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American Literature After 1850. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) Walden (1854) and selected poems. © Dr Susan Oliver 2010 Room 5A.135 email: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Born and died Concord, Massachusetts

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american literature after 1850
American LiteratureAfter 1850
  • Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
  • Walden (1854) and selected poems

© Dr Susan Oliver 2010

Room 5A.135


henry david thoreau 1817 1862
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
  • Born and died Concord, Massachusetts
  • Only once travelled outside the USA - to Montreal and Quebec in 1850.
  • However, In terms of literature and the associative imagination, he “travelled” extensively - to Europe, the far east, the pacific nations, and the farthest tip of South America. For Thoreau, intimate knowldege of the local, natural environment opened the mind to literary exploration of the globe and universe.
  • He was known as one of the “Brahmin” transcendentalists because of his interest in eastern - and particularly Hindu - philosophy, myth and literature.
  • Walden takes as its setting a single location on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts, New England. Through the imagination and processes of association, the narrator talks about a wide range of western classical literature, particularly that of ancient Greece (the description of the Ant War in ‘Brute Neighbors’ parodies the extended simile and accounts of heroism in Greek epic).
  • Thoreaualso refers to Confucius, the 5th century B.C. Chinese philosopher and mystic, and to Indian Brahmin philosophy.
  • Thoreau’s experiment in living alone at Walden Pond offers a different kind of transcendentalist utopia to that of George Ripley’s Brook Farm Project commune (a project in which other transcendentalist writers including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller participated).

From R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’ (1837)

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of Nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, Night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is Nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find,—so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on system shooting like rays upward, downward, without centre, without circumference,—in the mass and in the particle, Nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind. Classification begins. To the young mind, everything is individual, stands by itself. . . .

And, in fine, the ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study Nature,” become at last one maxim. . . .

[Ends:] A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

From R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature’ (1836)

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

transcendentalist principles
Transcendentalist Principles
  • The Dial: a periodical dedicated to Transcendentalsim. Founded and edited by Emerson and
  • ‘An original relation to the universe, founded on self-reliance and respect’ (R. Gray, A History of American Literature, 130) [Emphasis on the individual]
  • Awareness of the presence of a spiritual, creative power in nature and in man (pantheism) and a sense of nature as the means of communication with creative spirit/God. - Individual, intuitive knowledge of a divine spirit, revealed through nature. Direct contact between individual consciousness and the benevolent divine spirit in nature.
  • Project to improve the moral nature of the individual - and consequently, society - through sympathetic contact with the natural world and ongoing reflection on that experience.
  • Need for ongoing reflection and contemplation of the inner self, in moments of tranquillity and solitariness.
  • Influenced by British and German Romanticism: Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle (Emerson met Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle during a visit to Britain in 1832, before he wrote ‘Nature.)
  • Also influenced by Eastern philosophy from Hinduism and from Confucius.
  • The natural world – away from crowds and distractions – an agent for all of the above.

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with freedom and culture merely civil, - to regard man as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of a society.” Henry David Thoreau, Walking(began as a lecture, delivered at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851 and subsequently in other locations. The lecture eventually became an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862 after Thoreau’s death.)

original title page showing hut trees and path
Original Title Page- showing hut, trees and path

(The Image above and photographs on following slides are from :

1908 photograph of the pond, from near the hut. There were fewer trees then and in Thoreau’s time than now.

Walden and Nature

  • We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. . . 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. (Ch. 2 ‘Where I lived, and what I lived for’ )
  • We need the tonic of wilderness - to wade sometimes in the marshes where the bittern and the meadow hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wild and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us, because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (Ch. 17, ‘Spring’)
time and society in walden
Time and society in Walden
  • The railroad is symbolic of - and a metaphor for - the machine-like nature of modern life, always rushing from somewhere to somewhere else and casting people aside as it does so. Thoreau bought his hut from an Irish railway worker. Here are some examples of how the railroad features in Walden :‘I should not need to look farther than to the shanties which everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in civilization; where I see in my daily walks human beings living in sties, and all winter with an open door, for the sake of light, without any visible, often imaginable, wood-pile’ (Ch. 1 ‘Economy’).‘We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them’ (Ch. 2 ‘Where I Lived and what I lived for’). ‘I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other. But for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself’ (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’)
  • (Continued on next slide)

Walden emphasizes the disparity between Native American time, which is in tune with the natural rhythms of nature, and white American East-coast time, which operates according to the artificial rhythms of work, news bulletins, and railroad timetables. The narrator also explores the relativity of al human time according to cultural understanding.

  • Edgar Allan Poe in an 1844 letter to James Russell Lowell: “ Man is now only more active – not more happy – nor more wise, than he was 6,000 years ago.”
  • “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all his own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” after 1848 lecture at Concord. Published in the transcendentalist periodical Aesthetic Papers (also contained essays by Emerson, Hawthorne, Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody.
“I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’ ).
  • “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I come and go with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’ ).
  • “Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’ ).
  • “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. I love to be alone” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’.
  • “We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night. We live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another. Consider the girls in a factory – they are never alone, hardly in their dreams” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’ ).
“I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once . . . but I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mod, and seemed to forsee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in nature” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’ ).
  • “the indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature; of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’).
  • “It is as much Asia or Africa, as New England” (Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’ ).

The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature — of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter — such health, such cheer, they afford forever! and such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun's brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve. Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself? ( Ch. 5 ‘Solitude’)

from ch 12 brute neighbors
From Ch. 12 “Brute Neighbors”

Hermit. I wonder what the world is doing now. I have not heard so much as a locust over the sweet-fern these three hours. The pigeons are all asleep upon their roosts -- no flutter from them. Was that a farmer's noon horn which sounded from beyond the woods just now? The hands are coming in to boiled salt beef and cider and Indian bread. Why will men worry themselves so? He that does not eat need not work. I wonder how much they have reaped. Who would live there where a body can never think for the barking of Bose? And oh, the housekeeping! to keep bright the devil's door-knobs, and scour his tubs this bright day! Better not keep a house. Say, some hollow tree; and then for morning calls and dinner-parties! Only a woodpecker tapping. Oh, they swarm; the sun is too warm there; they are born too far into life for me. I have water from the spring, and a loaf of brown bread on the shelf. -- Hark! I hear a rustling of the leaves. Is it some ill-fed village hound yielding to the instinct of the chase? or the lost pig which is said to be in these woods, whose tracks I saw after the rain? It comes on apace; my sumachs and sweetbriers tremble. -- Eh, Mr. Poet, is it you? How do you like the world to-day?

Poet. See those clouds; how they hang! That's the greatest thing I have seen to-day. There's nothing like it in old paintings, nothing like it in foreign lands -- unless when we were off the coast of Spain. That's a true Mediterranean sky. I thought, as I have my living to get, and have not eaten to-day, that I might go a-fishing. That's the true industry for poets. It is the only trade I have learned. Come, let's along.


The Ant War in ‘Brute Neighbors’- an extended simile based on classical literature, USING LITERARY CONVENTIONS TO reflecT on war - ancient, more recent, and univerSAL

  • ‘It was evident that their battle-cry was "Conquer or die." In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus.’ The Trojan War is the conflict referred to here. The literary allusion is to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well a to Virgil’s Aeneid. Classical literature in general is invoked, and the motif of the shield alludes to the contrast/conflict between the Spartans and the Athenians.
  • ‘And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment's comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed. For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden. Concord Fight! Two killed on the patriots' side, and Luther Blanchard wounded! Why here every ant was a Buttrick -- "Fire! for God's sake fire!" -- and thousands shared the fate of Davis and Hosmer. There was not one hireling there. I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least.’ [The battles referred to here are from the Napoleonic Wars (Austerlitz and Dresden) and the American War of Independence (Bunker Hill). The American War of Independence/Revolutionary War began near to Walden Pond with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.]
from conclusion
From ‘Conclusion’
  • ‘The learned societies and great men of Assyria, where are they? What youthful philosophers and experimentalists we are?’
  • ‘I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments.’
  • ‘The light that puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.’(Walden, last lines. ‘Conclusion’ )
for further consideration chapters titled reading the bean field and the pond in winter
For further consideration: Chapters titled ‘Reading,’ ‘The Bean Field’ and ‘The Pond in Winter’
  • ‘Reading’: ‘My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university . . . . I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table though the summer. . . . We learn to read only as far as Easy Reading . . . And our reading, our conversation and thinking are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.’
  • ‘The Bean Field’: Thoreau’s method of cultivation gets away from the modernisation of farming practice. He plants his crop late and the yield is poor. However, he celebrates his labour as a creative act, exults in the miracle of growth, and shares his space sympathetically with nature. The chapter again draws on classical literature and philosophy.
  • ‘Shall I not rejoice at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?’
  • ‘The Pond in Winter’: I suggest that you read the account of the ice-cutters at the end of this chapter, and compare their commercialism with Thoreau’s description of the ice.
samuel taylor coleridge 1772 1834 for comparison
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)(For Comparison)

And that simplest Lute,

Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!

How by the desultory breeze caress'd,

Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,

It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs

Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings

Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes

Over delicious surges sink and rise,

Such a soft floating witchery of sound

As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve

Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,

Where Melodies round honey-dripping flowers,

Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,

Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam'd wing!

O! the one Life within us and abroad,

Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—

Methinks, it should have been impossible

Not to love all things in a world so fill'd;

Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air

Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

From “The Eolian Harp” (1795)

My pensive SARA ! thy soft cheek reclined

Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is

To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o'ergrown

With white-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad-leav’d Myrtle,

(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love !)

And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,

Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve

Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)

Shine opposite ! How exquisite the scents

Snatch'd from yon bean-field! and the world so hush'd !

The stilly murmur of the distant Sea

Tells us of silence.

william wordsworth 1770 1850 for comparison
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)(for Comparison)

‘The World is Too Much With Us’

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea.

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,

  • A visitant that while it fans my cheek
  • Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
  • From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
  • Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
  • To none more grateful than to me; escaped
  • From the vast city, where I long had pined
  • A discontented sojourner: now free,
  • Free as a bird to settle where I will.
  • What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale 10
  • Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove
  • Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream
  • Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?
  • The earth is all before me. With a heart
  • Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
  • I look about; and should the chosen guide
  • Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
  • I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!
  • Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
  • Come fast upon me: it is shaken off, 20
  • That burthen of my own unnatural self,
  • The heavy weight of many a weary day
  • Not mine, and such as were not made for me.
  • Long months of peace (if such bold word accord
  • With any promises of human life),
  • Long months of ease and undisturbed delight
  • Are mine in prospect; whither shall I turn,
  • By road or pathway, or through trackless field,
  • Up hill or down, or shall some floating thing
  • Upon the river point me out my course?

From W. Wordsworth, The Prelude ‘Book 1’

Some useful electronic resources:
  • Annotated e-text (with photographs of the pond):
  • BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcaston Thoreau and the American Idyll:
  • American Transcendentalism Web: