Thoreau
by Robert Collyer

Delivered at the Church of the Messiah, January 28, 1883, First published in Clear Grit: A Collection of Lectures, Addresses and Poems, Boston: Beacon Press, 1913

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A detailed introduction by Corinne H. Smith

"He knew Theodore Parker, he quoted Emerson ... he wrote an essay about Nathaniel Hawthorne's works.  But above it all, the Reverend Robert Collyer was an obvious ardent fan of Henry David Thoreau.  And as with the other passions in his life, he felt the need to relay this inclination to his listeners, his people.  These words on paper are just as fiery today as they must have been from the pulpit 120 years ago." - Corinne H. Smith


THIRTY-ONE YEARS AGO last June a man came to see me in Chicago whom I was very glad and proud to meet.  It was Henry Thoreau of Concord, the Diogenes of this new world, the Hermit of Walden Woods. The gentle and loving misanthropist and apostle of individualism so singular and separate that I do not know where to look for his father or his son the most perfect instance to be found I think of American independence run to seed, or shall we say to a mild variety which is very fair to look on but can never sow itself for another harvest. The man of a natural mind which was not enmity against God, but in a great and wide sense was subject to the law of God and to no other law. The saint of the bright ages and the own brother in this to the Saint of the dark ages, who called the wild creatures that run and fly his sisters and brothers, and was more intimate with them than he was with our human kind. The man of whom, so far as pure seeing goes, Jesus would have said "blessed are your eyes, for they see," and whose life I want to touch this evening for some lessons that as it seems to me he alone could teach those who would learn.

[2]      As I remember Henry Thoreau then, he was something over forty years of age but would have easily passed for thirty-five, and he was rather slender, but of a fine, delicate mold, and with a presence which touched you with the sense of perfect purity as newly opened roses do. It is a clear rose-tinted face he turns to me through the mist of all these years, and delicate to look on as the face of a girl; also he has great gray eyes, the seer's eyes full of quiet sunshine. But it is a strong face, too, and the nose is especially notable, being as [Moncure] Conway said to me once of Emerson's nose, a sort of interrogation mark to the universe. His voice was low, but still sweet in the tones and inflections, though the organs were all in revolt just then and wasting away and he was making for the great tablelands beyond us Westwards, to see if he could not find there a new lease of life. His words also were as distinct and true to the ear as those of a great singer, and he had Tennyson's splendid gift in this, that he never went back on his tracks to pick up the fallen loops of a sentence as commonplace talkers do. He would hesitate for an instant now and then, waiting for the right word, or would pause with a pathetic patience to master the trouble in his chest, but when he was through the sentence was perfect and entire, lacking nothing, and the word was so purely one with the man that when I read his books now and then I do not hear my own voice within my reading but the voice I heard that day.

[3]      This is the picture I treasure of Henry Thoreau as I saw him in my own house the year before he died.  There is a splendid engraving after Landseer over the sofa where he sits talking, that vanished in the great fire.  The children are playing about the house, the house mother is busy, the June sunshine floods the place and it is afternoon; and then, as Bunyan says, he went on his way and I saw him no more.  But I went to Concord not very long after to see his grave and to wander through Walden Woods and sit by the pond, to talk with Mr. Emerson about him to my heart's great content, and to eat ripe pears the host had hidden away in the nooks and corners of his study.  He selected the best for his visitors, I remember, with the hospitality of an Arab, and took the second best for himself pear after pear without flinching, and how many pears we ate that day it would be hard to say.  That was a day also to be marked with a white stone.  Concord and the woods and the talk with the one man in all the world who had known Thoreau best gave permanence to the photograph I had taken of him in the year before and helped to bring out the lights and shadows.  We are not sure it would be best to meet some men who have touched us by their genius, but it seems to me now that to see Thoreau as I did that day in Chicago and hear him talk was the one thing needful to me, because he was so simply and entirely the man I had thought of when I read what he had written. There was no lapse, no missing link; the books and the man were one, and I found it was true of him also that "the word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

[4]      So I have lingered over this memory because it has always led me to think as much of the man as of the books he has written, rare and unique as these are to my own mind.  It was said of one who was of a somewhat similar make, "he will be a wild man," and so I love to think of Thoreau as another Ishmael, wild but wholesome from his youth upward, and nourishing in his nature the very dissidence of dissent.  That fitful visit to my home on a summer afternoon stands to me for a very fair type of his nature and inmost quality.  He would stay with no man for a longer term than he stayed with me of his own free will, any more than the wild birds will stay away from their own hiding places.  They imprisoned him once about some small matter of a poll tax, but then he said, "I saw if there was a stone wall between me and my townsmen there was a greater wall and stronger to break through before they could be as free as I was even in their house of durance," and so it was not of the bondage but the freedom he thought.  When Emerson, as I take it, went to see him, as he sat in durance, his saying to him, "Why are you here?" was only met by the answer, "Why are you not here?"  He would not even say, "I would that thou wert altogether such as I am except for these bands," because sitting there he could say with the fine old poet:

"Stone walls do not a prison make
 Or iron bars a cage."
[5]      "I see young men, my townsmen," he said once, "whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, but it had been better for them to have been born in the open pasture and nursed there, that they might see with clearer eyes the larger field they might dwell in.  Who made them the serfs of the soil?  Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?  How many an immortal soul have I met wellnigh crushed under its load of earth!  The better part of the man is ploughed into the soil for compost.  It is a fool's life such men live, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before."

[6]      And I have thought it would be both pleasant and wholesome to teach this bit of native genius, especially this declaration of independence compacted together and bound up in one man, not for its own sake alone but for our sakes also who are the servants if not the slaves of the habits and usages we find all about us, and are often in no sense free men even in those minor things which serve no man's manhood.

[7]      It is often said by those who come here to look at us from other lands of kin to our own that, in despite of the freedom we have bought with a great price, we are not so free in many ways as they are in the old lands, and that within the grand lines we have laid down and maintain in the nation's life we are free only on paper.  I think there is more truth in this than we like to allow.  We find nonconformity and dissent a difficult thing to compass.  We fear social ostracism; we have invented a word of a terrible, cruel power to brand those withal who take their own way in dress, speech, manners of opinions; we call them cranks and fear the word in our secret heart like the burning of fire.  Well, the word had not taken this evil meaning in Thoreau's time, but if he were living now and we were only able to see the mere surface of his manhood as they saw it in Concord forty years ago, we should call him "a crank."  Yet we see now that this was a manhood brimming over with one grand purpose, to be a whole man as he understood manhood, that and no more.  In a little Quaker meeting house I saw once they told me an old friend used to gather every First Day and he was the whole meeting, sat in the silence with his hands clasped and his head bowed, and when the meeting was out shook hands in the spirit with himself and went home, and Thoreau was just such a man.  The meeting to which he went all his life never numbered more than the one member.  If another had come in he would have felt crowded and gone out to find more room.  It is said that when Alexander went to see Diogenes, you know, and said, "Is there any favor I can grant you?" the answer was, "Yes, do not stand between me and the sun."  It was the only favor Thoreau ever thought of asking for which he was not ready to render a full equivalent.  He said to the whole world about him, "do not stand between me and the sun.  Let me live my own life.  Let me think my own thoughts.  Let me say the word that is in my own heart.  Let me be Henry Thoreau."

[8]      "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear," he said, "and I am not sure but that Atheism may be popular by comparison with God himself."  Such a saying must have been wrung out of him, as he observed how cheap and worthless our conformity may be, while to say frankly you do not believe in God when that is your great and rare trouble with yourself makes you a byword, a hissing and an outcast, even among those who may share your trouble but do not possess one grain of your sincerity.

[9]      It is the more wonderful again that he should grow to be such a man when we take note of his training.  He came up in the parish of Dr. Ripley, who was priest and king in Concord through Thoreau's childhood and youth, and would tolerate no freedom of thought or action outside his own proper supremacy.  A man whose throne was his character and who rested and ruled on it arbitrary and imperious, as one says who knew him well, "a whole grand man."  He was sixty-three years minister of that church and had such staying power that, whereas when he came to be their minister a young farmer voted against his settlement on the ground that he was such a weakling, he would either die or need a colleague in a couple of years, when he had been fifty years minister and told the church he wanted a colleague now, as he was getting old, the self-same farmer voted against that on the ground that the Doctor was still as young and strong as ever to all seeming and could do his work better than any other man for many a year to come.  A man, who, as old people in Concord used to believe most devoutly, could storm heaven and make the high powers attend to him when the old lion was roused.  For did not everybody remember that Sunday when he rose in his place, clasped his hands and cried, "O God, open they heavens and send down the rain.  The land is parched with this long drought; send down the rain.  The corn is withering in the leaf; send down the rain.  The cattle on the hills and in the meadows are perishing; send down the rain.  The springs are drying up in the wells; send down the rain and thine shall be the glory for ever and ever, Amen."  So ran the prayer and when they were going home they saw the clouds gathering over Concord and the rain came pouring down in torrents, but only on Concord, so Judge Hoar told me, who was a lad then and remembers the wonder.  And so what do you think of a man like that?  He was sixty-three years minister of that church, and monarch, and the people answered to his will.

[10]      But I love to believe that he met his match in this boy.  I think of him in the old meeting house watching the old man with those fine gray eyes and by no means content to let doctrine and dogma pass without a challenge when he once began to think for himself and draw his own conclusions.  So when we hear of him for the first time to any clear purpose, he is not one in the two thousand human beings who lived in the town and were very much of one mind, that being also grand old Dr. Ripley's mind who held the keys for Concord.  He was a free thinker and a free agent, with no solder of the stereotype about him, but of a clean and separate type, and bound to live his own life in his own way, no matter what the world about him might say or do.  He said once, "the youth gets the materials together to build his temple or his palace on the earth, but the middle aged man finally concludes to build a woodshed with them."  He does not seem to have been a man of that make, but kept close to his purpose of a palace or a temple right down to the day when he came to our home on his way West.

[11]      Paul says proudly, "I was born free."  Well, he was free also and would not be entangled again in the yoke of bondage.  The man who knew him best says he never had a vice in his life.  He did not like the taste of wine and never caught the liking.  When they said to Charles Lamb, "How did you learn to smoke, sir?" he answered, "I toiled after it as men toil after virtue," and Thoreau remembered smoking lily stems when he was a boy, but the lily stems and the boyhood belonged together and the smoke of this torment did not ascend into his manhood.  When you asked him at the table what dish he preferred, he would say the nearest, not for singularity but for simplicity.  He did not like dinner parties, because he said people got into each other's way so that you could not meet your man there to any purpose, and then he said, "They take pride in making their dinner cost so much, while I take pride in making mine cost little."

[12]     And as a New England Yankee, farm bred, he did one astounding thing in his youth.  His father made black lead pencils and the youth took hold to learn the art. But being of the New England breed, which can never let well enough alone, he went to work presently to improve on the old man's methods and ended in making pencils equal to the best that were made in London.  The artists and others in Boston endorsed his work gladly; no such pencils had been made in this country before, and this to the young man meant both fame and a fair fortune.  He came home with his certificate, laid aside his tools, and never made another pencil.  I think he foresaw that, if he kept on, the day might come when his life would pass into pencils and then Thoreau Maker would be all that was left of the man.  It might have been so, or it might not, we cannot tell.  A man like Stevenson outgrows his locomotive.  He can never be caught and imprisoned in that but walks free, a whole man, and Thoreau might have walked free of the pencils and the fortune, but he would not run the risk; he wanted the life, not the fortune.  Other men could make the pencils now that he had found the way, and so he would make no more.

[13]      And so one purpose in this paper is to turn the attention of the younger men and women who hear me to Thoreau's books, and especially to his Walden or Life in the Woods.  It is the story of his life as a hermit.  It touches you as if Crusoe had found his way into New England in our century and feeling overcrowded, even in Concord, had said, "I will live alone again as I did before the savage came crouching to my feet."

"The world is too much with us late and soon,
 Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
 Little we see in Nature that is ours,
 We give our hearts away sordid boon."
[14]      But Thoreau was stirred by a finer motive, and I think sometimes that the germ of his new adventure is to be found in the protests he had made long before against the great old Doctor's dogmas touching the smirching and befouling of this world of ours by the Fall of Man.  It was not a fallen world to Thoreau, but a world forever rising.  And so he felt, I suppose, that Eden might still be hidden away in Walden Woods, and that if he went there he might find it.  Well, he did find it, for the wild things came about him in the old companionable way, while no more exquisite picture was ever made than this Thoreau makes in Walden of the wonders he saw in the two years he was a hermit, of his good company where no man or woman came near him, and of his faith in the wild things that were all about him and their faith in him.  He found out there, as he tells us, that sugar is not so sweet to the palate as sounds to the healthy ear, and his love indeed for the sounds that may touch us through the silence is like another sense.  He puts hemlock boughs on his fire and notes how the rich salt crackling of their leaves is like mustard to the ear, and thinks dead trees love the fire.  He watches the blue bird flitting through the trees and says he seems to carry the sky on his back.  Then there comes a flash of scarlet and he says it is as if that bird would set the woods afire.  He watches Walden pond and notices it is alive to the most delicate sheen on its surface.  He neighbors also with the beeches and says no tree has so fair a bole or so handsome an instep as the beech.  The ferns came up about his hermitage and he says, "Nature made ferns for pure leaves to show what she could do in that line;" and learned to love pond lilies above all other blossoms.  His eye came to be so true that when he fell once in Tuckerman's ravine and sprained his foot the first thing he saw as he gathered himself up was an herb he had never suspected of growing there, the best thing in the world for sprains.  A gentleman once said to him, "I have been looking a long time for an Indian arrowhead round here but cannot find one." Thoreau stirred the sand with his foot and said, "here is one, take it."  And another man wanted a certain fish but could not catch one to save him.  Thoreau put his hand down gently as they glided along in the canoe and lifted one out in his palm.  Mr. Emerson says he could find his way through the woods on a dark night better by his feet than by his eyes, and could pace the ground more perfectly than another man could measure it by rod and chain.

[15]      Now this to my mind was by no means the noblest life a man can live, because it has been well said by a great woman that

     "On solitary souls the universe
      Looks down inhospitable,
      And the human heart
      Finds nowhere shelter but in human kind."

[16]      But it must have been the noblest life to which a man so sincere and true as Thoreau was could attain to at that time, and this must always determine our verdict on any man.  Talking with a rare woman about him one day she said, "It is fortunate, I think, that we should only have one Henry Thoreau," but I ventured to answer, "Is it not also fortunate that we should have just this one?"  She could not see it; she was the mother of four children asleep upstairs as we were talking, and she could imagine no Eden or man or manhood worth the name with the helpmeet left out and the bairns, and that may be true.

[17]      Still here in Walden Woods was the man in such an Eden as he could compass all to himself and ready to affirm against all comers that there may be a life in which it is good for the man to be alone.  So the most of us may not be ready to agree with him, but we may well be content that he should agree with himself so entirely and with that unfallen world he took for two years into his heart and life.  "I went into the woods," he says, "because I wanted to front only the essential facts of life and to see if I could learn what such a life had to teach me."  So that which might be a bane to some of us was no doubt a blessing to an American hermit.  On the far frontier a man will drop into the settlements now and then and offer his wild meats and skins for the home-made bread and whatever fruits of civility he may find to his mind, and the people are always glad to see him if he is a clean and wholesome man, and make exchange with him and have him tell them of his life in the mountains.  So Thoreau comes to us out of the wilderness with his treasures and we may well give him the good welcome he has won among wise readers of good books.  When Parker Pillsbury went to see him as he lay a-dying and said, "Thoreau, you are so near the line now; tell me whether you cannot see something of the other side, some glimpse or gleam of the waiting world beyond," the old sweet smile came over his face and he said cheerily, "One world at a time, Parker;" and this was the watchword, as it seems to me, of his whole life.  He only saw one world at a time, but he saw that exceeding well.  He only took one text for all his sermons and it was:

     "To thine own self be true;
      And it shall follow as the night the day,
      Thou canst not then be false to any man."

But he made all his sermons good to that text and true to the end of the years.

[18]      So I say again and finally that we need such men as Thoreau in every generation, full to the brim and running over with the dissidence of dissent.  Men who will take no man's say-so and cut their life by no man's pattern.  Men who will neither lead nor be led, but will just live their life in their own way and then report to us what they have found we cannot find, who are content to work in the harness or to train in the regiment.

[19]      It is a grand thing even to hear of a young man forty to fifty years ago who could deliberately turn his back on that tremendous thing we call a fortune for the nobler fortune which lay, as he believed, in a life of the simplest tastes and desires.  We could have no such city as this, to be sure, if we were all to take that turn, but there is not the least danger of our taking that turn, while the example is simply priceless if it only leads us to see that to make a fortune or strike for one is not the alpha and omega of our human life.  When a friend of mine counseled a poor woman to go and live in the country that she might win bread for her children she said, "I would rather lean against a lamp post in New York than have a home in the country."  Thoreau shows us how the exchange may be made and the profit and pleasure may be on the side of the simpler and sweeter life.  We blot out the line which lies forever deep and sure between our needs and our desires.  Thoreau scores the line afresh, deep and strong, and shows us how many ills may be cured, as the good doctor told the alderman of London to cure his gout:  "Live on sixpence a day, and earn it."

[20]      Young men are tangled up in a network of conventional usages.  A man with no brains, perhaps, to speak of, walks down Broadway with a hat he brought from Paris on the last steamer.  You all rush to get a hat like that; or it is a coat and you must have the coat; and so it is with a hundred things that cost money, and what is worth more than money, independence.  You must conform, you say.  "Not so," says Thoreau, "I do not live to suit my fellows but myself.  I will dress as I like and do as I like.  I will be no man's serf.  It does not become me to run with the crowd, and they may say we will have none of you, but they are too late in saying that; they do not ostracize me; I ostracize them."  Thousands of young men in this city stay poor because they will not draw the line between the need and the desire, and a clear percentage wreck their lives past all recovery through this weakness.  Thoreau stands for the instance that would set every young man if he should follow it, well on his feet and keep him safe and sound.  He said once, "How can we expect a harvest of thought if we have no seed time of character?"  He was a true and fine thinker because he was a true and stanch man.  "What do I care who refuses to hear me?" Bushnell said once, "when I have God for my audience?"  So said Thoreau, but he seems to have been content with nature, and now and then a man.

[21]      His religion, like his life, was absolutely independent of all our churches and standards of doctrine and ceremonials, and I love to find such a man though I could not be of his school.  I should need a church all the same, if I were not a minister, and my Bible and the help that comes to me through the man, Christ Jesus.  Still I reverence such independence as Thoreau's with my whole heart, because it was as native to the man as my dependence is, and he used it so well.  The great pines on the Michigan peninsula that stand so close together stand greatly through each other's sheltering; they are not cabled to the earth like that I saw on Lone Tree Hill in Kansas once, that had stood the wreck of centuries.  So we need to have wider spaces between man and man that we may send out and downward great roots and stand fast in our own simple manhood, and Thoreau nobly helps to teach us that secret.


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