The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/Passages from Hawthorne's Note-Books

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PASSAGES FROM HAWTHORNE'S NOTE-BOOKS.

VIII.

Concord, Saturday, August 13, 1842.—My life, at this time, is more like that of a boy, externally, than it has been since I was really a boy. It is usually supposed that the cares of life come with matrimony; but I seem to have cast off all care, and live on with as much easy trust in Providence as Adam could possibly have felt before he had learned that there was a world beyond Paradise. My chief anxiety consists in watching the prosperity of my vegetables, in observing how they are affected by the rain or sunshine, in lamenting the blight of one squash and rejoicing at the luxurious growth of another. It is as if the original relation between man and Nature were restored in my case, and that I were to look exclusively to her for the support of my Eve and myself,—to trust to her for food and clothing, and all things needful, with the full assurance that she would not fail me. The fight with the world,—the struggle of a man among men,—the agony of the universal effort to wrench the means of living from a host of greedy competitors,—all this seems like a dream to me. My business is merely to live and to enjoy; and whatever is essential to life and enjoyment will come as naturally as the dew from heaven. This is, practically at least, my faith. And so I awake in the morning with a boyish thoughtlessness as to how the outgoings of the day are to be provided for, and its incomings rendered certain. After breakfast, I go forth into my garden, and gather whatever the bountiful Mother has made fit for our present sustenance; and of late days she generally gives me two squashes and a cucumber, and promises me green corn and shell-beans very soon. Then I pass down through our orchard to the river-side, and ramble along its margin in search of flowers. Usually I discern a fragrant white lily, here and there along the shore, growing, with sweet prudishness, beyond the grasp of mortal arm. But it does not escape me so. I know what is its fitting destiny better than the silly flower knows for itself; so I wade in, heedless of wet trousers, and seize the shy lily by its slender stem. Thus I make prize of five or six, which are as many as usually blossom within my reach in a single morning;—some of them partially worm-eaten or blighted, like virgins with an eating sorrow at the heart; others as fair and perfect as Nature's own idea was, when she first imagined this lovely flower. A perfect pond-lily is the most satisfactory of flowers. Besides these, I gather whatever else of beautiful chances to be growing in the moist soil by the river-side,—an amphibious tribe, yet with more richness and grace than the wild-flowers of the deep and dry woodlands and hedge-rows,—sometimes the white arrow-head, always the blue spires and broad green leaves of the pickerel-flower, which contrast and harmonize so well with the white lilies. For the last two or three days, I have found scattered stalks of the cardinal-flower, the gorgeous scarlet of which it is a joy even to remember. The world is made brighter and sunnier by flowers of such a hue. Even perfume, which otherwise is the soul and spirit of a flower, may be spared when it arrays itself in this scarlet glory. It is a flower of thought and feeling, too; it seems to have its roots deep down in the hearts of those who gaze at it. Other bright flowers sometimes impress me as wanting sentiment; but it is not so with this.

Well, having made up my bunch of flowers, I return home with them. . . . . Then I ascend to my study, and generally read, or perchance scribble in this journal, and otherwise suffer Time to loiter onward at his own pleasure, till the dinner-hour. In pleasant days, the chief event of the afternoon, and the happiest one of the day, is our walk. . . . So comes the night; and I look back upon a day spent in what the world would call idleness, and for which I myself can suggest no more appropriate epithet, but which, nevertheless, I cannot feel to have been spent amiss. True, it might be a sin and shame, in such a world as ours, to spend a lifetime in this manner; but for a few summer weeks it is good to live as if this world were heaven. And so it is, and so it shall be, although, in a little while, a flitting shadow of earthly care and toil will mingle itself with our realities.

 

Monday, August 15th.—George Hillard and his wife arrived from Boston in the dusk of Saturday evening, to spend Sunday with us. It was a pleasant sensation, when the coach rumbled up our avenue, and wheeled round at the door; for I felt that I was regarded as a man with a household,—a man having a tangible existence and locality in the world,—when friends came to avail themselves of our hospitality. It was a sort of acknowledgment and reception of us into the corps of married people,—a sanction by no means essential to our peace and well-being, but yet agreeable enough to receive. So we welcomed them cordially at the door, and ushered them into our parlor, and soon into the supper-room. . . . . The night flitted over us all, and passed away, and up rose a gray and sullen morning, . . . . and we had a splendid breakfast of flapjacks, or slapjacks, and whortleberries, which I gathered on a neighboring hill, and perch, bream, and pout, which I hooked out of the river the evening before. About nine o'clock, Hillard and I set out for a walk to Walden Pond, calling by the way at Mr. Emerson's, to obtain his guidance or directions, and he accompanied us in his own illustrious person. We turned aside a little from our way, to visit Mr. ———, a yeoman, of whose homely and self-acquired wisdom Mr. Emerson has a very high opinion. We found him walking in his fields, a short and stalwart and sturdy personage of middle age, with a face of shrewd and kind expression, and manners of natural courtesy. He had a very free flow of talk, and not much diffidence about his own opinions; for, with a little induction from Mr. Emerson, he began to discourse about the state of the nation, agriculture, and business in general, uttering thoughts that had come to him at the plough, and which had a sort of flavor of the fresh earth about them. I was not impressed with any remarkable originality in his views; but they were sensible and characteristic, and had grown in the soil where we found them; . . . . and he is certainly a man of intellectual and moral substance, a sturdy fact, a reality, something to be felt and touched, whose ideas seem to be dug out of his mind as he digs potatoes, beets, carrots, and turnips out of the ground.

After leaving Mr. ———, we proceeded through wood paths to Walden Pond, picking blackberries of enormous size along the way. The pond itself was beautiful and refreshing to my soul, after such long and exclusive familiarity with our tawny and sluggish river. It lies embosomed among wooded hills,—it is not very extensive, but large enough for waves to dance upon its surface, and to look like a piece of blue firmament, earth-encircled. The shore has a narrow, pebbly strand, which it was worth a day's journey to look at, for the sake of the contrast between it and the weedy, oozy margin of the river. Farther within its depths, you perceive a bottom of pure white sand, sparkling through the transparent water, which, methought, was the very purest liquid in the world. After Mr. Emerson left us, Hillard and I bathed in the pond, and it does really seem as if my spirit, as well as corporeal person, were refreshed by that bath. A good deal of mud and river slime had accumulated on my soul; but these bright waters washed it all away.

We returned home in due season for dinner. . . . . To my misfortune, however, a box of Mediterranean wine proved to have undergone the acetous fermentation; so that the splendor of the festival suffered some diminution. Nevertheless, we ate our dinner with a good appetite, and afterwards went universally to take our several siestas. Meantime there came a shower, which so besprinkled the grass and shrubbery as to make it rather wet for our after-tea ramble. The chief result of the walk was the bringing home of an immense burden of the trailing clematis-vine, now just in blossom, and with which all our flower-stands and vases are this morning decorated. On our return we found Mr. and Mrs. S———, and E. H———, who shortly took their leave, and we sat up late, telling ghost-stories. This morning, at seven, our friends left us. We were both pleased with the visit, and so I think were our guests.

 

Monday, August 22nd.—I took a walk through the woods yesterday afternoon, to Mr. Emerson's, with a book which Margaret Fuller had left, after a call on Saturday eve. I missed the nearest way, and wandered into a very secluded portion of the forest; for forest it might justly be called, so dense and sombre was the shade of oaks and pines. Once I wandered into a tract so overgrown with bushes and underbrush that I could scarcely force a passage through. Nothing is more annoying than a walk of this kind, where one is tormented by an innumerable host of petty impediments. It incenses and depresses me at the same time. Always when I flounder into the midst of bushes, which cross and intertwine themselves about my legs, and brush my face, and seize hold of my clothes, with their multitudinous grip,—always, in such a difficulty, I feel as if it were almost as well to lie down and die in rage and despair as to go one step farther. It is laughable, after I have got out of the moil, to think how miserably it affected me for the moment; but I had better learn patience betimes, for there are many such bushy tracts in this vicinity, on the margins of meadows, and my walks will often lead me into them. Escaping from the bushes, I soon came to an open space among the woods,—a very lovely spot, with the tall old trees standing around as quietly as if no one had intruded there throughout the whole summer. A company of crows were holding their Sabbath on their summits. Apparently they felt themselves injured or insulted by my presence; for, with one consent, they began to Caw! caw! caw! and, launching themselves sullenly on the air, took flight to some securer solitude. Mine, probably, was the first human shape that they had seen all day long,—at least, if they had been stationary in that spot; but perhaps they had winged their way over miles and miles of country, had breakfasted on the summit of Greylock, and dined at the base of Wachusett, and were merely come to sup and sleep among the quiet woods of Concord. But it was my impression at the time, that they had sat still and silent on the tops of the trees all through the Sabbath day, and I felt like one who should unawares disturb an assembly of worshippers. A crow, however, has no real pretensions to religion, in spite of his gravity of mien and black attire. Crows are certainly thieves, and probably infidels. Nevertheless, their voices yesterday were in admirable accordance with the influences of the quiet, sunny, warm, yet autumnal afternoon. They were so far above my head that their loud clamor added to the quiet of the scene, instead of disturbing it. There was no other sound, except the song of the cricket, which is but an audible stillness; for, though it be very loud and heard afar, yet the mind does not take note of it as a sound, so entirely does it mingle and lose its individuality among the other characteristics of coming autumn. Alas for the summer! The grass is still verdant on the hills and in the valleys; the foliage of the trees is as dense as ever, and as green; the flowers are abundant along the margin of the river, and in the hedge-rows, and deep among the woods; the days, too, are as fervid as they were a month ago; and yet in every breath of wind and in every beam of sunshine there is an autumnal influence. I know not how to describe it. Methinks there is a sort of coolness amid all the heat, and a mildness in the brightest of the sunshine. A breeze cannot stir, without thrilling me with the breath of autumn, and I behold its pensive glory in the far, golden gleams among the long shadows of the trees. The flowers, even the brightest of them,—the golden-rod and the gorgeous cardinals,—the most glorious flowers of the year,—have this gentle sadness amid their pomp. Pensive autumn is expressed in the glow of every one of them. I have felt this influence earlier in some years than in others. Sometimes autumn may be perceived even in the early days of July. There is no other feeling like that caused by this faint, doubtful, yet real perception, or rather prophecy, of the year's decay, so deliciously sweet and sad at the same time.

After leaving the book at Mr. Emerson's I returned through the woods, and, entering Sleepy Hollow, I perceived a lady reclining near the path which bends along its verge. It was Margaret herself. She had been there the whole afternoon, meditating or reading; for she had a book in her hand, with some strange title, which I did not understand, and have forgotten. She said that nobody had broken her solitude, and was just giving utterance to a theory that no inhabitant of Concord ever visited Sleepy Hollow, when we saw a group of people entering the sacred precincts. Most of them followed a path which led them away from us; but an old man passed near us, and smiled to see Margaret reclining on the ground, and me sitting by her side. He made some remark about the beauty of the afternoon, and withdrew himself into the shadow of the wood. Then we talked about autumn, and about the pleasures of being lost in the woods, and about the crows, whose voices Margaret had heard; and about the experiences of early childhood, whose influence remains upon the character after the recollection of them has passed away; and about the sight of mountains from a distance, and the view from their summits; and about other matters of high and low philosophy. In the midst of our talk, we heard footsteps above us, on the high bank; and while the person was still hidden among the trees, he called to Margaret, of whom he had gotten a glimpse. Then he emerged from the green shade, and, behold! it was Mr. Emerson. He appeared to have had a pleasant time; for he said that there were Muses in the woods to-day, and whispers to be heard in the breezes. It being now nearly six o'clock, we separated,—Margaret and Mr. Emerson towards his home, and I towards mine. . . . .

Last evening there was the most beautiful moonlight that ever hallowed this earthly world; and when I went to bathe in the river, which was as calm as death, it seemed like plunging down into the sky. But I had rather be on earth than even in the seventh heaven, just now.

 

Wednesday, August 24th.—I left home at five o'clock this morning to catch some fish for breakfast. I shook our summer apple-tree, and ate the golden apple which fell from it. Methinks these early apples, which come as a golden promise before the treasures of autumnal fruit, are almost more delicious than anything that comes afterwards. We have but one such tree in our orchard; but it supplies us with a daily abundance, and probably will do so for at least a week to come. Meantime other trees begin to cast their ripening windfalls upon the grass; and when I taste them, and perceive their mellowed flavor and blackening seeds, I feel somewhat overwhelmed with the impending bounties of Providence. I suppose Adam, in Paradise, did not like to see his fruits decaying on the ground, after he had watched them through the sunny days of the world's first summer. However, insects, at the worst, will hold a festival upon them, so that they will not be thrown away, in the great scheme of Nature. Moreover, I have one advantage over the primeval Adam, inasmuch as there is a chance of disposing of my superfluous fruits among people who inhabit no Paradise of their own.

Passing a little way down along the river-side, I threw in my line, and soon drew out one of the smallest possible of fishes. It seemed to be a pretty good morning for the angler,—an autumnal coolness in the air, a clear sky, but with a fog across the lowlands and on the surface of the river, which a gentle breeze sometimes condensed into wreaths. At first I could barely discern the opposite shore of the river; but, as the sun arose, the vapors gradually dispersed, till only a warm, smoky tint was left along the water's surface. The farm-houses across the river made their appearance out of the dusky cloud; the voices of boys were heard, shouting to the cattle as they drove them to the pastures; a man whetted his scythe, and set to work in a neighboring meadow. Meantime, I continued to stand on the oozy margin of the stream, beguiling the little fish; and though the scaly inhabitants of our river partake somewhat of the character of their native element, and are but sluggish biters, still I contrived to pull out not far from two dozen. They were all bream, a broad, flat, almost circular fish, shaped a good deal like a flounder, but swimming on their edges, instead of on their sides. As far as mere pleasure is concerned, it is hardly worth while to fish in our river, it is so much like angling in a mud-puddle; and one does not attach the idea of freshness and purity to the fishes, as we do to those which inhabit swift, transparent streams, or haunt the shores of the great briny deep. Standing on the weedy margin, and throwing the line over the elder-bushes that dip into the water, it seems as if we could catch nothing but frogs and mud-turtles, or reptiles akin to them. And even when a fish of reputable aspect is drawn out, one feels a shyness about touching him. As to our river, its character was admirably expressed last night by some one who said "it was too lazy to keep itself clean." I might write pages and pages, and only obscure the impression which this brief sentence conveys. Nevertheless, we made bold to eat some of my fish for breakfast, and found them very savory; and the rest shall meet with due entertainment at dinner, together with some shell-beans, green corn, and cucumbers from our garden; so this day's food comes directly and entirely from beneficent Nature, without the intervention of any third person between her and us.

 

Saturday, August 27th.—A peach-tree, which grows beside our house and brushes against the window, is so burdened with fruit that I have had to prop it up. I never saw more splendid peaches in appearance,—great, round, crimson-cheeked beauties, clustering all over the tree. A pear-tree, likewise, is maturing a generous burden of small, sweet fruit, which will require to be eaten at about the same time as the peaches. There is something pleasantly annoying in this superfluous abundance; it is like standing under a tree of ripe apples, and giving it a shake, with the intention of bringing down a single one, when, behold, a dozen come thumping about our ears. But the idea of the infinite generosity and exhaustless bounty of our Mother Nature is well worth attaining; and I never had it so vividly as now, when I find myself, with the few mouths which I am to feed, the sole inheritor of the old clergyman's wealth of fruits. His children, his friends in the village, and the clerical guests who came to preach in his pulpit, were all wont to eat and be filled from these trees. Now, all these hearty old people have passed away, and in their stead is a solitary pair, whose appetites are more than satisfied with the windfalls which the trees throw down at their feet. Howbeit, we shall have now and then a guest to keep our peaches and pears from decaying.

G——— B———, my old fellow-laborer at the community at Brook Farm, called on me last evening, and dined here to-day. He has been cultivating vegetables at Plymouth this summer, and selling them in the market. What a singular mode of life for a man of education and refinement,—to spend his days in hard and earnest bodily toil, and then to convey the products of his labor, in a wheelbarrow, to the public market, and there retail them out,—a peck of peas or beans, a bunch of turnips, a squash, a dozen ears of green corn! Few men, without some eccentricity of character, would have the moral strength to do this; and it is very striking to find such strength combined with the utmost gentleness, and an uncommon regularity of nature. Occasionally he returns for a day or two to resume his place among scholars and idle people, as, for instance, the present week, when he has thrown aside his spade and hoe to attend the Commencement at Cambridge. He is a rare man,—a perfect original, yet without any one salient point; a character to be felt and understood, but almost impossible to describe: for, should you seize upon any characteristic, it would inevitably be altered and distorted in the process of writing it down.

Our few remaining days of summer have been latterly grievously darkened with clouds. To-day there has been an hour or two of hot sunshine; but the sun rose amid cloud and mist, and before he could dry up the moisture of last night's shower upon the trees and grass, the clouds have gathered between him and us again. This afternoon the thunder rumbles in the distance, and I believe a few drops of rain have fallen; but the weight of the shower has burst elsewhere, leaving us nothing but its sullen gloom. There is a muggy warmth in the atmosphere, which takes all the spring and vivacity out of the mind and body.

 

Sunday, August 28th.—Still another rainy day,—the heaviest rain, I believe, that has fallen since we came to Concord (not two months ago). There never was a more sombre aspect of all external nature. I gaze from the open window of my study, somewhat disconsolately, and observe the great willow-tree which shades the house, and which has caught and retained a whole cataract of rain among its leaves and boughs; and all the fruit-trees, too, are dripping continually, even in the brief intervals when the clouds give us a respite. If shaken to bring down the fruit, they will discharge a shower upon the head of him who stands beneath. The rain is warm, coming from some southern region; but the willow attests that it is an autumnal spell of weather, by scattering down no infrequent multitude of yellow leaves, which rest upon the sloping roof of the house, and strew the gravel-path and the grass. The other trees do not yet shed their leaves, though in some of them a lighter tint of verdure, tending towards yellow, is perceptible. All day long we hear the water drip, drip, dripping, splash, splash, splashing, from the eaves, and babbling and foaming into the tubs which have been set out to receive it. The old unpainted shingles and boards of the mansion and out-houses are black with the moisture which they have imbibed. Looking at the river, we perceive that its usually smooth and mirrored surface is blurred by the infinity of rain-drops; the whole landscape—grass, trees, and houses—has a completely water-soaked aspect, as if the earth were wet through. The wooded hill, about a mile distant, whither we went to gather whortleberries, has a mist upon its summit, as if the demon of the rain were enthroned there; and if we look to the sky, it seems as if all the water that had been poured down upon us were as nothing to what is to come. Once in a while, indeed, there is a gleam of sky along the horizon, or a half-cheerful, half-sullen lighting up of the atmosphere; the rain-drops cease to patter down, except when the trees shake off a gentle shower; but soon we hear the broad, quiet, slow, and sure recommencement of the rain. The river, if I mistake not, has risen considerably during the day, and its current will acquire some degree of energy.

In this sombre weather, when some mortals almost forget that there ever was any golden sunshine, or ever will be any hereafter, others seem absolutely to radiate it from their own hearts and minds. The gloom cannot pervade them; they conquer it, and drive it quite out of their sphere, and create a moral rainbow of hope upon the blackest cloud. As for myself, I am little other than a cloud at such seasons, but such persons contrive to make me a sunny one, shining all through me. And thus, even without the support of a stated occupation, I survive these sullen days and am happy.

This morning we read the Sermon on the Mount. In the course of the forenoon, the rain abated for a season, and I went out and gathered some corn and summer-squashes, and picked up the windfalls of apples and pears and peaches. Wet, wet, wet,—everything was wet; the blades of the corn-stalks moistened me; the wet grass soaked my boots quite through; the trees threw their reserved showers upon my head; and soon the remorseless rain began anew, and drove me into the house. When shall we be able to walk again to the far hills, and plunge into the deep woods, and gather more cardinals along the river's margin? The track along which we trod is probably under water now. How inhospitable Nature is during a rain! In the fervid heat of sunny days, she still retains some degree of mercy for us; she has shady spots, whither the sun cannot come; but she provides no shelter against her storms. It makes one shiver to think how dripping with wet are those deep, umbrageous nooks, those overshadowed banks, where we find such enjoyment during sultry afternoons. And what becomes of the birds in such a soaking rain as this? Is hope and an instinctive faith so mixed up with their nature, that they can be cheered by the thought that the sunshine will return? or do they think, as I almost do, that there is to be no sunshine any more? Very disconsolate must they be among the dripping leaves; and when a single summer makes so important a portion of their lives, it seems hard that so much of it should be dissolved in rain. I, likewise, am greedy of the summer-days for my own sake: the life of man does not contain so many of them that one can be spared without regret.

 

Tuesday, August 30th.—I was promised, in the midst of Sunday's rain, that Monday should be fair, and, behold! the sun came back to us, and brought one of the most perfect days ever made since Adam was driven out of Paradise. By the by, was there ever any rain in Paradise? If so, how comfortless must Eve's bower have been! It makes me shiver to think of it. Well, it seemed as if the world was newly created yesterday morning, and I beheld its birth; for I had risen before the sun was over the hill, and had gone forth to fish. How instantaneously did all dreariness and heaviness of the earth's spirit flit away before one smile of the beneficent sun! This proves that all gloom is but a dream and a shadow, and that cheerfulness is the real truth. It requires many clouds, long brooding over us, to make us sad, but one gleam of sunshine always suffices to cheer up the landscape. The banks of the river actually laughed when the sunshine fell upon them; and the river itself was alive and cheerful, and, by way of fun and amusement, it had swept away many wreaths of meadow-hay, and old, rotten branches of trees, and all such trumpery. These matters came floating downwards, whirling round and round in the eddies, or hastening onward in the main current; and many of them, before this time, have probably been carried into the Merrimack, and will be borne onward to the sea. The spots where I stood to fish, on my preceding excursion, were now under water; and the tops of many of the bushes, along the river's margin, barely emerged from the stream. Large spaces of meadow are overflowed.

There was a northwest wind throughout the day; and as many clouds, the remnants of departed gloom, were scattered about the sky, the breeze was continually blowing them across the sun. For the most part, they were gone again in a moment; but sometimes the shadow remained long enough to make me dread a return of sulky weather. Then would come the burst of sunshine, making me feel as if a rainy day were henceforth an impossibility. . . . .

In the afternoon Mr. Emerson called, bringing Mr. ———. He is a good sort of humdrum parson enough, and well fitted to increase the stock of manuscript sermons, of which there must be a fearful quantity already in the world. Mr. ———, however, is probably one of the best and most useful of his class, because no suspicion of the necessity of his profession, constituted as it now is, to mankind, and of his own usefulness and success in it, has hitherto disturbed him; and therefore he labors with faith and confidence, as ministers did a hundred years ago.

After the visitors were gone, I sat at the gallery window, looking down the avenue, and soon there appeared an elderly woman,—a homely, decent old matron, dressed in a dark gown, and with what seemed a manuscript book under her arm. The wind sported with her gown, and blew her veil across her face, and seemed to make game of her, though on a nearer view she looked like a sad old creature, with a pale, thin countenance, and somewhat of a wild and wandering expression. She had a singular gait, reeling, as it were, and yet not quite reeling, from one side of the path to the other; going onward as if it were not much matter whether she went straight or crooked. Such were my observations as she approached through the scattered sunshine and shade of our long avenue, until, reaching the door, she gave a knock, and inquired for the lady of the house. Her manuscript contained a certificate, stating that the old woman was a widow from a foreign land, who had recently lost her son, and was now utterly destitute of friends and kindred, and without means of support. Appended to the certificate there was a list of names of people who had bestowed charity on her, with the amounts of their several donations,—none, as I recollect, higher than twenty-five cents. Here is a strange life, and a character fit for romance and poetry. All the early part of her life, I suppose, and much of her widowhood were spent in the quiet of a home, with kinsfolk around her, and children, and the life-long gossiping acquaintances that some women always create about them. But in her decline she has wandered away from all these, and from her native country itself, and is a vagrant, yet with something of the homeliness and decency of aspect belonging to one who has been a wife and mother, and has had a roof of her own above her head,—and, with all this, a wildness proper to her present life. I have a liking for vagrants of all sorts, and never, that I know of, refused my mite to a wandering beggar, when I had anything in my own pocket. There is so much wretchedness in the world, that we may safely take the word of any mortal professing to need our assistance; and even should we be deceived, still the good to ourselves resulting from a kind act is worth more than the trifle by which we purchase it. It is desirable, I think, that such persons should be permitted to roam through our land of plenty, scattering the seeds of tenderness and charity, as birds of passage bear the seeds of precious plants from land to land, without even dreaming of the office which they perform.

 

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.