Seeing how all the world’s ways came to nought,
And how Death’s one decree merged all degrees,
He chose to pass his time with birds and trees,
Reduced his life to sane necessities:
Plain meat and drink and sleep and noble thought.
And the plump kine which waded to the knees
Through the lush grass, knowing the luxuries
Of succulent mouthfuls, had our gold-disease
As much as he, who only Nature sought.
Who gives up much the gods give more in turn:
The music of the spheres for dross of gold;
For o’er-officious cares, flame-songs that burn
Their pathway through the years and never old.
And he who shunned vain cares and vainer strife
Found an eternity in one short life.
As a rule, the man who can do all things equally well is a very mediocre individual. Those who stand out before a groping world as beacon-lights were men of great faults and unequal performances. It is quite needless to add that they do not live on account of their faults or imperfections, but in spite of them.
Henry David Thoreau’s place in the common heart of humanity grows firmer and more secure as the seasons pass; his life proves for us again the paradoxical fact that the only men who really succeed are those who fail.
Thoreau’s obscurity, his poverty, his lack of public recognition in life, either as a writer or lecturer, his rejection as a lover, his failure in business, and his early death, form a combination of calamities that make him as immortal as a martyr. Especially does an early death sanctify all and make the record complete, but the death of a naturalist while right at the height of his ability to see and enjoy–death from tuberculosis of a man who lived most of the time in the open air–these things array us on the side of the man ‘gainst unkind Fate, and cement our sympathy and love.
Nature’s care forever is for the species, and the individual is sacrificed without ruth that the race may live and progress. This dumb indifference of Nature to the individual–this apparent contempt for the man–seems to prove that the individual is only a phenomenon. Man is merely a manifestation, a symptom, a symbol, and his quick passing proves that he isn’t the Thing. Nature does not care for him–she produces a million beings in order to get one who has thoughts–all are swept into the dustpan of oblivion but the one who thinks; he alone lives, embalmed in the memories of generations unborn.
One of the most insistent errors ever put out was that statement of Rousseau, paraphrased in part by T. Jefferson, that all men are born free and equal. No man was ever born free, and none are equal, and would not remain so an hour, even if Jove, through caprice, should make them so.
The Thoreau race is dead. In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Concord there is a monument marking a row of mounds where a half-dozen Thoreaus rest. The inscriptions are all of one size, but the name of one alone lives, and he lives because he had thoughts and expressed them. If any of the tribe of Thoreau gets into Elysium, it will be by tagging close to the only man among them who glorified his Maker by using his reason.
Nothing should be claimed as truth that can not be demonstrated, but as a hypothesis (borrowed from Henry Thoreau) I give you this: Man is only the tool or vehicle–Mind alone is immortal–Thought is the Thing.
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Heredity does not account for the evolution of Henry Thoreau. His father was of French descent–a plain, stolid, little man who settled in Concord with his parents when a child; later he tried business in Boston, but the march of commerce resolved itself into a double-quick, and John Thoreau dropped out of line, and turned to the country village of Concord, where he hoped that between making lead-pencils and gardening he might secure a living.