Friday, December 16, 2011

A Winter Walk

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
From Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems

Henry David Thoreau took up writing the year after Ellen Sewall turned down his proposal of marriage. His early essays and poems began appearing regularly in The Dial, a journal founded in 1840 by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. The magazine’s undeniable impact on American literary history belies the length of its existence; it folded four years later, but it was a cornerstone for the group of writers who had come to be known (at first, pejoratively) as the Transcendentalists. By the time Thoreau published “A Winter Walk” in 1843, he had developed “his naturalistic writing in the direction it later took in Walden,” as one source summarizes. “Although these early essays can be read as somewhat romantic literary descriptions, Thoreau has already begun to inject a philosophical edge into his writing.”

Thoreau often incorporated poetry into his prose, and here you’ll find two of his poems: “The sluggish smoke curls up from some deep dell” and “When Winter fringes every bough.” But also included are unattributed excerpts of verse not written by Thoreau (on pages 97 and 106, as well as the closing lines). These are instead by James Thomson, who died almost a century earlier. Not often read today, Thomson’s verse would have been immediately familiar to readers in Thoreau’s time. (Thomson’s one enduring poem is “Rule Britannia,” which was set to music by Thomas Arne.) As Michael Schmidt writes in his masterful Lives of the Poets:
One of the most successful British poets of all time . . . is James Thomson, the man who momentarily reinvented pastoral and is now read primarily by scholars who prefer dust to living dirt and by students puzzled by the reputed tedium of the eighteenth century. . . . Once he was the poetic equivalent of the Gideon Bible; his poems were to be found in every inn and cottage in the land.
In 1726, at the age of twenty-five, Thomson published Winter, his debut book, which became the first part of (naturally) The Seasons, a tome he expanded and revised and polished until his death in 1748. The three excerpts from Winter in “A Winter Walk” enhance Thoreau’s description of a dawn-to-dusk stroll “through the powdery snow, warmed by an inward heat,” and their inclusion supports Schmidt’s contention that Thomson’s major literary contribution “was to show how landscape might be used for emotional projection, to reveal an observer’s mind as much as the thing observed.”

Notes: On page 97, Thoreau refers to several groups of inhabitants of Canadian and Arctic regions: Esquimaux (Eskimos, or Inuit–Yupik), Knistenaux (more commonly, Knisteneaux, or Cree), Dog-ribbed Indians (Dogrib), Novazemblaires (of Nova Zembla island), and Spitzbergeners (of Spitsbergen island, north of Norway). The latter two islands were actually uninhabited during Thoreau’s lifetime. Plicipennes is a name for the caddis fly.

On page 98, there are references to the ruins of Palmyra, an ancient city in Syria, and Hecatompolis, the capital of the Arsacid Empire in Persia around the end of the third century BCE. Abu Musa (p. 100) was a medieval Arab alchemist and mystic.

The two explorers mentioned at the bottom of page 102 are Sir William Edward Parry, who in 1827 attempted to reach the North Pole, and Sir John Franklin, who attempted three Arctic expeditions between 1819 and 1823. Both were still alive when Thoreau wrote his essay, although Franklin, along with 24 officers and 105 men, would perish four years later while attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage. “The mower whet his scythe” (p. 103) is a quote from Milton’s “L’Allegro.” A hortus siccus (p. 104) is a herbarium or, literally, a “dry garden.”

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The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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