February 23, 2018

Thoreau as Porcupine & Orchid

On this day in 1862 Henry David Thoreau died at the age of forty-four, from bronchial and respiratory problems. Although the Walden Pond site is regarded as his true monument, he is buried with Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts on Authors' Ridge, in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Thoreau was an integral but prickly member of the Transcendentalist community in Massachusetts, as might be expected from the writer of "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." Even Emerson grew to dislike his friend's Waldenisms, if only for stylistic reasons: "Always a weary, captious paradox to fight you with," he wrote in his journal. In his journal, Thoreau shows how he could get just as tired of Emerson's smooth "palaver," his "repeating himself, shampooing himself, [as if] Christ himself." Thoreau was not without friends, but most seemed to side with Emerson. One said, "I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." Robert Louis Stevenson did not know Thoreau, but had read him, and had also read Emerson's funeral eulogy of him. Stevenson was as gregarious as Thoreau was private, and seemed to judge his unsociability as a good and natural thing: "It was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish."

In his funeral eulogy, Emerson regretted that Thoreau always "wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory," and wished that his priorities had been different: "...instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party." But Emerson praised Thoreau's many gifts, accepted that the "born protestant" was a unique spirit, and chuckled over the tastes of one who, in answer at the dinner table to a question about which dish he preferred would say, "the nearest." And the eulogy included a poem -- in Thoreau's own poetry, said Emerson, "the thyme and marjoram are not yet honey" -- which paid sincere tribute to the rare, deep woods flower:
    ...A queen rejoices in her peers,
    And wary Nature knows her own,
    By court and city, dale and down,
    And like a lover volunteers,
    And to her son will treasures more,
    And more to purpose, freely pour
    In one wood walk, than learned men
    Will find with glass in ten times ten.

    It seemed as if the breezes brought him,
    It seemed as if the sparrows taught him,
    As if by secret sign he knew
    Where in far fields the orchis grew.
Thoreau says that while living in his cabin he taught a mouse to come to the sound of his flute. The flute is now in the Concord Museum, Thoreau's and his father's names carved into it. Louisa May Alcott's poetic tribute to Thoreau is called "Thoreau's Flute":
    We sighing said, "Our Pan is dead;
    His pipe hangs mute beside the river
    Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
    But Music's airy voice is fled.
    Spring mourns as for untimely frost;
    The bluebird chants a requiem;
    The willow-blossom waits for him;
    The Genius of the wood is lost."

    Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
    There came a low, harmonious breath:
    "For such as he there is no death;
    His life the eternal life commands;
    Above man's aims his nature rose.
    The wisdom of a just content
    Made one small spot a continent
    And tuned to poetry life's prose....

    "To him no vain regrets belong
    Whose soul, that finer instrument,
    Gave to the world no poor lament,
    But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
    O lonely friend! he still will be
    A potent presence, though unseen,
    Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;
    Seek not for him -- he is with thee."

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