Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a highly quotable and oft-quoted book. I found myself marking passages rather more often than usual, sometimes because I was charmed and wanted to share a line with you later, and sometimes because I noted the origin of a maxim I was familiar with, whose author I hadn’t known before. I’ve already reviewed Walden, and now I want to share a selection of quotations with you too. But first, a qualification.
A friend & coworker sent me this article, which chiefly makes the point that Thoreau was a very complicated man who wore many hats (figuratively. who knows, maybe literally as well). The author notes the danger of quoting Thoreau: so many people know him through his reputation and these handpicked quotations, while rather few have read his work; and his work being so many things at once, so contradictory, handpicked quotations can be a dangerous tool. In other words, many of us may be thrown off by the quotations alone without reading the work. I’ve now read Walden, but the man was so terrifically prolific that I am hardly any closer to knowing Thoreau than I was before! So, fair warning. But I will now share my quotations just the same.
In order of their appearance (page numbers come from my pocket-sized red Barnes & Noble Collector’s Library edition). The book opens:
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labour of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilised life again. (7)
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. (12)
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. (28)
I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. (42)
…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. (88)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, adn see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (98)
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (98)
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. (98)
My house never pleased my eye so much after it was plastered, though I was obliged to confess that it was more comfortable. (256)
The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion. You can always see a face in the fire. (269)
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness – to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. (334)
I will not try to improve upon this. Good day.