Part 2 - Walden Audiobook by Henry David Thoreau (Chs 02-04)

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CHAPTER 2 - Part 1 Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the
possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every
side within a dozen miles of where I live.
In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought,
and I knew their price.
I walked over each farmer's premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on
husbandry with him, took his farm at his price, at any price, mortgaging it to him
in my mind; even put a higher price on it--
took everything but a deed of it--took his word for his deed, for I dearly love to
talk--cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had
enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on.
This experience entitled me to be regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by my
Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.
What is a house but a sedes, a seat?-- better if a country seat.
I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some
might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too
far from it.
Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a
winter life; saw how I could let the years run off, buffet the winter through, and see
the spring come in.
The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may
be sure that they have been anticipated.
An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture, and to
decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence
each blasted tree could be seen to the best
advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow, perchance, for a man is rich in proportion
to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
My imagination carried me so far that I even had the refusal of several farms--the
refusal was all I wanted--but I never got my fingers burned by actual possession.
The nearest that I came to actual possession was when I bought the Hollowell
place, and had begun to sort my seeds, and collected materials with which to make a
wheelbarrow to carry it on or off with; but
before the owner gave me a deed of it, his wife--every man has such a wife--changed
her mind and wished to keep it, and he offered me ten dollars to release him.
Now, to speak the truth, I had but ten cents in the world, and it surpassed my
arithmetic to tell, if I was that man who had ten cents, or who had a farm, or ten
dollars, or all together.
However, I let him keep the ten dollars and the farm too, for I had carried it far
enough; or rather, to be generous, I sold him the farm for just what I gave for it,
and, as he was not a rich man, made him a
present of ten dollars, and still had my ten cents, and seeds, and materials for a
wheelbarrow left. I found thus that I had been a rich man
without any damage to my poverty.
But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded
without a wheelbarrow. With respect to landscapes,
"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.
The real attractions of the Hollowell farm, to me, were: its complete retirement,
being, about two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and
separated from the highway by a broad
field; its bounding on the river, which the owner said protected it by its fogs from
frosts in the spring, though that was nothing to me; the gray color and ruinous
state of the house and barn, and the
dilapidated fences, which put such an interval between me and the last occupant;
the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees, gnawed by rabbits, showing what kind of
neighbors I should have; but above all, the
recollection I had of it from my earliest voyages up the river, when the house was
concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through which I heard the house-dog
I was in haste to buy it, before the proprietor finished getting out some rocks,
cutting down the hollow apple trees, and grubbing up some young birches which had
sprung up in the pasture, or, in short, had made any more of his improvements.
To enjoy these advantages I was ready to carry it on; like Atlas, to take the world
on my shoulders--I never heard what compensation he received for that--and do
all those things which had no other motive
or excuse but that I might pay for it and be unmolested in my possession of it; for I
knew all the while that it would yield the most abundant crop of the kind I wanted, if
I could only afford to let it alone.
But it turned out as I have said. All that I could say, then, with respect to
farming on a large scale--I have always cultivated a garden--was, that I had had my
seeds ready.
Many think that seeds improve with age. I have no doubt that time discriminates
between the good and the bad; and when at last I shall plant, I shall be less likely
to be disappointed.
But I would say to my fellows, once for all, As long as possible live free and
uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you
are committed to a farm or the county jail.
Old Cato, whose "De Re Rustica" is my "Cultivator," says--and the only
translation I have seen makes sheer nonsense of the passage--"When you think of
getting a farm turn it thus in your mind,
not to buy greedily; nor spare your pains to look at it, and do not think it enough
to go round it once. The oftener you go there the more it will
please you, if it is good."
I think I shall not buy greedily, but go round and round it as long as I live, and
be buried in it first, that it may please me the more at last.
The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at
length, for convenience putting the experience of two years into one.
As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily
as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well
as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence Day, or the Fourth of July,
1845, my house was not finished for winter,
but was merely a defence against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls
being of rough, weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at
The upright white hewn studs and freshly planed door and window casings gave it a
clean and airy look, especially in the morning, when its timbers were saturated
with dew, so that I fancied that by noon some sweet gum would exude from them.
To my imagination it retained throughout the day more or less of this auroral
character, reminding me of a certain house on a mountain which I had visited a year
This was an airy and unplastered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a
goddess might trail her garments.
The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of
mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.
The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the
ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the earth
The only house I had been the owner of before, if I except a boat, was a tent,
which I used occasionally when making excursions in the summer, and this is still
rolled up in my garret; but the boat, after
passing from hand to hand, has gone down the stream of time.
With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward
settling in the world.
This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on
the builder. It was suggestive somewhat as a picture in
I did not need to go outdoors to take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost
none of its freshness.
It was not so much within doors as behind a door where I sat, even in the rainiest
weather. The Harivansa says, "An abode without birds
is like a meat without seasoning."
Such was not my abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by
having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.
I was not only nearer to some of those which commonly frequent the garden and the
orchard, but to those smaller and more thrilling songsters of the forest which
never, or rarely, serenade a villager--the
wood thrush, the veery, the scarlet tanager, the field sparrow, the whip-poor-
will, and many others.
I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half south of the
village of Concord and somewhat higher than it, in the midst of an extensive wood
between that town and Lincoln, and about
two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground; but I
was so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest,
covered with wood, was my most distant horizon.
For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn
high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of other
lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it
throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft
ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts,
were stealthily withdrawing in every
direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle.
The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees later into the day than usual, as on the
sides of mountains.
This small lake was of most value as a neighbor in the intervals of a gentle rain-
storm in August, when, both air and water being perfectly still, but the sky
overcast, mid-afternoon had all the
serenity of evening, and the wood thrush sang around, and was heard from shore to
A lake like this is never smoother than at such a time; and the clear portion of the
air above it being, shallow and darkened by clouds, the water, full of light and
reflections, becomes a lower heaven itself so much the more important.
From a hill-top near by, where the wood had been recently cut off, there was a pleasing
vista southward across the pond, through a wide indentation in the hills which form
the shore there, where their opposite sides
sloping toward each other suggested a stream flowing out in that direction
through a wooded valley, but stream there was none.
That way I looked between and over the near green hills to some distant and higher ones
in the horizon, tinged with blue.
Indeed, by standing on tiptoe I could catch a glimpse of some of the peaks of the still
bluer and more distant mountain ranges in the northwest, those true-blue coins from
heaven's own mint, and also of some portion of the village.
But in other directions, even from this point, I could not see over or beyond the
woods which surrounded me.
It is well to have some water in your neighborhood, to give buoyancy to and float
the earth.
One value even of the smallest well is, that when you look into it you see that
earth is not continent but insular. This is as important as that it keeps
butter cool.
When I looked across the pond from this peak toward the Sudbury meadows, which in
time of flood I distinguished elevated perhaps by a mirage in their seething
valley, like a coin in a basin, all the
earth beyond the pond appeared like a thin crust insulated and floated even by this
small sheet of interverting water, and I was reminded that this on which I dwelt was
but dry land.
Though the view from my door was still more contracted, I did not feel crowded or
confined in the least. There was pasture enough for my
The low shrub oak plateau to which the opposite shore arose stretched away toward
the prairies of the West and the steppes of Tartary, affording ample room for all the
roving families of men.
"There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon"--
said Damodara, when his herds required new and larger pastures.
Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe
and to those eras in history which had most attracted me.
Where I lived was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers.
We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial
corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair, far
from noise and disturbance.
I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new
and unprofaned, part of the universe.
If it were worth the while to settle in those parts near to the Pleiades or the
Hyades, to Aldebaran or Altair, then I was really there, or at an equal remoteness
from the life which I had left behind,
dwindled and twinkling with as fine a ray to my nearest neighbor, and to be seen only
in moonless nights by him. Such was that part of creation where I had
"There was a shepherd that did live, And held his thoughts as high As were the
mounts whereon his flocks Did hourly feed him by."
What should we think of the shepherd's life if his flocks always wandered to higher
pastures than his thoughts?
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may
say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of
Aurora as the Greeks.
I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the
best things which I did.
They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tchingthang to this
effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again."
I can understand that.
Morning brings back the heroic ages.
I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and
unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door
and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.
It was Homer's requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath
and wanderings.
There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of
the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.
The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.
Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us
awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.
Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not
awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are
not awakened by our own newly acquired
force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial
music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air--to a higher life
than we fell asleep from; and thus the
darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.
That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and
auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a
descending and darkening way.
After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs
rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can
All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning
atmosphere. The Vedas say, "All intelligences awake
with the morning."
Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from
such an hour.
All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at
To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a
perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the
attitudes and labors of men.
Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.
Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.
Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been
slumbering? They are not such poor calculators.
If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake
enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic
or divine life.
To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite
awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
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
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate
his life by a conscious endeavor.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue,
and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint
the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.
To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation
of his most elevated and critical hour.
If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles
would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
CHAPTER 2 - Part 2 Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
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 practise resignation, unless it was quite
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and
Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave
close, to drive life into a corner, and
reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the
whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it
were sublime, to know it by experience, and
be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is
of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end
of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago
changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and
clout upon clout, and our best virtue has
for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.
Our life is frittered away by detail.
An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases
he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!
I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of
a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and
storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to
live, if he would not founder and go to the
bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great
calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.
Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred
dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary
forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any
The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way
are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown
establishment, cluttered with furniture and
tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of
calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the
only cure for it, as for them, is in a
rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of
purpose. It lives too fast.
Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and
talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether
they do or not; but whether we should live
like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.
If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the
work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads?
And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season?
But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads?
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.
They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down
and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have
the misfortune to be ridden upon.
And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary
sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a
hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception.
I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the
sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may
sometime get up again.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?
We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.
Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today
to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any
We have the Saint Vitus' dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still.
If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is,
without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of
Concord, notwithstanding that press of
engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman,
I might almost say, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save
property from the flames, but, if we will
confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it
known, did not set it on fire--or to see it put out, and have a hand in it, if that is
done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself.
Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his
head and asks, "What's the news?" as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.
Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose;
and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed.
After a night's sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast.
"Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe"--
and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this
morning on the Wachito River; never
dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world,
and has but the rudiment of an eye himself. For my part, I could easily do without the
I think that there are very few important communications made through it.
To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life--I wrote
this some years ago--that were worth the postage.
The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man
that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest.
And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.
If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned,
or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the
Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or
one lot of grasshoppers in the winter--we never need read of another.
One is enough.
If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and
To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it
are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.
There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the
foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass
belonging to the establishment were broken
by the pressure--news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-
month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy.
As for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and
Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions--they
may have changed the names a little since I
saw the papers--and serve up a bull-fight when other entertainments fail, it will be
true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things
in Spain as the most succinct and lucid
reports under this head in the newspapers: and as for England, almost the last
significant scrap of news from that quarter was the revolution of 1649; and if you have
learned the history of her crops for an
average year, you never need attend to that thing again, unless your speculations are
of a merely pecuniary character.
If one may judge who rarely looks into the newspapers, nothing new does ever happen in
foreign parts, a French revolution not excepted.
What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old!
"Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu to know
his news.
Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in
these terms: What is your master doing?
The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of
his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them.
The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger!
What a worthy messenger!"
The preacher, instead of vexing the ears of drowsy farmers on their day of rest at the
end of the week--for Sunday is the fit conclusion of an ill-spent week, and not
the fresh and brave beginning of a new one-
-with this one other draggle-tail of a sermon, should shout with thundering voice,
"Pause! Avast!
Why so seeming fast, but deadly slow?"
Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous.
If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be
deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy
tale and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments.
If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would
resound along the streets.
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any
permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the
shadow of the reality.
This is always exhilarating and sublime.
By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men
establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still
is built on purely illusory foundations.
Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men,
who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is,
by failure.
I have read in a Hindoo book, that "there was a king's son, who, being expelled in
infancy from his native city, was brought up by a forester, and, growing up to
maturity in that state, imagined himself to
belong to the barbarous race with which he lived.
One of his father's ministers having discovered him, revealed to him what he
was, and the misconception of his character was removed, and he knew himself to be a
So soul," continues the Hindoo philosopher, "from the circumstances in which it is
placed, mistakes its own character, until the truth is revealed to it by some holy
teacher, and then it knows itself to be Brahme."
I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do
because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things.
We think that that is which appears to be.
If a man should walk through this town and see only the reality, where, think you,
would the "Mill-dam" go to?
If he should give us an account of the realities he beheld there, we should not
recognize the place in his description.
Look at a meeting-house, or a court-house, or a jail, or a shop, or a dwelling-house,
and say what that thing really is before a true gaze, and they would all go to pieces
in your account of them.
Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star,
before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true
and sublime.
But all these times and places and occasions are now and here.
God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in
the lapse of all the ages.
And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual
instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.
The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we
travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.
Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.
The poet or the artist never yet had so fair and noble a design but some of his
posterity at least could accomplish it.
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by
every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails.
Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let
company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry--determined
to make a day of it.
Why should we knock under and go with the stream?
Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a
dinner, situated in the meridian shallows.
Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill.
With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to
the mast like Ulysses.
If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains.
If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they
are like.
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush
of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion
which covers the globe, through Paris and
London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through
poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place,
which we can call reality, and say, This
is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost
and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely,
or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a
Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had
gathered from time to time.
If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun
glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing
you through the heart and marrow, and so
you will happily conclude your mortal career.
Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the
extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.
I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.
Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the
I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.
I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary.
My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated
in it.
My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use
their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these
I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin
rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.
CHAPTER 3 Reading
With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would
perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and
destiny are interesting to all alike.
In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a
state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are
immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.
The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue
of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as
fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in
him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision.
No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was
That time which we really improve, or which is improvable, is neither past, present,
nor future.
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a
university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library,
I had more than ever come within the
influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first
written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper.
Says the poet Mir Camar Uddin Mast, "Being seated, to run through the region of the
spiritual world; I have had this advantage in books.
To be intoxicated by a single glass of wine; I have experienced this pleasure when
I have drunk the liquor of the esoteric doctrines."
I kept Homer's Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page
only now and then.
Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans
to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible.
Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future.
I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that
employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.
The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or
luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and
consecrate morning hours to their pages.
The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always
be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of
each word and line, conjecturing a larger
sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.
The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to
bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.
They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious,
as ever.
It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some
words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the
street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations.
It is not in vain that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he
has heard.
Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more
modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study
classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be.
For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?
They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the
most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.
We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and
one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day
It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of
the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and
reservedly as they were written.
It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they
are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written
language, the language heard and the language read.
The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish,
and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers.
The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is
our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by
the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak.
The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the Middle Ages
were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius written in
those languages; for these were not written
in that Greek or Latin which they knew, but in the select language of literature.
They had not learned the nobler dialects of Greece and Rome, but the very materials on
which they were written were waste paper to them, and they prized instead a cheap
contemporary literature.
But when the several nations of Europe had acquired distinct though rude written
languages of their own, sufficient for the purposes of their rising literatures, then
first learning revived, and scholars were
enabled to discern from that remoteness the treasures of antiquity.
What the Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after the lapse of ages a few
scholars read, and a few scholars only are still reading it.
However much we may admire the orator's occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest
written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the
firmament with its stars is behind the clouds.
There are the stars, and they who can may read them.
The astronomers forever comment on and observe them.
They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath.
What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study.
The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob
before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his
occasion, and who would be distracted by
the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health
of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.
No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious
casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.
It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work
of art. It is the work of art nearest to life
It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed
from all human lips;--not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out
of the breath of life itself.
The symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's speech.
Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her
marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own
serene and celestial atmosphere into all
lands to protect them against the corrosion of time.
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and
Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of
every cottage.
They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the
reader his common sense will not refuse them.
Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society,
and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and
industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the
circles of wealth and fashion, he turns
inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect
and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity
and insufficiency of all his riches, and
further proves his good sense by the pains which he takes to secure for his children
that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that he
becomes the founder of a family.
Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which
they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the
human race; for it is remarkable that no
transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue, unless our civilization
itself may be regarded as such a transcript.
Homer has never yet been printed in English, nor Aeschylus, nor Virgil even--
works as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost as the morning itself; for
later writers, say what we will of their
genius, have rarely, if ever, equalled the elaborate beauty and finish and the
lifelong and heroic literary labors of the ancients.
They only talk of forgetting them who never knew them.
It will be soon enough to forget them when we have the learning and the genius which
will enable us to attend to and appreciate them.
That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics, and the
still older and more than classic but even less known Scriptures of the nations, shall
have still further accumulated, when the
Vaticans shall be filled with Vedas and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and
Dantes and Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively
deposited their trophies in the forum of the world.
By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets
can read them.
They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not
Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to
cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble
intellectual exercise they know little or
nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a
luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand
on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature,
and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or
fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives.
Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by
the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and
dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.
There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little
Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to.
There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of this,
even after the fullest dinner of meats and vegetables, for they suffer nothing to be
If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read
They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved
as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run
smooth--at any rate, how it did run and
stumble, and get up again and go on! how some poor unfortunate got up on to a
steeple, who had better never have gone up as far as the belfry; and then, having
needlessly got him up there, the happy
novelist rings the bell for all the world to come together and hear, O dear! how he
did get down again!
For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of
universal noveldom into man weather-cocks, as they used to put heroes among the
constellations, and let them swing round
there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their
The next time the novelist rings the bell I will not stir though the meeting-house burn
"The Skip of the Tip-Toe-Hop, a Romance of the Middle Ages, by the celebrated author
of 'Tittle-Tol-Tan,' to appear in monthly parts; a great rush; don't all come
All this they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with
unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little
four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-
covered edition of Cinderella--without any improvement, that I can see, in the
pronunciation, or accent, or emphasis, or any more skill in extracting or inserting
the moral.
The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a
general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties.
This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-
Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.
The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers.
What does our Concord culture amount to?
There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for
very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell.
Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere
have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the
recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient
classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the
feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them.
I know a woodchopper, of middle age, who takes a French paper, not for news as he
says, for he is above that, but to "keep himself in practice," he being a Canadian
by birth; and when I ask him what he
considers the best thing he can do in this world, he says, beside this, to keep up and
add to his English.
This is about as much as the college-bred generally do or aspire to do, and they take
an English paper for the purpose.
One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how
many with whom he can converse about it?
Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic in the original, whose
praises are familiar even to the so-called illiterate; he will find nobody at all to
speak to, but must keep silence about it.
Indeed, there is hardly the professor in our colleges, who, if he has mastered the
difficulties of the language, has proportionally mastered the difficulties of
the wit and poetry of a Greek poet, and has
any sympathy to impart to the alert and heroic reader; and as for the sacred
Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles?
Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture.
A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but
here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth
the wise of every succeeding age have
assured us of;--and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers
and class-books, and when we leave school, the "Little Reading," and story-books,
which are for boys and beginners; and our
reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of
pygmies and manikins.
I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced,
whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never
read his book?
As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him--my next neighbor and I never heard
him speak or attended to the wisdom of his words.
But how actually is it?
His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and
yet I never read them.
We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I
do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman
who cannot read at all and the
illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble
We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how
good they were.
We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights
than the columns of the daily paper. It is not all books that are as dull as
their readers.
There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could
really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to
our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us.
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new
ones. The at present unutterable things we may
find somewhere uttered.
These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn
occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them,
according to his ability, by his words and his life.
Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality.
The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his
second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes
into the silent gravity and exclusiveness
by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago,
travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to
be universal, and treated his neighbors
accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men.
Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of
all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let "our church" go by the
We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid
strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does
for its own culture.
I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not
advance either of us. We need to be provoked--goaded like oxen,
as we are, into a trot.
We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only;
but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning
of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves.
We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our
mental aliment.
It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education
when we begin to be men and women.
It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of
universities, with leisure--if they are, indeed, so well off--to pursue liberal
studies the rest of their lives.
Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?
Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under the skies of
Can we not hire some Abelard to lecture to us?
Alas! what with foddering the cattle and tending the store, we are kept from school
too long, and our education is sadly neglected.
In this country, the village should in some respects take the place of the nobleman of
Europe. It should be the patron of the fine arts.
It is rich enough.
It wants only the magnanimity and refinement.
It can spend money enough on such things as farmers and traders value, but it is
thought Utopian to propose spending money for things which more intelligent men know
to be of far more worth.
This town has spent seventeen thousand dollars on a town-house, thank fortune or
politics, but probably it will not spend so much on living wit, the true meat to put
into that shell, in a hundred years.
The one hundred and twenty-five dollars annually subscribed for a Lyceum in the
winter is better spent than any other equal sum raised in the town.
If we live in the Nineteenth Century, why should we not enjoy the advantages which
the Nineteenth Century offers? Why should our life be in any respect
If we will read newspapers, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best
newspaper in the world at once?--not be sucking the pap of "neutral family" papers,
or browsing "Olive Branches" here in New England.
Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us, and we will see if
they know anything.
Why should we leave it to Harper & Brothers and Redding & Co. to select our reading?
As the nobleman of cultivated taste surrounds himself with whatever conduces to
his culture--genius--learning--wit--books-- paintings--statuary--music--philosophical
instruments, and the like; so let the
village do--not stop short at a pedagogue, a parson, a sexton, a parish library, and
three selectmen, because our Pilgrim forefathers got through a cold winter once
on a bleak rock with these.
To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions; and I am
confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater
than the nobleman's.
New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board
them round the while, and not be provincial at all.
That is the uncommon school we want.
Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.
If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and
throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.
CHAPTER 4 Sounds
But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only
particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we
are in danger of forgetting the language
which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and
standard. Much is published, but little printed.
The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the
shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the
necessity of being forever on the alert.
What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or
the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the
discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?
Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?
Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans.
Nay, I often did better than this.
There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment
to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life.
Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny
doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and
sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and
stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until
by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the
distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.
I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any
work of the hands would have been.
They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual
allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by
contemplation and the forsaking of works.
For the most part, I minded not how the hours went.
The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is
evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.
Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good
As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my
chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest.
My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were
they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the
Puri Indians, of whom it is said that "for
yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety
of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and
overhead for the passing day."
This was sheer idleness to my fellow- townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and
flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.
A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true.
The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.
I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to
look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become
my amusement and never ceased to be novel.
It was a drama of many scenes and without an end.
If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according
to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui.
Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect
every hour. Housework was a pleasant pastime.
When my floor was dirty, I rose early, and, setting all my furniture out of doors on
the grass, bed and bedstead making but one budget, dashed water on the floor, and
sprinkled white sand from the pond on it,
and then with a broom scrubbed it clean and white; and by the time the villagers had
broken their fast the morning sun had dried my house sufficiently to allow me to move
in again, and my meditations were almost uninterupted.
It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out on the grass, making a little
pile like a gypsy's pack, and my three- legged table, from which I did not remove
the books and pen and ink, standing amid the pines and hickories.
They seemed glad to get out themselves, and as if unwilling to be brought in.
I was sometimes tempted to stretch an awning over them and take my seat there.
It was worth the while to see the sun shine on these things, and hear the free wind
blow on them; so much more interesting most familiar objects look out of doors than in
the house.
A bird sits on the next bough, life- everlasting grows under the table, and
blackberry vines run round its legs; pine cones, chestnut burs, and strawberry leaves
are strewn about.
It looked as if this was the way these forms came to be transferred to our
furniture, to tables, chairs, and bedsteads--because they once stood in their
My house was on the side of a hill, immediately on the edge of the larger wood,
in the midst of a young forest of pitch pines and hickories, and half a dozen rods
from the pond, to which a narrow footpath led down the hill.
In my front yard grew the strawberry, blackberry, and life-everlasting, johnswort
and goldenrod, shrub oaks and sand cherry, blueberry and groundnut.
Near the end of May, the sand cherry (Cerasus pumila) adorned the sides of the
path with its delicate flowers arranged in umbels cylindrically about its short stems,
which last, in the fall, weighed down with
good-sized and handsome cherries, fell over in wreaths like rays on every side.
I tasted them out of compliment to Nature, though they were scarcely palatable.
The sumach (Rhus glabra) grew luxuriantly about the house, pushing up through the
embankment which I had made, and growing five or six feet the first season.
Its broad pinnate tropical leaf was pleasant though strange to look on.
The large buds, suddenly pushing out late in the spring from dry sticks which had
seemed to be dead, developed themselves as by magic into graceful green and tender
boughs, an inch in diameter; and sometimes,
as I sat at my window, so heedlessly did they grow and tax their weak joints, I
heard a fresh and tender bough suddenly fall like a fan to the ground, when there
was not a breath of air stirring, broken off by its own weight.
In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many
wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight
again bent down and broke the tender limbs.
As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my
clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by two and threes athwart my view,
or perching restless on the white pine
boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy
surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door
and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge
is bending under the weight of the reed- birds flitting hither and thither; and for
the last half-hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then
reviving like the beat of a partridge,
conveying travellers from Boston to the country.
For I did not live so out of the world as that boy who, as I hear, was put out to a
farmer in the east part of the town, but ere long ran away and came home again,
quite down at the heel and homesick.
He had never seen such a dull and out-of- the-way place; the folks were all gone off;
why, you couldn't even hear the whistle! I doubt if there is such a place in
Massachusetts now:--
"In truth, our village has become a butt For one of those fleet railroad shafts, and
o'er Our peaceful plain its soothing sound is--Concord."
The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I
I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to
society by this link.
The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as
to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an
employee; and so I am.
I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the
scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard, informing me that many restless city
merchants are arriving within the circle of
the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side.
As they come under one horizon, they shout their warning to get off the track to the
other, heard sometimes through the circles of two towns.
Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen!
Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay.
And here's your pay for them! screams the countryman's whistle; timber like long
battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city's walls, and chairs enough
to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them.
With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city.
All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are
raked into the city.
Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the
woollen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion--or,
rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with
that direction it will ever revisit this
system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve--with its steam cloud
like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud
which I have seen, high in the heavens,
unfolding its masses to the light--as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-
compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I
hear the iron horse make the hills echo
with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and
smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put
into the new Mythology I don't know), it
seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.
If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!
If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or
as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer's fields, then the elements and
Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands and be their escort.
I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising
of the sun, which is hardly more regular.
Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to
heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my
distant field into the shade, a celestial
train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the
The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the
stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed.
Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off.
If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early!
If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snowshoes, and, with the giant plow, plow a
furrow from the mountains to the seaboard, in which the cars, like a following drill-
barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and
floating merchandise in the country for seed.
All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may
rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some
remote glen in the woods he fronts the
elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning
star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber.
Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy
of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of
iron slumber.
If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and
Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the
hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the
knowledge of their inhabitants; this moment
stopping at some brilliant station-house in town or city, where a social crowd is
gathered, the next in the Dismal Swamp, scaring the owl and fox.
The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day.
They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard
so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted
institution regulates a whole country.
Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was
invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the
depot than they did in the stage-office?
There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place.
I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors,
who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt
a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings.
To do things "railroad fashion" is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be
warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.
There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in
this case. We have constructed a fate, an Atropos,
that never turns aside.
(Let that be the name of your engine.)
Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward
particular points of the compass; yet it interferes with no man's business, and the
children go to school on the other track.
We live the steadier for it. We are all educated thus to be sons of
Tell. The air is full of invisible bolts.
Every path but your own is the path of fate.
Keep on your own track, then. What recommends commerce to me is its
enterprise and bravery.
It does not clasp its hands and pray to Jupiter.
I see these men every day go about their business with more or less courage and
content, doing more even than they suspect, and perchance better employed than they
could have consciously devised.
I am less affected by their heroism who stood up for half an hour in the front line
at Buena Vista, than by the steady and cheerful valor of the men who inhabit the
snowplow for their winter quarters; who
have not merely the three-o'-clock-in-the- morning courage, which Bonaparte thought
was the rarest, but whose courage does not go to rest so early, who go to sleep only
when the storm sleeps or the sinews of their iron steed are frozen.
On this morning of the Great Snow, perchance, which is still raging and
chilling men's blood, I bear the muffled tone of their engine bell from out the fog
bank of their chilled breath, which
announces that the cars are coming, without long delay, notwithstanding the veto of a
New England northeast snow-storm, and I behold the plowmen covered with snow and
rime, their heads peering, above the mould-
board which is turning down other than daisies and the nests of field mice, like
bowlders of the Sierra Nevada, that occupy an outside place in the universe.
Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied.
It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises
and sentimental experiments, and hence its singular success.
I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell
the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake
Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts,
of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the
I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover
so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoanut
husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails.
This carload of torn sails is more legible and interesting now than if they should be
wrought into paper and printed books.
Who can write so graphically the history of the storms they have weathered as these
rents have done? They are proof-sheets which need no
Here goes lumber from the Maine woods, which did not go out to sea in the last
freshet, risen four dollars on the thousand because of what did go out or was split up;
pine, spruce, cedar--first, second, third,
and fourth qualities, so lately all of one quality, to wave over the bear, and moose,
and caribou.
Next rolls Thomaston lime, a prime lot, which will get far among the hills before
it gets slacked.
These rags in bales, of all hues and qualities, the lowest condition to which
cotton and linen descend, the final result of dress--of patterns which are now no
longer cried up, unless it be in Milwaukee,
as those splendid articles, English, French, or American prints, ginghams,
muslins, etc., gathered from all quarters both of fashion and poverty, going to
become paper of one color or a few shades
only, on which, forsooth, will be written tales of real life, high and low, and
founded on fact!
This closed car smells of salt fish, the strong New England and commercial scent,
reminding me of the Grand Banks and the fisheries.
Who has not seen a salt fish, thoroughly cured for this world, so that nothing can
spoil it, and putting the perseverance of the saints to the blush? with which you may
sweep or pave the streets, and split your
kindlings, and the teamster shelter himself and his lading against sun, wind, and rain
behind it--and the trader, as a Concord trader once did, hang it up by his door for
a sign when he commences business, until at
last his oldest customer cannot tell surely whether it be animal, vegetable, or
mineral, and yet it shall be as pure as a snowflake, and if it be put into a pot and
boiled, will come out an excellent dun-fish for a Saturday's dinner.
Next Spanish hides, with the tails still preserving their twist and the angle of
elevation they had when the oxen that wore them were careering over the pampas of the
Spanish Main--a type of all obstinacy, and
evincing how almost hopeless and incurable are all constitutional vices.
I confess, that practically speaking, when I have learned a man's real disposition, I
have no hopes of changing it for the better or worse in this state of existence.
As the Orientals say, "A cur's tail may be warmed, and pressed, and bound round with
ligatures, and after a twelve years' labor bestowed upon it, still it will retain its
natural form."
The only effectual cure for such inveteracies as these tails exhibit is to
make glue of them, which I believe is what is usually done with them, and then they
will stay put and stick.
Here is a hogshead of molasses or of brandy directed to John Smith, Cuttingsville,
Vermont, some trader among the Green Mountains, who imports for the farmers near
his clearing, and now perchance stands over
his bulkhead and thinks of the last arrivals on the coast, how they may affect
the price for him, telling his customers this moment, as he has told them twenty
times before this morning, that he expects some by the next train of prime quality.
It is advertised in the Cuttingsville Times.
While these things go up other things come down.
Warned by the whizzing sound, I look up from my book and see some tall pine, hewn
on far northern hills, which has winged its way over the Green Mountains and the
Connecticut, shot like an arrow through the
township within ten minutes, and scarce another eye beholds it; going
"to be the mast Of some great ammiral."
And hark! here comes the cattle-train bearing the cattle of a thousand hills,
sheepcots, stables, and cow-yards in the air, drovers with their sticks, and
shepherd boys in the midst of their flocks,
all but the mountain pastures, whirled along like leaves blown from the mountains
by the September gales.
The air is filled with the bleating of calves and sheep, and the hustling of oxen,
as if a pastoral valley were going by.
When the old bell-wether at the head rattles his bell, the mountains do indeed
skip like rams and the little hills like lambs.
A carload of drovers, too, in the midst, on a level with their droves now, their
vocation gone, but still clinging to their useless sticks as their badge of office.
But their dogs, where are they?
It is a stampede to them; they are quite thrown out; they have lost the scent.
Methinks I hear them barking behind the Peterboro' Hills, or panting up the western
slope of the Green Mountains.
They will not be in at the death. Their vocation, too, is gone.
Their fidelity and sagacity are below par now.
They will slink back to their kennels in disgrace, or perchance run wild and strike
a league with the wolf and the fox. So is your pastoral life whirled past and
But the bell rings, and I must get off the track and let the cars go by;--
What's the railroad to me? I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows, And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing, And the blackberries a-growing,
but I cross it like a cart-path in the woods.
I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.
Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in
the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever.
For the rest of the long afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted
only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.
Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord
bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody,
worth importing into the wilderness.
At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory
hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept.
All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect,
a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant
ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it.
There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had
conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the
elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale.
The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm
of it.
It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the
voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.
At evening, the distant lowing of some cow in the horizon beyond the woods sounded
sweet and melodious, and at first I would mistake it for the voices of certain
minstrels by whom I was sometimes
serenaded, who might be straying over hill and dale; but soon I was not unpleasantly
disappointed when it was prolonged into the cheap and natural music of the cow.
I do not mean to be satirical, but to express my appreciation of those youths'
singing, when I state that I perceived clearly that it was akin to the music of
the cow, and they were at length one articulation of Nature.
Regularly at half-past seven, in one part of the summer, after the evening train had
gone by, the whip-poor-wills chanted their vespers for half an hour, sitting on a
stump by my door, or upon the ridge-pole of the house.
They would begin to sing almost with as much precision as a clock, within five
minutes of a particular time, referred to the setting of the sun, every evening.
I had a rare opportunity to become acquainted with their habits.
Sometimes I heard four or five at once in different parts of the wood, by accident
one a bar behind another, and so near me that I distinguished not only the cluck
after each note, but often that singular
buzzing sound like a fly in a spider's web, only proportionally louder.
Sometimes one would circle round and round me in the woods a few feet distant as if
tethered by a string, when probably I was near its eggs.
They sang at intervals throughout the night, and were again as musical as ever
just before and about dawn.
When other birds are still, the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning
women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian.
Wise midnight hags!
It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most
solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering
the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves.
Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the
woodside; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark
and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung.
They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls
that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now
expiating their sins with their wailing
hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions.
They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common
Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r- n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and
circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks.
Then--that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with
tremulous sincerity, and--bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln
I was also serenaded by a hooting owl.
Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant
by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being-
-some poor weak relic of mortality who has
left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark
valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness--I find myself
beginning with the letters gl when I try to
imitate it--expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous, mildewy stage in
the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought.
It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings.
But now one answers from far woods in a strain made really melodious by distance--
Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing
associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.
I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal
hooting for men.
It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day
illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not
They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.
All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp, where the single spruce
stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee
lisps amid the evergreens, and the
partridge and rabbit skulk beneath; but now a more dismal and fitting day dawns, and a
different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.
Late in the evening I heard the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges--a sound
heard farther than almost any other at night--the baying of dogs, and sometimes
again the lowing of some disconsolate cow in a distant barn-yard.
In the mean-while all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits
of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch
in their Stygian lake--if the Walden nymphs
will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs
there--who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though
their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly
grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to
distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the
memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.
The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to
his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once
scorned water, and passes round the cup
with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-- oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straightway comes
over the water from some distant cove the same password repeated, where the next in
seniority and girth has gulped down to his
mark; and when this observance has made the circuit of the shores, then ejaculates the
master of ceremonies, with satisfaction, tr-r-r-oonk! and each in his turn repeats
the same down to the least distended,
leakiest, and flabbiest paunched, that there be no mistake; and then the howl goes
round again and again, until the sun disperses the morning mist, and only the
patriarch is not under the pond, but vainly
bellowing troonk from time to time, and pausing for a reply.
I am not sure that I ever heard the sound of cock-crowing from my clearing, and I
thought that it might be worth the while to keep a cockerel for his music merely, as a
singing bird.
The note of this once wild Indian pheasant is certainly the most remarkable of any
bird's, and if they could be naturalized without being domesticated, it would soon
become the most famous sound in our woods,
surpassing the clangor of the goose and the hooting of the owl; and then imagine the
cackling of the hens to fill the pauses when their lords' clarions rested!
No wonder that man added this bird to his tame stock--to say nothing of the eggs and
To walk in a winter morning in a wood where these birds abounded, their native woods,
and hear the wild cockerels crow on the trees, clear and shrill for miles over the
resounding earth, drowning the feebler notes of other birds--think of it!
It would put nations on the alert.
Who would not be early to rise, and rise earlier and earlier every successive day of
his life, till he became unspeakably healthy, wealthy, and wise?
This foreign bird's note is celebrated by the poets of all countries along with the
notes of their native songsters. All climates agree with brave Chanticleer.
He is more indigenous even than the natives.
His health is ever good, his lungs are sound, his spirits never flag.
Even the sailor on the Atlantic and Pacific is awakened by his voice; but its shrill
sound never roused me from my slumbers.
I kept neither dog, cat, cow, pig, nor hens, so that you would have said there was
a deficiency of domestic sounds; neither the churn, nor the spinning-wheel, nor even
the singing of the kettle, nor the hissing
of the urn, nor children crying, to comfort one.
An old-fashioned man would have lost his senses or died of ennui before this.
Not even rats in the wall, for they were starved out, or rather were never baited
in--only squirrels on the roof and under the floor, a whip-poor-will on the ridge-
pole, a blue jay screaming beneath the
window, a hare or woodchuck under the house, a screech owl or a cat owl behind
it, a flock of wild geese or a laughing loon on the pond, and a fox to bark in the
Not even a lark or an oriole, those mild plantation birds, ever visited my clearing.
No cockerels to crow nor hens to cackle in the yard.
No yard! but unfenced nature reaching up to your very sills.
A young forest growing up under your meadows, and wild sumachs and blackberry
vines breaking through into your cellar; sturdy pitch pines rubbing and creaking
against the shingles for want of room, their roots reaching quite under the house.
Instead of a scuttle or a blind blown off in the gale--a pine tree snapped off or
torn up by the roots behind your house for fuel.
Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow--no gate--no front-yard--
and no path to the civilized world.