Henry David Thoreau
from “A Week on the
doubts whether Grecian valor and patriotism are not a fiction of the poets, he
may go to Athens and see still upon the walls of the temple of Minerva the
circular marks made by the shields taken from the enemy in the Persian war,
which were suspended there. We have not far to seek for living and
unquestionable evidence. The very dust takes shape and confirms some story
which we had read. As Fuller said, commenting on the zeal of
Some minds are as little logical or argumentative as nature; they can offer no reason or “guess,” but they exhibit the solemn and incontrovertible fact. If a historical question arises, they cause the tombs to be opened. Their silent and practical logic convinces the reason and the understanding at the same time. Of such sort is always the only pertinent question and the only satisfactory reply.
own country furnishes antiquities as ancient and durable, and as useful, as
any; rocks at least as well covered with lichens, and a soil which, if it is
virgin, is but virgin mould, the very dust of nature. What if we cannot read
“bees that fly
About the laughing blossoms of sallowy.”
Here is the gray dawn for antiquity, and our to-morrow’s future should be at least paulo-post to theirs which we have put behind us. There are the red-maple and birchen leaves, old runes which are not yet deciphered; catkins, pine-cones, vines, oak-leaves, and acorns; the very things themselves, and not their forms in stone, -- so much the more ancient and venerable. And even to the current summer there has come down tradition of a hoary-headed master of all art, who once filled every field and grove with statues and god-like architecture, of every design which Greece has lately copied; whose ruins are now mingled with the dust, and not one block remains upon another. The century sun and unwearied rain have wasted them, till not one fragment from that quarry now exists; and poets perchance will feign that gods sent down the material from heaven.
Poetry is the mysticism of mankind.
The expressions of the poet cannot be analyzed; his sentence is one word, whose syllables are words. There are indeed no words quite worthy to be set to his music. But what matter if we do not hear the words always, if we hear the music?
Much verse fails of being poetry because it was not written exactly at the right crisis, though it may have been inconceivably near to it. It is only by a miracle that poetry is written at all. It is not recoverable thought, but a hue caught from a vaster receding thought.
A poem is one undivided unimpeded expression fallen ripe into literature, and it is undividedly and unimpededly received by those for whom it was matured.
If you can speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things.
two classes of men called poets. The one cultivates life, the other art, -- one
seeks food for nutriment, the other for flavor; one satisfies hunger, the other
gratifies the palate. There are two kinds of writing, both great and rare; one
that of genius, or the inspired, the other of intellect and taste, in the
intervals of inspiration. The former is above criticism, always correct, giving
the law to criticism. It vibrates and pulsates with life forever. It is sacred,
and to be read with reverence, as the works of nature are
studied. There are few instances of a sustained style of this kind; perhaps
every man has spoken words, but the speaker is then careless of the record.
Such a style removes us out of personal relations with its author; we do not
take his words on our lips, but his sense into our hearts. It is the stream of
inspiration, which bubbles out, now here, now there, now in this man, now in
that. It matters not through what ice-crystals it is seen, now a fountain, now the ocean stream running under ground. It is in
The other is self-possessed and wise. It is reverent of genius, and greedy of inspiration. It is conscious in the highest and the least degree. It consists with the most perfect command of the faculties. It dwells in a repose as of the desert, and objects are as distinct in it as oases or palms in the horizon of sand. The train of thought moves with subdued and measured step, like a caravan. But the pen is only an instrument in its hand, and not instinct with life, like a longer arm. It leaves a thin varnish or glaze over all its work. The works of Goethe furnish remarkable instances of the latter.
is no just and serene criticism as yet. Nothing is considered simply as it lies
in the lap of eternal beauty, but our thoughts, as well as our bodies, must be
dressed after the latest fashions. Our taste is too delicate and particular. It
says nay to the poet’s work, but never yea to his hope. It invites him to adorn
his deformities, and not to cast them off by expansion, as the tree its bark.
We are a people who live in a bright light, in houses of pearl and porcelain,
and drink only light wines, whose teeth are easily set on edge by the least
natural sour. If we had been consulted, the backbone of the earth would have
been made, not of granite, but of
In these old books the stucco has long since crumbled away, and we read what was sculptured in the granite. They are rude and massive in their proportions, rather than smooth and delicate in their finish. The workers in stone polish only their chimney ornaments, but their pyramids are roughly done. There is a soberness in a rough aspect, as of unhewn granite, which addresses a depth in us, but a polished surface hits only the ball of the eye. The true finish is the work of time, and the use to which a thing is put. The elements are still polishing the pyramids. Art may varnish and gild, but it can do no more. A work of genius is rough-hewn from the first, because it anticipates the lapse of time, and has an ingrained polish, which still appears when fragments are broken off, an essential quality of its substance. Its beauty is at the same time its strength, and it breaks with a lustre.