Friday, August 09, 2013

Thoreau on Solitude

Notes on Walden, V

"THIS IS A delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are Nature's watchmen — links which connect the days of animated life." - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p 129.

The opening lines of the "Solitude" chapter of Walden provide an excellent introduction to this idea: solitude.  Thoreau is alone by the pond with no humans near him; he is physically isolated.  Beyond this he is isolated through the lack of engagement with other humans.  His focus is on his surroundings to the exclusion of all else. Almost all of the passage depicts his absorption with the sights and sounds of the flora and fauna that permeate his evening idyll.  Yet, the last line signals his reflection on the symbolic meaning of the animals, "Nature's watchmen" who are "links in a chain" providing a connection through time.
While solitude has other attributes and does not depend on isolation from other humans, even for Thoreau as he notes later in the chapter; "The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert." (p135) That onomatopoeic comment suggests that there is more to look for when considering the nature of solitude, but this will do for a start.
And today is a good day to meditate on Thoreau since, August 9, 1854: After spending two years, two months, and two days living on forested property owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had the material for his classic, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. It was published 159 years ago today.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 1971 (1854)

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