THOREAU.* THE name of Thoreau has once more been brought
before the English public. Walden has been found popular enough to call for a new edition, and Early Spring ia Massachusetts has been followed by a second volume of similar selections from his Journal, under the title of &sneer. Yet to many lie is even now wholly unknown ; while of those to whom his name is familiar, many regard him only as a visionary lover of Nature, more at home among the woods and fields than in the struggling life of men. To some, however, his name brings such a refreshing sense of liberty, that it may be worth while to ask what it is that gives Thoreau the power to charm those whose nature and circumstances lie far apart from his.
Probably it added greatly to Thoreau's repute that he
belonged to a circle of friends most of whom left their mark upon American thought. He was one of a community of men who were living individual, strenuous lives at a -time when society—at least, in Europe—was bound and fettered by conventionalities. From America come the seeds of political progress. From America, too, comes a certain fearless logic that is willing to translate freedom of word into freedom of action. There, there is little or no sense of tradition to bind the actions of men. New classes spring up which unite the culture of the future with a certain vigour which can only be found in its fullness among those who still employ much of their time in manual labour. In America not only are all men equal in politics, but all men
are equal in education and society. The effects of this are enormous. They are not seen adequately in great centres like New York or Boston, where European opinion may naturally be expected to have its influence, and where wealth is so common that it has made for itself a conventional commonplace which it has neither time nor inclination to break through. But in rising towns, as Concord was at the beginning of the century, Americans have always been found willing, not only to listen to new doctrines, but, by practical acceptance of them, to test their application to life and manners. Concord, at that time, must have been a very Paradise to the young and enthusiastic. They had seen their parents before them break away from old grooves of thought, while their history itself was that of a nation which but a comparatively few years before had no well-marked grooves of any kind to break away from. In such a soil all plants might hope to hold their own. From seed sown there, what splendid new bloom might not be looked for ; and each leader slightly in advance of his fellows could even dream of a time when Churches and States might come to be called after his name. Into such a society Henry Thoreau was born ; and if he has founded neither sect nor family, he has at least left a name which all true lovers of Nature will remember with gratitude.
It is easier, however, to say what Thoreau was not, than what he was. He was not a philosopher, he was not a thinker, as the word is generally understood. He wrote nothing by which he will be long remembered. He does not even win by love or sympathy, for every word and action of his shows how little the lives of his fellow-men played any part in his own. To his friends and neighbours the character of Thoreau must have been a riddle hard to read, and why he was not like others must remain in part a mystery. There was nothing in him to separate him specially from his fellow-men. He is not great in soul or mind. He could not even be said to be a real student of Nature, to whom he sacrificed so much. In the long days spent alone in the woods he was not collecting scientific facts, nor storing his imagination or memory with images to give out again in poetry or art. The selections from his Diary are not strikingly original, and his style has not sufficient charm to make us forgive the absence of that indescribable something which, in a true lover of Nature, is rarely absent. What is it, then, that does attract ?
Freedom, above all things, was the key-note to Thoreau's life.
• Walden. By Henry D. Thoreau. A New Edition. Edinbaigh : David Douglas. 1884. Summer. From the Journal of H. D. Thoreau. Edited by G. 0. Blake. Boston.: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co. 1831. He was afraid of nothing but the loss of freedom, a loss which would have made life unbearable to him. To those who realise how entirely absent real freedom is from the lives of most of us this protest on the part of Thoreau is most valuable. Conventionality, which shelters itself often under a religions sanction, binds us hand and foot. The very elements fight against our freedom, and the commonplaces of morality forbid the mention of its name. Though possessed of free-will we do our best to disbelieve in it ; and those who venture to assert that man is higher and nobler than the habits he contracts and the institutions he has sprung from, are condemned by those who can only see in him a product of past experience, or one whose only safety lies in adherence to the traditional chain which binds him to those who have gone before. Even in the lesser matters of the law, where is there any noble liberty of life? Yet, at the same time, freedom is praised by all. Our poets say that custom lies heavy upon us as Death, and that life consists of freedom of thought and speech ; our philosophers assert that plain living generates high thinking. Yet both poet and. philosopher lead the common life and. are as much led, away by high living and luxurious ease, as if their moments of inspiration were only moments of madness. And mad indeed would poet or philosopher be in the eyes of the great majority of men if he followed his own counsels. Can we imagine a poet of renown building his own hut in the wood, as Thoreau did Can we imagine an English philosopher, a favourite of society, a light fanned by worshippers of fashion and. mark, electing to live a life of real overwhelming solitude, where plain living is a necessity, and where there is not too much even of that to confuse his intellectual theories ? But, after all, we are all alike in this one thing. We are dreadfully and radically afraid of our neighbours. And, perhaps, it is as well we are. Few have the fibre and strength of character to live-out independent lives. They might be victors, but far more probably they would perish in a vain effort to attain an unsanctified celebrity, through the indulgence of some morbid passion that would soon unfit them for the society of their fellow-men. We are not, after all, real believers in ourselves, any more than those who make poetry or discourse on wisdom are real poets or real philosophers. Perhaps, too, it is our keenwitted Mother Nature, who has done well to protect herself. If we all became real philosophers, real poets, or even real Christians, the world might come to an end and Nature might find herself outwitted and betrayed. Is it not, perhaps, that Nature, ruthlessly unbending, is really afraid. that man should, by pure force of logic, leave her a prey unto herself? But whatever the reason may be, who can doubt the reality of the fact that men are chained by unrelenting force of habit to a process of civilisation which ends in consuming itself ? It was by raising a vigorous protest against this civilisation that Thoreau made himself one of the benefactors of his race. Civilisation and order oppress as well as sustain, and the absence of all criticism in Nature, and. the invigorating response she gives to our love, make a return to a more direct communication with her, strengthening as well as enlarging to the mind. At Walden, among the silence of furred and feathered companions, Thoreau weighed civilisation and the intercourse of his fellow-men, and found both wanting. In his woodland solitude the shy children of the fields approached him with something of a brother's love. Whether his power sprang from the entirety of his self-surrender, or from some more subtle magnetic influence, we cannot say, but birds and fishes came to his call ; perhaps it was his very want of all scientific interest in them that gave them a fellow-feeling for one who, like themselves, lived untrammelled and-unfettered.
It has been said by a harsh critic that the life of Thoreau, "with all its strenuous pretence of perfect sincerity, was at bottom a transparent sham ; " but to say this is to miss the one quality in him that is of use to his fellowmen. His life was not a sham, because he had courake to be himself, whether for good or for evil. A life is a sham just so far as the man who leads it believes one thing and acts another. No doubt, literary life in Boston and Concord was full of shams, just as aesthetic and literary circles in London are also full of shams. But it is not those who are willing to lead a life of real hardship month after month alone in the backwoods, simply from the sheer pleasure of the thing itself, who make up the shams. To say, too, that Thoreau, like Jean Jacques Rousseau, "was deeply leavened by the leaven of the artificial world from which he revolted," does not tell against his sincerity. Probably Thoreau was as fully alive to the leaven of artificiality in himself as most men are to what, as inheritors of the past they cannot get tree from. To say he was a product of the nineteenth century, is merely to say that each century in turn gives birth to its own offspring to render its own reading of the past. We can never cease to be inheritors of bygone days ; but in the method dealing with this inheritance lies the difference between man and man.
Thorean's writings, however, are not his strongest point. Whereas in Walden he has something definite to say, and says it with a simplicity and directness that makes it worth reading, the volumes taken from his Journal bear no marks of originality. What he records there are merely the every-day observations that a fairly-close student of Nature might observe. His force, as it were, has been expended in putting into action his desire to live in solitude. He has no special literary gifts, and he is too prosaic and unsympathetic to be poetical. His inner nature does not run on sufficiently strong lines for poetry. There is no reason to think he ever felt a joy or sorrow very keenly. It is here that the self-consciousness of the society he lived in told upon him. He was rarely if ever carried out of himself. No doubt there is a sort of introspective writing that can only be given out through self-consciousness ; but if so, it is allied with gifts denied to Thoreau. As a rule, there is sympathy with others underlying the conscious contemplation of self, so that what is inspired by self-consciousness strikes unconsciously upon the larger element that sympathy has created. But of books and journals the world has enough and to spare; and if a man has awakened new life through vigorous action, he may be forgiven for writing pages which probably he never intended should see the light, and which, after all, need not be read in order to gain the good that Thoreau can give us.