Monday, July 12, 2010

Henry David Thoreau: July 12, 1817-- May 6, 1862

One most frequently encounters quotations from Thoreau's most well-known work Walden, so I thought that I would provide something that's rarely given--one of his poems. This is one that's a bit ironic, almost with a touch of Robert Frost about it, or so it seems to me.

I knew a man by sight

I knew a man by sight,
A blameless wight,
Who. for a year or more,
Had daily passed my door,
Yet converse none had had with him.

I met him in a lane,
Him and his cane,
About three miles from home,
Where I had chanced to roam,
And volumes stared at him, and he at me.

In a more distant place
I glimpsed his face,
And bowed instinctively,
Starting he bowed to me,
Bowed simultaneously, and passed along.

Next, in a foreign land
I grasped his hand,
And had a social chat,
About this thing and that,
As I had known him well a thousand years.

Late in a wilderness
I shared his mess,
For he had hardships seen,
And I a wanderer been;
He was my bosom friend, and I was his.
And as, methinks, shall all,
Both great and small,
That ever lived on earth,
Early or late their birth,
Stranger and foe, one day each other know

I wonder if this is true. I also wonder just what Thoreau meant by the last five lines: Will all, "stranger and foe, one day each other know"?


  1. As for the final five lines, whether or not he was a Christian may not matter, but remembering of course that he could not remain immune from the pervasive influences of Calvinist Protestantism in New England, Thoreau seems to be suggesting an afterlife of some sort that takes the form of a universally reawakened and reconciled community of souls. (Note: Thoreau was not the happy isolated solitary soul that most people imagine but was, in fact, rather uncomfortably dependent upon family, friends, and other people throughout his life.) Is it Heaven that Thoreau suggests? Is it something less Christianized? Perhaps the doctrines and theologies are less important than the fundamental equality and social sensibility suggested by the final lines.

  2. R. T.,

    It's been awhile, and memory has deteriorated, but I think Thoreau was considered one of the Transcendentalists, along with Emerson and others. I read one commentator who suggested that they were deists, or those who believed that a God did create the universe and then got bored and went somewhere else, thereby leaving us on our own.

    For whatever that's worth. [g]

    If one traces the site for each of the stanzas, it seems that each one is further than the previous one: beginning with a lane in front of house, and gradually moving further away until it's in a foreign land, and then a wilderness, which could be even more alien than a foreign land.

    Some sort of spiritual form of existence could be seen as the next logical place.

    I would hope, though, that eventually, we won't have to wait for heaven until "Stranger and foe, one day each other know."

    After reading the recent headlines, I doubt I'll see it.