Walden by Henry David Thoreau

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by labor of my hands only.”

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, his magnum opus, during a two year stay on lands owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Walden Pond, situated in Walden Woods, was an untouched centre of beauty among the agricultural lands of Concord, Massechusetts, and his sojourn there allowed Thoreau the peaceful reflection that he so earnestly sought.

“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 practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  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.”

Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods, his construction of a cabin, his pastoral descriptions of nature, and his philosophy surrounding interaction with nature and solitude, permeate the pages and take us into a world and perceptions that stretch our thinking and make us long for something simpler. Thoreau makes us face the realities of life and prods us to examine the value received from our choices.  Do we live according to our own hearts and convictions or by society’s dictates, and how are we changed by our choices?

Surprisingly, given its present popularity, Walden was rejected by eight publishers before being printed, and experienced only a negligible success during Thoreau’s lifetime, finally becoming popular during the 20th century with the advent of the Civil Rights era.

Walden Pond in late June
source Wikimedia Commons

There were parts of this book that I loved and could completely relate to.  I have my own version of Walden Pond in the summer.  I know the call of the eagle, the blue blur of a dragonfly, the slap of a beaver’s tail on the water.  I understand the workings of an isolated community, with close interactions, yet subtly observed personal boundaries.  I understand what silence means and the benefit of the education received through it.  Returning to a life unhampered by unnecessary busyness and useless striving certainly renews your spirit and allows you to become more synchronized with nature and with humanity.

My Walden Pond
© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

“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 even in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour.  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.”

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

Thoreau entreats us not only to strive to live simply but to be happy with little and therefore, recognize that as we grow poor in possessions, we grow rich in spirit.

“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.  It is not so bad as you are.  It looks poorest when you are richest.  The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.  Love your life, poor as it is.  You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.  The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its doors as early in the spring.  Cultivate property like a garden herb, like sage.  Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.  Turn the old; return to them.  Things do not change; we change.  Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts …….  Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little”

While Thoreau’s wilderness experience was unique, I’m not sure that he was recommending that everyone pack up and make for the woods.  In his words, I heard him entreat people to have some sort of experience with nature, to take the time to explore it, to open yourself up to it in a quiet, introspective kind of way and, within that experience, nature will teach you to know yourself better.

“For a week I heard the circling groping clangor of some solitary goose in the foggy mornings, seeking its companion, and still peopling the woods with the sound of a larger life than they could sustain.  In April the pigeons were seen again flying express in small flocks, and in due time I heard the martins twittering over my clearing, though it had not seemed that the township contained so many that it could afford me any, and I fancied that they were peculiarly of the ancient race that dwelt in hollow trees ere white men came.  In almost all climes the tortoise and the frog are among the precursors and heralds of this season, and birds fly with song and glancing plumage, and plants spring and bloom, and winds blow, to correct this slight oscillation of the poles and preserve the equilibrium of Nature.”

While I loved reading about Thoreau’s temporary experiment, this is not the easiest book to get through.  At times Thoreau overwhelms you with his spiritual philosophy and I found myself wondering at how he could become an expert with merely a two year stint in only comparative isolation, as he was near Concord and often had visitors to his abode.  However, these flaws did not diminish some rather obvious truths in Thoreau’s vision.  He allowed nature to be his Muse, simplicity his guide and he leads us on a soul-searching journey into the woods, opening our eyes to the world around us.

I found this video on YouTube and I think it echoes some of Thoreau’s thoughts beautifully ….. “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.” 

 Figuring Life Out

18 thoughts on “Walden by Henry David Thoreau

  1. What seems to shine through Thoreau's writing are core American virtues: character and liberty. If only 21st century Americans were similarly responsible.

  2. Excellent review. I love that quote…"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake…"

    I envy your Walden Pond – gorgeous!

    The video fits perfectly w/ Thoreau's message. I think there are a lot of people out there who want that, but either 1. they do not recognize the deficiency, or 2. they do not know at all how to achieve full wakefulness. But then there are people who think being awake is the very busy work and distractions that have them ensnared and trapped. I wouldn't want to be them.

  3. I enjoyed his tones of liberty to be who you are, instead of caving to the status quo. He was certainly pushing against the status quo and some people thought he was nuts. Robert Louis Stevenson called Thoreau's experiment "womanish solicitude; for there is something unmanly, something almost dastardly" and poet John Greenleaf Whittier said, "Thoreau's Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs"

  4. Thanks, Ruth! I love my Walden Pond too!

    I wouldn't want to be so busy that I forgot the value of nature and the people around me, either. I appreciated how Thoreau tried to bring the reader back to himself.

  5. Thanks, Corinne. I have a book on my shelf entitled, "We Went to the Woods", by Louise Dickinson Rich which looks excellent and with Walden behind me, I may travel there next!

  6. Love your post so much. Totally agree with your interpretation re. it's not necessarily about packing up and going to the woods, although it is my absolute ambition (as if I don't live in an isolated enough area to start with!). His message will always stay with me. I love the book and already want to re-read it.

    And I love your Walden Pond!

  7. What a coincidence! I've read 1000 Gifts ….. she has some very C.S. Lewis-y thoughts sometimes and her writing is beautiful but I thought she went on a little too long. I enjoyed it though.

  8. Living in a city, I quite envy your chickens and budgies and the lack of crazy busyness that you experience. But, you're right …… living in isolation is still different from living in a small village (as we can probably guess from reading Miss Marple 😉 ) It would be nice to try though.

    While I loved Thoreau's message, I still had a feeling of discomfort that I'm getting from these biographies from about Rousseau on, in that the authors seem to have found "God" inside themselves and have an absolute, unwavering trust that their views are right and unassailable. Even the ancients had self-doubt and looked outside themselves —– I think it was Socrates who said that the only true wisdom was in knowing that you know nothing …… I find scary things happen when people trust in themselves completely with no outside compass.

  9. Cleo..your pond is beautiful…living in a mad bad city, the only place I see water gathered is the bathtub!! Sigh! I do so envy you. I know you have told me to read Walden in the past, but this review has seriously convinced me to read it. Only I will hold on till August, when I do a cross country trip…think the book will do much better in outdoors than in this crazy city!

  10. Lol! Well, you'll just have to come and visit me sometime! I grew up in the city but the longer I live here, the more I want to get out. The benefits are usually superficial such as access to entertainment, restaurants, work, etc. while the benefits of somewhere smaller have community and nature, which feed our souls. Yes, I'm generalizing but I've found it to be mostly true.

    Walden can be a little bit of a task, but it's certainly worth reading. I hope you like it!

  11. A mango tree?!! Sigh! I had to look up what one looked like, if you can believe it. Heavenly! My favourite fruit. We have to settle for apple, plum and pear trees here. In my backyard I have an apple, a plum and a quince tree. I just love quince but they aren't very popular, although I think the Europeans love them.

  12. Have you read Susan Cheever's _American Bloomsbury_? She gives special attention to Thoreau et al. But let me ask you a question: how does religion figure into Thoreau's _Walden_?

  13. Thanks for the book tip.

    As for religion, like B. Franklin, Thoreau seemed to pick and choose from any religion the precepts that would support his own. I'm starting to see the development of the "me" generation. 🙂

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