Reading Thoreau’s Journals: Humbling and Frightening

I’m fascinated by Thoreau, and my fascination is part intense interest and part a feeling of being haunted by him.  In his journals, although some of his descriptions of nature – swimming at night, the way the moonlight plays with the water, the sounds of the insects, the quality of the light, everything like a Turner painting – are so absolutely breathtaking, so natural, so beautifully simple, as though the content matches the forms that Thoreau is seeing and describing – I can’t help but feel a strange empathy for him.  I can’t shake the feeling of Thoreau’s vast isolation, and it’s this haunted and haunting feeling, like a Dylan ballad.

And yet the feeling of strange empathy seems kind of silly and out-of-place.    And I say it’s out-of-place because Thoreau seems so intoxicated, so moved by the seasons, by the moods of the weather, that there often doesn’t seem to be any time for loneliness or self-pity amid that vast and seemingly infinite isolation.  Nature for Thoreau seems to ameliorate all that.  I wonder if he even worried that he would be interpreted as someone who was lonely, when in fact he (perhaps) wasn’t (at least always), and was simply following his heart and doing what he wanted to do – i.e. seeing and describing nature as his vocation, (his journals cover 24 years of his life) instead of as an escape from society.  It’s the kind of literary experiment that is almost inconceivable to imagine, all the sacrifices he must have made, although I don’t think Thoreau would have looked at it this way.

At times – and this is one reason why I am enjoying the journals, but feeling haunted by them – there creeps into this whole adventure an unmistakable note of a kind of sublime isolation, those Turner-like landscapes, how Thoreau is describing them without people, at night, say, when everyone seems to be sleeping, when Thoreau seems to revel in the fact that he is (at least in his imagination) the only one awake, the only one conscious enough to be recording his observations.  Sometimes it feels like Thoreau is the last person alive on the earth.  Oftentimes, reading the journals, there is this strange sense that he sort of willed himself to be constantly conscious of his environment(s), to be attentive to the point of obsessiveness, never to allow himself to sink into trivial revery, and to record all of this in the journal, everything he saw, everything that he felt was strange or wonderful or beautiful or haunting.  It’s so strange.  I mean, on the one hand, I leave my readings of the book sort of astonished, in awe of the man, and/but at the same time I feel kind of freaked out, as though Thoreau were carrying his literary experiment too far, that he was too intense about it, and that beneath all of this writing is this unlimited despair about society.

And yet the poetry of his writing is unmistakable, and the edition that I’m reading kind of accentuates this poetic quality, because it doesn’t correct any of his spelling or typographic errors, which has the effect of making the writing nearer, even closer to the human being that was Henry Thoreau.  It’s so raw.  And I don’t think Thoreau edited his journals (I could be wrong), so we’re really reading this unmediated process of expressing what he saw or remembered seeing.  Here, listen to this passage, and notice the way that he uses dashes like Emily Dickinson, and pauses and punctuation-less spaces like W.S. Merwin:

“6P M I hear no larks sing at evening as in the spring – nor robins.  only a few distressed notes from the robin –  In Hubbards grain field beyond the brook – now the the sun is down.  The air is very still –  There is a fine sound of crickets not loud  The woods and single trees are heavier masses in the landscape than in the spring.  NIght has more allies.  The heavy shadows of woods and trees are remarkable now.  The meadows are green with their second crop.  I hear only a treed toad or song sparrow singing as in spring at long intervals.  The Roman wormwood is beginning to yellow-green my shoes. – intermingled with the blue-curls over the sand in this grain field.  Perchance some poet likened this yellow dust to the ambrosia of the Gods.  The birds are remarkably silent   At the bridge perceive the bats are out.  & the yet silvery moon not quite full is reflected in the water.  The water is perfectly still – and there is a red tinge from the evening sky in it.  The sky is singularly marked this evening.  There are bars or rays of nebulous light springing from the western horizon where the sun has disappeared, and alternating with beautiful blue rays, by far more blue than any other portion of the sky   these continue to diverge till they have reached the middle & then converge to the eastern horizon – making a symmetrical figure like the divisions of a muskmelon – not very bright yet distinct. – though growing less and less bright toward the east.  It was a quite remarkable phenomenon encompassing the heavens, as if you were to behold the divisions of a muskmelon thus alternately colored from within it.  A proper vision – a colored mist.  The most beautiful thing in Nature is the sun reflected from a tear-ful cloud.  These white and blue ribs embraced the earth.  The two outer blues much the brightest and matching one another.   You hear the hum of mosquitoes.”

What propelled Thoreau to record his observations for 24 fucking years?  Again, I am humbled and frightened by his experiments in living.

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