Emerson & Thoreau

April 26: In his journal entry for this dayin 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a pleasant afternoon spent with HenryDavid Thoreau, and a lesson learned:

Yesterdayafternoon I went to the Cliff with Henry Thoreau. Warm, pleasant, mistyweather, which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in withgladness. A crow’s voice filled all the miles of air with sound. A bird’svoice, even a piping frog, enlivens a solitude and makes world enough for us.At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog,and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a newexperience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker afterthunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.

The two men were new friends at this point, andEmerson’s other journal references to Thoreau from around this time exhibit asimilar delight: “Mygood Henry Thoreau made this else solitary afternoon sunny with his simplicity& clear perception. How comic is simplicity in this doubledealing quackingworld.” But Emerson seems to have enjoyed his time in the woods withThoreau more than Thoreau enjoyed town with Emerson. In a journal entry forthis day in 1841, occasioned by a visit to Emerson’s, Thoreau notes that “thecivilized man” suffers for it:

His houseis a prison, in which he finds himself oppressed and confined, not shelteredand protected. He walks as if he sustained the roof; he carries his arms as ifthe walls would fall in and crush him, and his feet remember the cellarbeneath. His muscles are never relaxed. It is rare that he overcomes the house,and learns to sit at home in it, and roof and floor and walls supportthemselves, as the sky and trees and earth.

It is agreat art to saunter.

In hiseulogy for Thoreau twenty years later, Emerson recalled how “it was apleasure and privilege to walk with him,” though he would “as soonthink of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” Not that Thoreau would haveminded the metaphor: when Emerson described Harvard as a place where one couldenjoy all the branches of learning, Thoreau responded, “Yes, indeed, allthe branches and none of the roots.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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