Before computers and the Internet armed us with the power to edit/find a single word in a sprawling text or instantaneously sift through most of what’s been written since Gilgamesh for a particular phrase, scholars compiled concordances, alphabetized lists of terms in a writer’s works with citations to each place that term appeared. How many times did Shakespeare use the word “fury”? In which of his plays and poems did someone “dream” or, perchance, “sleep”?
As an example of this anachronism, back in 1996 I used John Bartlett’s famed A Complete Concordance to Shakespeare while working on my Master’s thesis to identify the work from which Flann O’Brien plucked the second of two epigraphs for his masterpiece, The Third Policeman; attributed simply to Shakespeare, the lines read:
- Since the affairs of men rest still uncertain,
Let’s reason with the worst that may befall.
Cassius says it in Julius Caesar.
Recently, I wanted to track down a particular email exchange I had about Henry David Thoreau, so I typed his last name into the search box atop my account and fired away. Quicker than celeritas I had dozens of emails going back to 2006 which contained at least a mention. Many, however, contained the same paragraph from Thoreau’s Walden. Turns out I’ve dutifully transcribed–or more likely copy/pasted–the quote to nearly a dozen people. So if you’ve corresponded with me long enough then you’ve probably received the following passage:
- No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,–that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the
rainbow which I have clutched.
Aside from many of my electronic missives, you’ll find that stunning passage in the chapter called “Higher Laws.” You’ll also find a segment of it–the part about the greatest gains and values being often overlooked but constituting the highest reality–in my January 2015 scene4 piece about Paul McCartney, The Himalaya in the Window.
Yes, I’m rather fond of Thoreau’s draught of the clearest, cleanest water he ever served up in his pond-side musings. Over the years I’ve shared it for its sheer poetic beauty. When you read–and revel in–a passage like that one, you’re immediately struck by both the extraordinary vocabulary and unbounded exuberance of these young Americans. It’s as if Thoreau, like his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson (on whose land Thoreau was generously allowed to conduct his three-year Walden Pond experiment) are reaping an energy unleashed by the possibilities of the American construct, an ambitious and at the same time wonderfully naive enterprise set in motion only a little before their births. It reminds me of Enrico Fermi and his team working on Chicago Pile-1 in 1942: fashion a box out of the right materials; introduce a rare element of massive potential; and watch a self-sustaining chain-reaction occur.
I’ve shared that passage for its uplifting mood, its spiritual succor, its invigorating mental renovation. But as much as I’ve sent it along to inspire others, I’ve repeated it to and for myself. As a poet, I have to remind myself from time to time to trust in Thoreau’s observation that “no man ever followed his genius till it misled him.”
Shooting for timelessness and not just mere contemporary notoriety may be the poetic high road but it sure can seem like a mug’s game. And as Robert Lowell once quipped during a reading of his own work, Horace may be an immortal poet but he’s not around to collect his royalties.
Still, you retrieve forgotten treasures using a concordance of one’s own. In one of my Thoreau exchanges, my correspondent returned the favor in kind by sending me his favorite passage from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House. Published in 1928, 74 years after Walden, Beston’s classic is in so many ways the seaside grandchild of Thoreau’s landlocked progenitor. And in this passage, as in so many of Thoreau’s, Beston echoes the sentiments of Wordsworth in “The World is Too Much With Us.” Here’s some more star-dust for you:
- Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today’s
civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.