nightshade is in blossom. Came through the pine plains behind James Baker’s, where late was open pasture. These are among our pleasantest woods,— open, level, with blackberry vines interspersed and flowers, as lady’s-slippers, earlier, and pinks on the outskirts. Each tree has room enough. And now I hear the wood thrush from the shade, who loves these pine woods as well as I. (pp. 61-62).
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The mind is subject to moods, as the shadows of clouds pass over the earth. Pay not too much heed to them. (p. 63).
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But this habit of close observation,— in Humboldt, Darwin, and others. Is it to be kept up long, this science? Do not tread on the heels of your experience. Be impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression and the expression,— waits till the seed germinates naturally. (p. 63)
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Ah, what a poor, dry compilation is the “Annual of Scientific Discovery!” I trust that observations are made during the year which are not chronicled there,— that some mortal may have caught a glimpse of Nature in some corner of the earth during the year 1851. One sentence of perennial poetry would make me forget, would atone for, volumes of mere science. The astronomer is as blind to the significant phenomena, or the significance of phenomena, as the wood-sawyer who wears glasses to defend his eyes from sawdust. The question is not what you look at, but what you see. (p. 65).