The Service/Introductory Note

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE

 

When some twenty years ago there were sent to me from the portfolios of Emerson papers by different friends of ours, I found among them an essay of twenty-two full manuscript pages, in the familiar script of Thoreau, tied together with knots of faded pink ribbon, like his College Commencement "part," but with no numbering of the pages. If made up, as it probably was (according to Thoreau's constant custom), from his Journals, the fact cannot be well ascertained, so many of the entries before 1841 having been destroyed or lost. More than any of his published writings, it displays that taste for paradox which often is found in authors of a singular originality, and of such a profound imagination as Thoreau had. Its form was perhaps suggested by the discourses on Peace and Non-resistance which in 1840 were so numerous in New England; while the native pugnacity of Thoreau provoked him to take up the cause of war and persist in the apostolic symbolism of the soldier of the Lord, and the Middle-Age crusader. Human life is his topic, and he views it with an Oriental scope of thought, in which distinctions of Time and Space are lost in the wide prospect of Eternity and Immortality. Curiously at variance with this is the play upon words,—a habit which he never outgrew; while his wonderful glances at outward nature, always interpreted symbolically of the spiritual life, indicate how early and intense was that perception of the aspects of the universe which first (and perhaps chiefly still) awakened an interest in Thoreau's pages. Characteristic, too, are his ecstasies concerning Music, of which he was ever the enthusiastic votary. Thus in a passage from some Journal, cited by Ellery Channing in his rich chaos of selections in "Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist," he says: "What a significant comment on our life is the least strain of music! When I hear music I fear no danger; I am invulnerable; I see no foe; I am related to the earliest times and the latest. I hear music below; it washes the dust off my life, and everything I look at. The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death or disappointment at the end of it. In the light of this strain there is no Thou nor I. It paints the landscape suddenly; it is at once another land,—the abode of poetry."

One feels in this whole essay the spirit of youth,—its confidence in itself, its haughty scorn for the conventional and customary,—a singular blending of the aristocratic and the democratic in its tone towards other men,—who are at once the dust of the earth and the superiors of the stars. Youth never forsook Thoreau; and though he moderated the peculiarities of this essay, he never quite abandoned them in his later writing.

A date was added in pencil by Thoreau to this manuscript, which, written in ink and wholly in his handwriting, was sent to Margaret Fuller, then editing "The Dial" in its first year. Its first number had appeared in July, 1840, and contained two contributions by Thoreau,—the poem "Sympathy" written a year before, and a short essay on Persius, the Stoic satirist. This much longer contribution was held by Miss Fuller until December 1, 1840, and finally refused, in these terms:

"Last nights second reading only confirms my impression from the first. The essay is rich in thoughts, and I should be pained not to meet it again. But then, the thoughts seem to me so out of their natural order, that I cannot read it through without pain. I never once feel myself in a stream of thought, but seem to hear the grating of tools on the mosaic. It is true, as Mr. Emerson says, that essays not to be compared with this have found their way into 'The Dial.' But then, these are more unassuming in their tone, and have an air of quiet good-breeding, which induces us to permit their presence. Yours is so rugged that it ought to be commanding."

It appears, then, that Emerson desired its publication; yet, when it came into his hands (it seems never to have been returned to Thoreau), he did not insert it in "The Dial" when its sole editor; and from him it came to me, long after Thoreau's death. What Miss Fuller says of it had much truth, and so had her remarks on Thoreau's genius in a letter written some months later:

"He is healthful, rare, of open eye, ready hand and noble scope. He sets no limits to his life, nor to the invasions of Nature; he is not wilfully pragmatical, ascetic or fantastical. But … thought lies too detached; truth is seen too much in detail; there is a want of fluent music."

I find in the margin of the manuscript pencillings evidently by Miss Fuller, saying of particular sentences, "Good," "bella," etc. There are also a half-dozen pencil corrections in Thoreau's hand, which I have followed in copying.