Great poets and seers do not write for classrooms or scholars; they write for other people, other souls. I call to witness Leo Tolstoy, who dropped out of school; Virginia Woolf, who was not allowed to go to school; and Charles Dickens, who was expelled from school.
Although Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) did indeed graduate from Harvard, he thought so little of it that he refused to pay the six dollars required to receive his diploma.
Like Tolstoy and Woolf, he wrote his most intimate thoughts—some of them never intended to be known to the world—in his journals and diaries. His “Walden” diary (1845–47), conceived with publication in mind, is slightly more self-conscious than the rest of the two-million-word document begun in 1837, when the author was just 20.
The complete opus reveals the soul of the man, and a beautiful soul it was. There were hints of its beauty in his outward appearance. A Harvard schoolmate of Thoreau’s, later to be known as the Reverend John Weiss, remembers his “grey-blue eyes [that] seemed to rove down the path just in advance of his feet.” He also remarked, “We remember him as looking very much like some Egyptian sculpture of faces, large-featured, but brooding, immobile …” “The Life of Henry David Thoreau.”
Behind those grey-blue eyes were thoughts like, “What if we feel yearnings which no breast answers? I walk alone.” Of course, he was far from alone as he was close to God and nature, his two lifelong companions that never failed to support and fill him with wonder. He preferred their company to the company of mortals who interrupted his communion with them.
Although Thoreau might have loved mankind collectively, his encounters with individuals were seldom felicitous. He was left bored, disappointed, and disillusioned with them. Their very presence disallowed his own higher world with its higher thoughts and sensibilities:
“There sits one by the shore who wishes to go with me, but I cannot think of it. He thinks I could merely take him into my boat and then not mind him. He does not realize that I should by the same act take him into my mind where there is no room for him. … I know very well that I should never reach that expansion of the river with him aboard with his terrene qualities.”
The institutions of mankind, its governments, courts, and churches evoked his displeasure as well. When, in 1856, the threat of war loomed between the United States and Great Britain, he wrote: “Both nations are ready to take a desperate step, to forget the interests of civilization and Christianity and fly at each other’s throats. When I see an individual thus beside himself, ready to shoot or be shot, I think he is a candidate for bedlam.”
He felt that God was too often absent from churches. “For the majority of mankind, religion is a habit, or, more precisely, tradition is their religion.” The stark contrast between God’s law and man’s law—the law of his time, for example—that a man could be bought and sold, caused him great anguish:
“Massachusetts … deliberately and forcibly restored an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. … The sight of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with scoriae and volcanic cinders such as Milton imagined. If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers and our people, I feel curious to visit it.”
Thoreau himself chose the laws of God rather than man’s, hid runaway slaves in his own home, provided money and clothes for them, and arranged paths of escape. “Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada,” he wrote.
God and Nature
God’s law and the laws of nature were to him kindred, inseparably linked, just, and perfect. “I love nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him,” he wrote. “In her midst, I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, … I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.”
God revealed in the beauty of nature was the foundation of his faith. The beauty, the logic and symmetry of a snowflake, for example, was as powerful as any vision of any saint or seer: “A divinity must have stirred within them before the crystals did thus shoot and set. … The same law that shapes the earth-star shapes the snow-stars.”
The beauty of nature’s songs enchanted him. “When I hear a bird singing, I cannot think of any words that will imitate it.” And the meaning of their song? “The music of all creatures has to do with their loves, even the toads and frogs. Is it not the same with man?”
Although Thoreau knew much of science, he harbored a healthy skepticism toward scientists and their institutions. He rejected an invitation from the Association for the Advancement of Science to share his ideas. “They do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law,” he wrote. “How absurd, that though I probably stand as near to nature as any of them, … a true account of my relation to nature would excite their ridicule only! If it had been the secretary of an association of which Plato or Aristotle was the president, I should not have hesitated to describe my studies at once and particularly.”
He believed that “All the phenomena of nature need to be seen from the point of view of wonder and awe.” He also remarked, “Men are probably nearer to the essential truth in their superstitions than in their science.”
“The essential truth” is perhaps Thoreau’s favorite name for God. “Higher light” is another name he used. “It is by obeying the suggestions of a higher light within you that you escape from yourself and travel totally new paths.”
Thoreau’s path was not a long one, just 43 years. When someone asked him, just before his death, whether he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I didn’t know we had ever quarreled.”