Analysis & Criticism
The Vagabond in Literature:
Henry D. Thoreau*
by Arthur Rickett
“Enter these enchanted woods
You who dare.”
— George Meredith
Thoreau has suffered badly at the hands of the critics. By some he has been regarded as a poser, and the Walden episode has been spoken of as a mere theatrical trick. By others he has been derided as a cold-blooded hermit, who fled from civilization and the intercourse of his fellows. Even Mr. Watts-Dunton, the eloquent friend of the Children of the Open Air, quite recently in his introduction to an edition of Walden has impugned his sincerity, and leaves the impression that Thoreau was an uncomfortable kind of egotist. He has not lacked friends, but his friends have not always written discreetly about him, thus giving the enemy opportunity to blaspheme. And while not unmindful of Mr. H.S. Salt’s sympathetic biography, nor the admirable monograph by Mr. “H.A. Page,” there is no denying the fact that the trend of modern criticism has been against him. The sarcastic comments of J.R. Lowell, and the banter of R.L. Stevenson, however we may disagree with them, are not to be lightly ignored, coming from critics usually so sane and discerning.
Since it is the Walden episode, the two years’ sojourn in the woods near Concord, that has provoked the scornful ire of the critics, it may be well to re-examine that incident.
From his earliest years Thoreau was a lover of the open air. It was not merely a poetic appreciation such as Emerson had of the beauties of nature — though a genuine poetic imagination coloured all that he wrote — but an intellectual enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world, and, most important of all, a deep and tender sympathy with all created things characteristic of the Eastern rather than the Western mind. He observed as a naturalist, admired like a poet, loved with the fervour of a Buddhist; every faculty of his nature did homage to the Earth.
Most of us will admit to a sentimental regard for the open air and for country sights and sounds. But in many cases it reduces itself to a vague liking for “pretty scenery” and an annual conviction that a change of air will do us good. And so it is that the man who prefers to live the greater part of his life in the open is looked upon either as a crank or a poser. Borrow’s taste for adventure, and the picturesque vigour of his personality, help largely in our minds to condone his wandering instinct. But the more passive temperament of Thoreau, and the absence in his writings of any stuff of romance, lead us to feel a kind of puzzled contempt for the man.
“He shirks his duty as a citizen,” says the practical Englishman; “He experienced nothing worth mentioning,” says the lover of adventure. Certainly he lacked many of the qualities that make the literary Vagabond attractive — and for this reason many will deny him the right to a place among them — but he was neither a skulker nor a hermit.
In 1839, soon after leaving college, he made his first long jaunt in company with his brother John. This was a voyage on the Concord and Merrimac rivers — a pleasant piece of idling turned to excellent literary account. The volume dealing with it — his first book — gives sufficient illustration of his practical powers to dissipate the absurd notion that he was a mere sentimentalist. No literary Vagabond was ever more skilful with his hands than Thoreau. There was scarcely anything he could not do, from making lead pencils to constructing a boat. And throughout his life he supported himself by manual labour whenever occasion demanded. Had he been so disposed he could doubtless have made a fortune — for he had all the nimble versatility of the American character, and much of its shrewdness. His attacks, therefore, upon money-making, and upon the evils of civilization, are no mere vapourings of an incompetent, but the honest conviction of a man who believes he has chosen the better part.
In his Walk to Wachusett there are touches of genial friendliness with the simple, sincere country folk, and evidence that he was heartily welcome by them. Such a welcome would not have been vouchsafed to a cold-blooded recluse.
The keen enjoyment afforded to mind and body by these outings suggested to Thoreau the desirability of a longer and more intimate association with Nature. Walden Wood had been a familiar and favoured spot for many years, and so he began the building of his tabernacle there. So far from being a sudden, sensational resolve with an eye to effect, it was the natural outcome of his passion for the open.
He had his living to earn, and would go down into Concord from time to time to sell the results of his handiwork. He was quite willing to see friends and any chance travellers who visited from other motives than mere inquisitiveness. On the other hand, the life he proposed for himself as a temporary experiment would afford many hours of congenial solitude, when he could study the ways of the animals that he loved and give free expression to his naturalistic enthusiasms.
Far too much has been made of the Walden episode. It has been written upon as if it had represented the totality of Thoreau’s life, instead of being merely an interesting episode. Critics have animadverted upon it, as if the time had been spent in brooding, self-pity, and sentimental affectations, as if Thoreau had gone there to escape from his fellow-men. All this seems to me wide of the mark. Thoreau was always keenly interested in men and manners; his essays abound in a practical sagacity, too frequently overlooked. He went to Walden not to escape from ordinary life, but to fit himself for ordinary life. The sylvan solitudes, as he knew, had their lessons for him no less than the busy haunts of men.
Of course it would be idle to deny that he found his greatest happiness in the woods and fields; it is this touch of wildness that makes of him a Vagabond. But though not an emotional man, his was not a hard nature so much as a reserved, self-centred nature, rarely expressing itself in outward show of feeling. That he was a man capable of strong affection is shown by his devotion to his brother. Peculiarities of temperament he had certainly, idiosyncrasies as marked as those of Borrow. These I wish to discuss later. For the moment I am concerned to defend him from the criticism that he was a loveless, brooding kind of creature, more interested in birds and fishes than in his fellow-men. For he was neither loveless nor brooding, and the characteristics that have proved most puzzling arose from the mingled strain in his nature of the Eastern quietist and the shrewd Western. These may now be considered more leisurely. I will deal with the less important first of all.
Some of his earlier work suffers somewhat from a too faithful discipleship of Emerson; but when he had found himself, as he has in Walden, he can break away from this tendency, and there are many lovely passages untouched by didacticism.
“The stillness was intense and almost conscious, as if it were a natural sabbath. The air was so elastic and crystalline that it had the same effect on the landscape that a glass has on a picture — to give it an ideal remoteness and perfection. The landscape was bathed in a mild and quiet light, while the woods and fences chequered and partitioned it with new regularity, and rough and uneven fields stretched far away with lawnlike smoothness to the horizon, and the clouds, finely distinct and picturesque, seemed a fit drapery to hang over fairyland.”
But while there is the Wordsworthian appreciation of the peaceful moods of Nature and of the gracious stillnesses, there is the true spirit of the Vagabond in his Earth-worship. Witness his pleasant “Essay on Walking”: —
“We are but faint-hearted crusaders; even the walkers nowadays undertake no persevering world’s end enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearthside from which we set out. Half of the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walks, perchance, in the spirit of stirring adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdom. If you have paid your debts and made your will and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”
There is a relish in this sprightly abjuration that is transmittible to all but the dullest mind. The essay can take its place beside Hazlitt’s “On Going a Journey,” than which we can give it no higher praise.
With all his appreciation of the quieter, the gentler aspects of nature, he has the true hardiness of the child of the road, and has as cheery a welcome for the east wind as he has for the gentlest of summer breezes. Here is a little winter’s sketch: —
“The wonderful purity of Nature at this season is a most pleasing fact. Every decayed stump and moss-grown stone and rush of the dead leaves of autumn are concealed by a clean napkin of snow. In the bare fields and trickling woods see what virtue survives. In the coldest and bleakest places the warmest charities still maintain a foothold. A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it; and accordingly whatever we meet with in cold and bleak places as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of sturdy innocence, a Puritan toughness.”
But Thoreau’s pleasant gossips about the woods in Maine, or on the Concord River, would pall after a time were they not interspersed with larger utterances and with suggestive illustrations from the Books of the East. Merely considered as “poet-naturalist” he cannot rank with Gilbert White for quaint simplicity, nor have his discursive essays the full, rich note that we find in Richard Jefferies. That his writings show a sensitive imagination as well as a quick observation the above extracts will show. But unfortunately he had contracted a bad attack of Emersonitis, from which as literary writer he never completely recovered. Salutary as Emerson was to Thoreau as an intellectual irritant, he was the last man in the world for the discursive Thoreau to take as a literary model.
Many fine passages in his writings are spoiled by vocal imitations of the “voice oracular,” which is the more annoying inasmuch as Thoreau was no weak replica of Emerson intellectually, showing in some respects indeed a firmer grasp of the realities of life. But for some reason or other he grew enamoured of certain Emersonian mannerisms, which he used whenever he felt inclined to fire off a platitude. Sometimes he does it so well that it is hard to distinguish the disciple from his master. Thus: —
“How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not a seedtime of character?”
“Only he can be trusted with goods who can present a face of bronze to expectations.”
Unimpeachable in sentiment, but too obviously inspired for us to view them with satisfaction. And Thoreau at his best is so fresh, so original, that we decline to be put off with literary imitations, however excellently done.
And thus it is that Thoreau has been too often regarded as a mere disciple of Emerson. For this he cannot altogether escape blame, but the student will soon detect the superficiality of the criticism, and see the genuine Thoreau beneath the Emersonian veneer.
Thoreau lacked the integrating genius of Emerson, on the one hand, yet possessed an eye for concrete facts which the master certainly lacked. His strength, therefore, lay in another direction, and where Thoreau is seen at his best is where he is dealing with the concrete experiences of life, illustrating them from his wide and discursive knowledge of Indian character and Oriental modes of thought.
Insufficient attention has been paid, I think, to Thoreau’s sympathy with the Indian character and his knowledge of their ways.
The Indians were to Thoreau what the gypsies were to Borrow. Appealing to certain spiritual affinities in the men’s natures, they revealed their own temperaments to them, enabling them to see the distinctiveness of their powers. Thoreau was never quite able to give this intimate knowledge such happy literary expression as Borrow. Apprehending the peculiar charm, the power and limitations of the Indian character, appreciating its philosophical value, he lacked the picturesque pen of Borrow to visualize this for the reader.
A lover of Indian relics from his childhood, he followed the Indians into their haunts, and conversed with them frequently. Some of the most interesting passages he has written detail conversations with them. One feels he knew and understood them; and they no less understood him, and talked with him as they certainly would not have done with any other white man. But one would have liked to have heard much more about them. If only Thoreau could have given us an Indian Petulengro, how interesting it would have been!
But, like the Indian, there was a reserve and impenetrability about Thoreau which prevented him from ever becoming really confidential in print. If he had but unbended more frequently, and not sifted his thought so conscientiously before he gave us the benefit of it, he would certainly have appealed to our affections far more than he does.
One feels in comparing his writings with the accounts of him by friends how much that was interesting in the man remains unexpressed in terms of literature. Partly this is due, no doubt, to his being tormented with the idea of self-education that he had learnt from Emerson. In a philosopher and moralist self-education is all very well. But in a naturalist and in a writer with so much of the Vagabond about him as Thoreau this sensitiveness about self-culture, this anxiety to eliminate all the temperamental tares, is blameworthy.
The care he took to eliminate the lighter element in his work — the flash of wit, the jocose aside — a care which pursued him to the last, seems to show that he too often mistook gravity for seriousness. Like Dr. Watts’ bee (which is not Mæterlinck’s) he “improved the shining hour,” instead of allowing the shining hour to carry with it its own improvement, none the less potent for being unformulated. But beside the Emersonian influence, there is the Puritan strain in Thoreau’s nature, which must not be overlooked. No doubt it also is partly accountable for his literary silences and austere moods.
To revert to the Indians.
If Thoreau does not deal dramatically with his Indians, yet he had much that is interesting and suggestive to say about them. These are some passages from A Week on the Concord: —
“We talk of civilizing the Indians, but that is not the name for his improvement. By the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest-life he preserves his intercourse with his native gods, and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with Nature. He has glances of starry recognition to which our salons are strangers. The steady illumination of his genius, dim only because distant, is like the faint but satisfying light of the stars compared with the dazzling but ineffectual and short-lived blaze of candles. . . . We would not always be soothing and taming Nature, breaking the horse and the ox, but sometimes ride the horse wild and chase the buffalo. The Indian’s intercourse with Nature is at least such as admits of the greatest independence of each. If he is somewhat of a stranger in her midst, the gardener is too much of a familiar. There is something vulgar and foul in the latter’s closeness to his mistress, something noble and cleanly in the former’s distance. In civilization, as in a southern latitude, man degenerates at length and yields to the incursion of more northern tribes.
“Some nations yet shut in
With hills of ice.”
“There are other savager and more primeval aspects of Nature than our poets have sung. It is only white man’s poetry — Homer and Ossian even can never revive in London or Boston. And yet behold how these cities are refreshed by the mere tradition or the imperfectly transmitted fragrance and flavour of these wild fruits. If one could listen but for an instant to the chant of the Indian muse, we should understand why he will not exchange his savageness for civilization. Nations are not whimsical. Steel and blankets are strong temptations, but the Indian does well to continue Indian.”
These are no empty generalizations, but the comments of a man who has observed closely and sympathetically. All of Thoreau’s references to Indian life merit the closest attention. For, as I have said, they help to explain the man himself. He had a sufficient touch of wildness to be able to detach himself from the civilized man’s point of view. Hence the life of the woods came so naturally to him. The luxuries, the excitements, that mean so much to some, Thoreau passed by indifferently. There is much talk to-day of “the simple life,” and the phrase has become tainted with affectation. Often it means nothing more than a passing fad on the part of overfed society people who are anxious for a new sensation. A fad with a moral flavour about it will always commend itself to a certain section. Certainly it is quite innocuous, but, on the other hand, it is quite superficial. There is no real intention of living a simple life any more than there is any deep resolve on the part of the man who takes the Waters annually to abstain in the future from over-eating. But with Thoreau the simple life was a vital reality. He was not devoid of American self-consciousness, and perhaps he pats himself on the back for his healthy tastes more often than we should like. But of his fundamental sincerity there can be no question.
He saw even more clearly than Emerson the futility and debilitating effect of extravagance and luxury — especially American luxury. And his whole life was an indignant protest.
Yet it is a mistake to think (as some do) that he favoured a kind of Rousseau-like “Return to Nature,” without any regard to the conventions of civilization. “It is not,” he states emphatically, “for a man to put himself in opposition to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he finds himself through obedience to the laws of his own being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government. I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
This is not the language of a crank, or the words of a man who, as Lowell unfairly said, seemed “to insist in public in going back to flint and steel when there is a match-box in his pocket.”
Lowell’s criticism of Thoreau, indeed, is quite wide of the mark. It assumes throughout that Thoreau aimed at “an entire independence of mankind,” when Thoreau himself repeatedly says that he aimed at nothing of the sort. He made an experiment for the purpose of seeing what a simple, frugal, open-air life would do for him. The experiment being made, he returned quietly to the conditions of ordinary life. But he did not lack self-assurance, and his frank satisfaction with the results of his experiment was not altogether pleasing to those who had scant sympathy with his passion for the Earth.
To be quite fair to Lowell and other hostile critics one must admit that, genuine as Thoreau was, he had the habit common to all self-contained and self-opiniated men of talking at times as though his very idiosyncrasies were rules of conduct imperative upon others. His theory of life was sound enough, his demand for simple modes of living, for a closer communion with Nature, for a more sympathetic understanding of the “brute creation,” were reasonable beyond question. But the Emersonian mannerism (which gives an appearance of dogmatism, when no dogmatism is intended) starts up from time to time and gives the reader the impression that the path to salvation traverses Walden, all other paths being negligible, and that you cannot attain perfection unless you keep a pet squirrel.
But if a sentence here and there has an annoying flavour of complacent dogmatism, and if the note of self-assertion grows too loud on occasion for our sensitive ears,  yet his life and writings considered as a whole do not assuredly favour verdicts so unfavourable as those of Lowell and Stevenson.
Swagger and exaggeration may be irritating, but after all the important thing is whether a man has anything to swagger about, whether the case which he exaggerates is at heart sane and just.
Every Vagabond swaggers because he is an egotist more or less, and relishes keenly the life he has mapped out for himself. But the swagger is of the harmless kind; it is not really offensive; it is a sort of childish exuberance that plays over the surface of his mind, without injuring it, the harmless vanity of one who having escaped from the schoolhouse of convention congratulates himself on his good luck.
Swagger of this order you will find in the writings even of that quiet, unassuming little man De Quincey. Hazlitt had no small measure of it, and certainly it meets us in the company of Borrow. It is very noticeable in Whitman — far more so than in Thoreau. Why then does this quality tend to exasperate more when we find it in Walden? Why has Thoreau’s sincerity been impugned and Whitman escaped? Why are Thoreau’s mannerisms greeted with angry frowns, and the mannerisms, say of Borrow, regarded with good-humoured intolerance? Chiefly, I think, because of Thoreau’s desperate efforts to justify his healthy Vagabondage by Emersonian formulas.
I am not speaking of his sane and comprehensive philosophy of life. The Vagabond has his philosophy of life no less than the moralist, though as a rule he is content to let it lie implicit in his writings, and is not anxious to turn it into a gospel. But he did not always realize the difference between moral characteristics and temperamental peculiarities, and many of his admirers have done him ill service by trying to make of his very Vagabondage (admirable enough in its way) a rule of faith for all and sundry. Indeed, I think that much of the resentment expressed against Thoreau by level-headed critics is due to the unwise eulogy of friends.
Thoreau has become an object of worship to the crank, and in our annoyance with the crank — who is often a genuine reformer destitute of humour — we are apt to jumble up devotee and idol together. Idol-worship never does any good to the idol.
As a thinker Thoreau is suggestive and stimulating, except when he tries to systematize. Naturally I think he had a discursive and inquisitive, rather than a profound and analytical mind. He was in sympathy with Eastern modes of regarding life; and the pantheistic tendency of his religious thought, especially his care and reverence for all forms of life, suggest the devout Buddhist. The varied references scattered throughout his writings to the Sacred Books of the East show how Orientalism affected him.
Herein we touch upon the most attractive side of the man; for it is this Orientalism, I think, in his nature that explains his regard for, and his sympathy with, the birds and animals.
The tenderness of the Buddhist towards the lower creation is not due to sentimentalism, nor is it necessarily a sign of sensitiveness of feeling. In his profoundly interesting study of the Burmese people Mr. Fielding Hall has summed up admirably the teaching of Buddha: “Be in love with all things, not only with your fellows, but with the whole world, with every creature that walks the earth, with the birds in the air, with the insects in the grass. All life is akin to man.” The oneness of life is realized by the Eastern as it seldom is by the Western. The love that stirs in your heart kindled the flower into beauty, and broods in the great silent pools of the forest.
But Nature is not always kind. That he cannot help feeling. She inspires fear as well as love. She scatters peace and consolation, but can scatter also pain and death. All forms of life are more or less sacred. The creatures of the forest whose ferocity and cunning are manifest, may they not be inhabited by some human spirit that has misused his opportunities in life? Thus they have an affinity with us, and are signs of what we may become.
And if a measure of sacredness attaches to all life, however unfriendly and harmful it may seem, the gentler forms of life are especially to be objects of reverence and affection.
In one particular, however, Thoreau’s attitude towards the earth and all that therein is differed from the Buddhist, inasmuch as the fear that enters into the Eastern’s Earth-worship was entirely purged from his mind. Mr. Page has instituted a suggestive comparison between Thoreau and St. Francis d’Assisi. Certainly the rare magnetic attraction which Thoreau seemed to have exercised over his “brute friends” was quite as remarkable as the power attributed to St. Francis, and it is true to say that in both cases the sympathy for animals is constantly justified by a reference to a dim but real brotherhood. The brutes are “undeveloped men”; they await their transformation and stand on their defence; and it is very easy to see that inseparably bound up with this view there are certain elements of mysticism common to the early saint and the American “hut builder.” 
And yet, perhaps, Mr. Page presses the analogy between the medieval saint and the American “poet-naturalist” too far. St. Francis had an ardent, passionate nature, and whether leading a life of dissipation or tending to the poor, there is about him a royal impulsiveness, a passionate abandonment, pointing to a temperament far removed from Thoreau’s.
Prodigal in his charities, riotous in his very austerities, his tenderness towards the animals seems like the overflowing of a finely sensitive and artistic nature. With Thoreau one feels in the presence of a more tranquil, more self-contained spirit; his affection is the affection of a kindly scientist who is intensely interested in the ways and habits of birds, beasts, and fishes; one who does not give them the surplus of the love he bears towards his fellow-men so much as a care and love which he does not extend so freely towards his fellows. I do not mean that he was apathetic, especially when his fellow-creatures were in trouble; his eloquent defence of John Brown, his kindliness towards simple folk, are sufficient testimony on this score. But on the whole his interest in men and women was an abstract kind of interest; he showed none of the personal curiosity and eager inquisitiveness about them that he showed towards the denizens of the woods and streams. And if you are not heartily interested in your fellow-men you will not love them very deeply.
I am not sure that Hawthorne was so far out in his characterization “Donatello” — the creature half-animal, half-man, which he says was suggested by Thoreau. It does not pretend to realize all his characteristics, nor do justice to his fine qualities. None the less in its picture of a man with a flavour of the wild and untameable about him — whose uncivilized nature brings him into a close and vital intimacy with the animal world, we detect a real psychological affinity with Thoreau. May not Thoreau’s energetic rebukes of the evils of civilization have received an added zest from his instinctive repugnance to many of the civilized amenities valued by the majority?
Many of Thoreau’s admirers — including Mr. Page and Mr. Salt — defend him stoutly against the charge of unsociability, and they see in this feeling for the brute creation an illustration of his warm humanitarianism. “Thoreau loves the animals,” says Mr. Page, “because they are manlike and seem to yearn toward human forms.” It seems to me that Thoreau’s affection was a much simpler affair than this. He was drawn towards them because he felt an affinity with them — an affinity more compelling in its attraction than the affinity of the average human person.
No doubt he felt, as Shelley did when he spoke of “birds and even insects” as his “kindred,” that this affinity bespoke a wider brotherhood of feeling than men are usually ready to acknowledge. But this is not the same as loving animals because they are manlike. He loved them surely because they were living things, and he was drawn towards all living things, not because he detected any semblance to humankind in them. The difference between these two attitudes is not easy to define clearly; but it is a real, not a nominal difference.
It is argued, however, as another instance of Thoreau’s undervalued sociability, that he was very fond of children. That he was fond of children may be admitted, and some of the pleasantest stories about him relate to his rambles with children. His huckleberry parties were justly famous, if report speaks true. “His resources for entertainment,” says Mr. Moncure Conway, “were inexhaustible. He would tell stories of the Indians who once dwelt thereabouts till the children almost looked to see a red man skulking with his arrow and stone, and every plant or flower on the bank or in the water, and every fish, turtle, frog, lizard about was transformed by the wand of his knowledge from the low form into which the spell of our ignorance had reduced it into a mystic beauty.”
Emerson and his children frequently accompanied him on these expeditions. “Whom shall we ask?” demanded Emerson’s little daughter. “All children from six to sixty,” replied her father.
“Thoreau,” writes Mr. Conway in his Reminiscences, “was the guide, for he knew the precise locality of every variety of berry.”
“Little Edward Emerson, on one occasion, carrying a basket of fine huckleberries, had a fall and spilt them all. Great was his distress, and offers of berries could not console him for the loss of those gathered by himself. But Thoreau came, put his arm round the troubled child, and explained to him that if the crop of huckleberries was to continue it was necessary that some should be scattered. Nature had provided that little boys and girls should now and then stumble and sow the berries. ‘We shall,’ he said, ‘have a grand lot of bushes and berries on this spot, and we shall owe them to you.’ Edward began to smile.”
Thoreau evidently knew how to console a child, no less than how to make friends with a squirrel. But his fondness for children is no more an argument for his sociability, than his fondness for birds or squirrels. As a rule it will be found, I think, that a predilection for children is most marked in men generally reserved and inaccessible. Lewis Carroll, for instance, to take a famous recent example, was the reverse of a sociable man. Shy, reserved, even cold in ordinary converse, he would expand immediately when in the company of children. Certainly he understood them much better than he did their elders. Like Thoreau, moreover, Lewis Carroll was a lover of animals.
Social adaptability was not a characteristic of Thackeray, his moroseness and reserve frequently alienating people; yet no one was more devoted to children, or a more delightful friend to them.
So far from being an argument in favour of its possessor’s sociability, it seems to be a tolerable argument against it. It is not hard to understand why. When analysed this fondness for children is much the same in quality as the fondness for animals. A man is drawn towards children because there is something fresh, unsophisticated, and elemental about them. It has no reference to their moral qualities, though the æsthetic element plays a share. Thoreau knew how to comfort little Edward Emerson just as he knew how to cheer the squirrel that sought a refuge in his waistcoat. This fondness, however, must not be confused with the paternal instinct. A man may desire to have children, realize that desire, interest himself in their welfare, and yet not be really fond of them. As children they may not attract him, but he regards them as possibilities for perpetuating the family and for enhancing its prestige.
A good deal of nonsense is talked about the purity and innocence of childhood. Children are consequently brought up in a morbidly sentimental atmosphere that makes of them too quickly little prigs or little hypocrites. I do not believe, however, that any man or woman who is genuinely fond of children is moved by this artificial point of view. The innocence and purity of children is a middle-class convention. None but the unreal sentimentalist really believes in it. What attracts us most in children is naturalness and simplicity. We note in them the frank predominance of the instinctive life, and they charm us in many ways just as young animals do.
Lewis Carroll’s biographer speaks of “his intense admiration for the white innocence and uncontaminated spirituality of childhood.”
If this be true then it shows that the Rev. C.L. Dodgson had a great deal to learn about children, who are, or should be, healthy little pagans. But though his liking for them may not have been free of the sentimental taint, there is abundant proof that other less debatable qualities in childhood appealed to him with much greater force.
“Uncontaminated spirituality,” forsooth. I would as soon speak of the uncontaminated spirituality of a rabbit. I am sure rabbits are a good deal more lovable than some children.
Thoreau’s love of children, then, seems to be only a fresh instance of his attraction towards simpler, more elemental forms of life. Men and women not ringed round by civilized conventions, children who have the freshness and wildness of the woods about them; such were the human beings that interested him.
Such an attitude has its advantages as well as its limitations. It calls neither for the censorious blame visited upon Thoreau by some of the critics nor the indiscriminate eulogy bestowed on him by others.
The Vagabond who withdraws himself to any extent from the life of his day, who declines to conform to many of its arbitrary conventions, escapes much of the fret and tear, the heart-aching and the disillusionment that others share in. He retains a freshness, a simplicity, a joyfulness, not vouchsafed to those who stay at home and never wander beyond the prescribed limits. He exhibits an individuality which is more genuinely the legitimate expression of his temperament. It is not warped, crossed, suppressed, as many are.
And this is why the literary Vagabond is such excellent company, having wandered from the beaten track he has much to tell others of us who have stayed at home. There is a wild luxuriance about his character that is interesting and fascinating — if you are not thrown for too long in his company. The riotous growth of eccentricities and idiosyncrasies are picturesque enough, though you must expect to find thorns and briars.
On the other hand, we must beware of sentimentalizing the Vagabond, and to present him as an ideal figure — as some enthusiasts have done — seems to me a mistake. As a wholesome bitter corrective to the monotonous sweet of civilization he is admirable enough. Of his tonic influence in literature there can be no question. But it is well for the Vagabond to be in the minority. Perhaps these considerations should come at the close of the series of Vagabond studies, but they arise naturally when considering Thoreau — for Thoreau is one of the few Vagabonds whom his admirers have tried to canonize. Not content with the striking qualities which the Vagabond naturally exhibits, some of his admirers cannot rest without dragging in other qualities to which he has no claim. Why try to prove that Thoreau was really a most sociable character, that Whitman was the profoundest philosopher of his day, that Jefferies was — deep down — a conventionally religious man? Why, oh why, may we not leave them in their pleasant wildness without trying to make out that they were the best company in the world for five-o’clock teas and chapel meetings?
For — and it is well to admit it frankly — the Vagabond loses as well as gains by his deliberate withdrawal from the world. No man can live to himself without some injury to his character. The very cares and worries, the checks and clashings, consequent on meeting other individualities tend to keep down the egotistic elements in a man’s nature. The necessary give and take, the sacrifice of self-interests, the little abnegations, the moral adjustment following the appreciation of other points of view; all these things are good for men and women. Yes, and it is good even to mix with very conventional people — I do not say live with them — however distasteful it may be, for the excessive caution, the prudential, opportunistic qualities they exhibit, serve a useful purpose in the scheme of things. The ideal thing, no doubt, is to mix with as many types, as many varieties of the human species, as possible. Browning owes his great power as a poet to his tireless interest in all sorts and conditions of men and women.
It is idle to pretend then that Thoreau lost nothing by his experiments, and by the life he fashioned for himself. Nature gives us plenty of choice; we are invited to help ourselves, but everything must be paid for. There are drawbacks as well as compensations; and the most a man can do is to strike a balance.
And in Thoreau’s case the balance was a generous one.
Better than his moralizing, better than his varied culture, was his intimacy with Nature. Moralists are plentiful, scholars abound, but men in close, vital sympathy with the Earth, a sympathy that comprehends because it loves, and loves because it comprehends, are rare. Let us make the most of them.
In one of his most striking Nature poems Mr. George Meredith exclaims: —
“Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.
Nothing harms beneath the leaves
More than waves a swimmer cleaves.
Toss your heart up with the lark,
Foot at peace with mouse and worm,
Fair you fare,
Only at a dread of dark
Quaver, and they quit their form:
Thousand eyeballs under hoods
Have you by the hair.
Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.”
So to understand Nature you must trust her, otherwise she will remain at heart fearsome and cryptic.
“you must love the light so well
That no darkness will seem fell;
Love it so you could accost
Fellowly a livid ghost.”
Mr. Meredith requires us to approach Nature with an unswerving faith in her goodness.
No easy thing assuredly; and to some minds this attitude will express a facile optimism. Approve it or reject it, however, as we may, ’tis a philosophy that can claim many and diverse adherents, for it is no dusty formula of academic thought, but a message of the sunshine and the winds. Talk of suffering and death to the Vagabond, and he will reply as did Petulengro, “Life is sweet, brother.” Not that he ignores other matters, but it is sufficient for him that “life is sweet.” And after all he speaks as to what he has known.
Questions? Comments? Bug report?
☞ Contact Me! ☜
All original text, graphics and web deisign of this entire site
are copyright © Ron Koster/Psymon, 2021 (except as otherwise noted)
and may not be reproduced or distributed in any manner
without explicit permission.
See: A Note on Copyright.
All Rights Reserved.