Category Archives: Literature

Hearing Drums – NMP 1/20/17

The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. Thoreau, Reading, Walden.

For weeks, I’ve heard the pounding. Sometimes it’s the sudden pick-up of my heart, when a new vulgarity arrives from our president-(sort of)elect; other times, it’s the full-throated narcissism of another me-ist intent on unmooring us from any collective will to do good. Such drums have kept me awake at night, distracted me from the day’s work. Even when I walk to the woods, as I do daily, their thrumming sometimes insists.

When in search of larger wisdom, Henry Thoreau, it seems to me, turned often to the ancient Greeks, famously keeping, for example, a copy of The Iliad by his bed while at the pond. When it comes to apprehending the pulse of human behavior, they’ve not yet been surpassed. And in this loud run-up to Friday’s inauguration (I note the word “augur” embedded), I’ve found myself returned to the strangeness of a play I’ve read many times, Euripides’, The Bakkhai.

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“No more drums,” cries Pentheus, the newly-crowned, 17-year-old king of Thebes, in this ancient play about madness. Here, the king (inexperienced and untested) gets a visit from Dionysos, himself a new god and intent on gaining followers, but one who already knows the power of impulse in human affairs. Dionysos assumes the disguise of a 17-year-old priest, and so joins Pentheus in a late-adolescent contest for control. It is an unequal match-up, young authoritarian versus god of impulse, and everyone but Pentheus can see that the priest is something else, something otherworldly. This, the people of Thebes can see, will not end well. For their king, and so, for them.

And it doesn’t, as Dionysos chooses the particularly cruel avenue of Pentheus’ desires – scarcely understood by the king – as a way to lure him into a trap, where he is torn limb from limb by a pack of women, led by his mother. Pentheus is such a hothead, so intent on being (becoming) “the man” that one has to work at finding sympathy for him. Still, to be shredded by mother…well, at least a tear or two there, if not a primary fear. And Dionysos is implacable force, intent on being worshipped; little else matters, including his own followers, who have left their homes for the promise of joy and a better life, and now find themselves stranded in a foreign land.

It has taken me some time to sort all these drums and drummings, but now I see that Euripides has fashioned a play – his last, some think – that cautions against ungoverned impulse (within and without), and it has returned to my mind because we seem to be entering an era where such impulse is the loudest of tweets, a form that is all impulse. The president-elect (sort of) seems a joining of both 17-year-olds in The Bakkhai, a colossal neediness for control and regard.

The play does not end well for Thebes either. Shorn of its governing force by Pentheus’s death, it is open to the rest of the world’s ill will and predation. And Dionysos, intent on himself, is ready to move on – where can I go next to spread the joy of me, and get worship in return?

Henry Thoreau used to listen to celebrations of independence and self in Concord village at a distance; from Walden, the volleys of expressive cannons sounded like “pop” guns, or toys. Thoreau also revered the Greeks, though I’ve not found indication that he read The Bakkhai, even as I suspect he must have. But I wonder if any metaphorical pond lies at enough distance from today’s distant tweets and the roar of self-worship? Or, if, unlike the Thebans, it’s time to plunge in and roar back at this odd amalgam, this president of impulse?

Reader’s Note: This play repays reading many times over, and Robert Bagg’s translation is very fine. When I checked a while ago, it was out of print, but I have found it in used bookstores. Also, new translations continue to appear; it is truly a timeless, or well timed play.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

Join the Thoreau Bicentennial Celebration!

By Corinne H. Smith

“I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.” ~ Henry D. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”

Welcome to our Bicentennial year! July 12, 2017 marks the 200th birthday of our favorite American author, thinker, and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Although he did not gain fame during his lifetime, he has certainly achieved it since. His reputation has spread significantly in the last century and a half, and especially over the last 50 years.

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Many people and groups from around the world are planning to hold commemorative events this year. Thoreau’s life and work will be celebrated not just in Concord and not just in Massachusetts, but in a number of places, and not only in July. Your favorite organizations – Thoreau Farm, The Thoreau Society, The Walden Woods Project, and Concord Museum – represent only some of the folks involved. You can catch up with us on our individual web sites or on social media outlets. Or you can go to the special Thoreau Bicentennial web site at http://thoreaubicentennial.org, where you can search for events and even list your own. So if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to start thinking and planning about what you can do in your own special spaces to honor Thoreau.

Celebrating Henry Thoreau’s lasting relevance has been the interpretive focus of Thoreau Farm since we officially opened our doors to the public in 2011. We encourage visitors to consider Thoreau’s ideas and choices for living deliberately, so that they can reflect on their own lifestyle decisions.

One hundred years ago, Henry Thoreau was not well known or widely popular, no matter what part of the planet you lived on. Nevertheless, British reformer and author Henry S. Salt organized a special meeting of his group, the Humanitarian League, to commemorate and honor Thoreau’s 100th birthday. The event was held at Caxton Hall in Westminster, London, on Thursday, July 12, 1917. It marks one of the first known gatherings of a large group of people who came together simply to talk about Henry Thoreau and his influence. Speakers included Henry Salt himself, who had already published several versions of his Thoreau biography in the 1890s; English socialist and reformer Edward Carpenter; and Sir John L. Otter, the Mayor of Brighton. Australian-born English nature writer William Henry Hudson had been invited to speak, but health issues prevented him from attending. He sent a letter in his place, and Salt read his words to the audience. Hudson railed against the trend to scrutinize and to compare Thoreau to other writers, before him or since. And remarkably enough, Hudson also had the foresight to think about us here in 2017. He wrote:

“I will stick to my belief that when his bicentenary come round, and is celebrated by our descendants in some Caxton Hall of the future; when our little R. L. Stevensons are forgotten, with all those who anatomized Thoreau in order to trace his affinities and give him true classification – now as a Gilbert White [English “parson-naturalist,” 1720-1793], now as a lesser Ralph Waldo Emerson, now as a Richard Jefferies [English nature writer, 1848-1887], now as a somebody else – he will be regarded as simply himself, as Thoreau, one without master or mate, who was ready to follow his own genius whithersoever it might lead him … and who was in the foremost ranks of the prophets.”

Simply himself, as Thoreau, one without master or mate. These words will echo throughout the year at Thoreau Farm and in any “Caxton Hall,” beside any pond, or in any woods, where like-minded folks can gather, or where individuals can relish the solitude and connections that communion with a natural place offers.

Over the last five years, Sandy Stott, a few others and I have shared some of our own Thoreauvian adventures with you here. Now it’s time for us to hear YOUR stories. When did you first come to learn of Henry Thoreau? How have his writings and ideas influenced you? How have you chosen to live deliberately, as a result? What are your favorite quotes? Send your responses to thoreaustories@gmail.com. These sharings will be collected and kept on file at Thoreau Farm. Some individual profiles may be chosen to be featured here in our blog. In this way we can ALL celebrate Henry Thoreau’s life and work together, no matter how far apart we are. And don’t worry: you’ll still continue to hear from us, too. Many thanks, in advance. And Many Happy Bicentennial Celebrations, too. Happy 200th Birthday-to-Come, Henry!

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

Times Henry – Living Space

“With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder.” Thoreau, Walden

“How many times Henry?”

I sometimes ask this question when looking over a house, which always tells a story about those who live there. And once I’ve explained the mildly odd get-up of the question, calculating the answer is usually pretty easy. Henry Thoreau’s famous house offers convenient division with its zero to the right of the 5 to the right of the 1. One hundred and fifty square feet, into which he packed two years of living that brim still from the book that is their record.

Seasons as footage – we begin, if lucky, in a like space. My boyhood room ran a few feet grander than Henry’s Walden house, but only a few. College was, of course, crammed into tighter confines. Lucky to be there, for sure, but what an odd narrative puzzle, sharing two small rooms, which summed to one Henry, with two other late teens intent on the declaration of self. No wonder so many burst so excitedly from school in search of apartment #1…which probably still contained roommates, but also a room of one’s own.

And on…shedding roommates, gaining, perhaps, a mate, living in more Henrys…3, 7, 11… Lining up a lifetime of Henry’s calls up story: 1+, 1/2, 1, 5, 9, 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 10… At some point, each of us hits peak-Henry, and then – given more luck, of course – steps into smaller multiples. “Downsizing,” we call it; “fewer Henrys” a few of us may say. And on into each “experiment.”

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My father-in-law just visited, pressing on into the amazement of his 97th year, lives now in a Henry and a half. He says it is ample. His rooms are arranged around a large chair from which he can survey those years, and in which he can read the live screen of his Kindle. “This is all I need,” he says. And in his phrasing I hear the reverberation of the Henry-word that shaped the square footage of his life – necessity.

What are your necessaries? A good question at anytime, but one especially strong at year’s end and advent. One contemplated, perhaps, in a favorite chair set in whatever number of Henry’s you inhabit.

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Here’s to a clear, well-contained new year; may good light appear at your window.

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