Thoreau and Anacreon

Gray clouds over blue sky over white clouds over buildings

At the beginning of Walden, the author says he wrote its pages, “or rather the bulk of them,” in the isolated house he had built by the pond of that name. He lived there, 1845–7. He wrote there also A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He had spent the week of the title with his brother, who died of tetanus in January, 1842. Writes Laura Dassow Walls,

Into the narrative of his 1839 river trip with John, Henry had woven everything he ever felt, thought, and experienced …

This in Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Weaving is Thoreau’s metaphor, used in Walden in a consideration of what is worth doing in life.

book: Laura Dassow Walls, Thoreau: A Life

As he and I were engaged in our own considerations of what to do in life, a friend observed that we each desired independence: he by having money, and I by not wanting things that cost money. That is how I recall a conversation from college. Thoreau could have been my model.

McMichael, ed., Anthology of American Literature I (2d ed., Macmillan, 1980)

At least twice I had read certain of his words. The first time was in the eighth grade, when I chose Walden to read, in order to write the obligatory book report. In eleventh grade, in an elective course of American literature, we read Walden’s first two chapters, “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”; at least this is what I infer from looking at my marginal highlights in the anthology that we used. I don’t know how deeply the following words from “Economy” impressed me then; I did not mark them in the anthology:

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off,—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and by some magic, wealth and standing followed, he had said to himself; I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?

The sentence that I have bolded now alludes to A Week, at least according to Walls. Had he been willing to submit its manuscript quickly, Thoreau might have been able to publish it in 1847; but he delayed and was rejected. He turned to making money, by delivering the lectures that would become Walden—and by surveying.

Thoreau, Walden, on shelf with vase

A relevant question was recently asked in a tweet:

If you had to give one piece of advice or reassurance to incoming or junior graduate students worried about #mentalhealth in grad school, what would it be?

— Jaclyn A. Siegel (@JaclynASiegel) May 6, 2020

I don’t know that I could give reassurance. I would recommend graduate school, not for fortune or fame, but only if you wanted to learn what you thought school could teach. That is why I went, and I was satisfied.

I saw the tweet above, because it was quoted in the response below, by the founding editor of Quillette. This was the source of arguments that I considered in “Sex and Gender”: some seemed to be in good faith, but others were for scientific racism. In this connection, I recently rediscovered an analysis, by another college classmate of mine, of a bad-faith argument about Holocaust denial. Meanwhile, regarding graduate school, at least under the tweeted conditions, the Quillette editor recommends:

Quit and start a company instead

— Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon) May 6, 2020

Henry David Thoreau was already part of his father’s company, John Thoreau & Co., makers of graphite pencils. The pencil casings were made by the Concord Steam Mill Company; but this burned in May, 1848, and the Thoreaus lost money. Henry David turned to earning money by surveying.

Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

He already had experience. He surveyed Walden Pond when it froze over in the winter of 1846. “It was an extravagant thing to do,” says Laura Dassow Walls,

wholly impractical. No one needed the pond surveyed, and it took severe study, hard physical labor, and concentrated mathematical skill, not to mention practice with the instruments of science and technical drafting. But he did it. Thoreau used the tools of science and engineering to create a remarkable work of art, a working survey that accurately mapped Walden Pond to the inch: length, breadth, and depth. He accomplished this, he said, to prove that the pond had a bottom, for legend had it the lake was bottomless.

Back in town, Thoreau also kept working on A Week. He had started in the fall after John’s death, when he began

to reimagine the river voyage as an elegy for his lost brother. Into the pages of his big new notebook, the “long book,” he sowed passages at intervals like seeds in furrows, giving each one room to germinate and grow … He would fold their two weeks’ journey into one, a seven-days’ creation story from Saturday launch to Friday return, a journey of discovery climaxing in their climb to the summit of Mount Washington. Thoreau tested out the concept at the Concord Lyceum in March 1845, just before he built his Walden house, and on his first day at Walden he had begun the first draft.

After Thoreau couldn’t sell A Week, he kept working on it. He also built up some fame from his lectures. He tried again. “In the eighteen months since he took [A Week] off the market, it had nearly doubled in size.” One James Munroe would print a thousand copies at his own expense; but Thoreau had to agree to buy the unsold copies. That ended up being most of them.

The problem was Munroe. He didn’t publish books; he only printed them. He refused to advertise, and he had no distribution network. One could purchase Thoreau’s book only by visiting Munroe’s shop in Boston or by ordering it from Munroe by mail. This business model had worked for Emerson, who was already well known and whose fame was centered in Boston. But for a first book by an unknown author seeking a national audience, it was a disaster.

Those persons who did read the book had issues. Comparing Christian scripture to Hindu was one. Also the book meandered; “he had tossed into it,” says Walls, “too many of his oldest and dustiest pages—unread Dial essays, musty poems, dry extracts from colonial histories.” However, in her opinion as the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame,

the pages written at Walden Pond breathe a fresh, wild, outdoors air.

In Walden he called A Week a “basket of a delicate texture,” giving the clue to his method: baskets are woven warp and woof. Here, the structuring warp is the brothers’ two-week river journey, the narrative thread; onto it the artist has woven the woof of reading and reflection, crosswise strands giving strength and texture, making the journey not a vacation from thought, as Lowell [“Thoreau’s old Harvard nemesis, James Russell Lowell”] wanted, but an occasion for thinking more deeply. River and book move forward together, fusing progress and accident, purpose and randomness. Existential conflict becomes the key to the book’s design: a rhythm of motion and rest, purpose and chance, the spark of a moment and the long shimmer of memory. What holds it all together is the dynamic bond of brother and brother, river and boat, the long flowing lapse of linear time and the free-floating self who lives both in time and out of it, flowing with the lapse of the river or stepping aside onto the solid ground of shore.

I can only say for now that the “dynamic bond of brother and brother” is left mostly to the imagination. On Tuesday, Thoreau says,

This noontide was a fit occasion to make some pleasant harbor, and there read the journal of some voyageur like ourselves, not too moral nor inquisitive, and which would not disturb the noon; or else some old classic, the very flower of all reading, which we had postponed to such a season

Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure.”

But, alas, our chest, like the cabin of a coaster, contained only its well-thumbed Navigator for all literature, and we were obliged to draw on our memory for these things. We naturally remembered Alexander Henry’s Adventures here, as a sort of classic among books of American travel …

What did the brothers say about the book, which I had not known about? We can only imagine. Thoreau reviews the book itself, concluding with an etymological playfulness that I appreciate:

What is most interesting and valuable in it, however, is not the materials for the history of Pontiac, or Braddock, or the Northwest, which it furnishes; not the annals of the country, but the natural facts, or perennials, which are ever without date. When out of history the truth shall be extracted, it will have shed its dates like withered leaves.

That is an echo of what Thoreau said for the previous day:

Critical acumen is exerted in vain to uncover the past; the past cannot be presented; we cannot know what we are not. But one veil hangs over past, present, and future, and it is the province of the historian to find out, not what was, but what is.

This recalls to me Collingwood’s words from his own travel book, The First Mate’s Log, quoted at length in “On Knowing Ourselves.” One can visit Delphi for its history, while thinking that history dead. Or one can visit as a pilgrim, to the place whence issued the call that Socrates heard and oneself still hears.

That call is, for Collingwood, to be “the organ of his [sic] own society’s self-criticism.” Thoreau is a critical pilgrim. He said the following, earlier on Monday:

To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend.

As I said in my last post, I too disdained politics when young. But rivers are drying up, and trees are dying out.

Schalansky, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands

Trees are dying, for example, on the atoll of Tepoto, in French Polynesia, near the atoll of Napuka. In her Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands (Penguin, 2012), Judith Schalansky describes Napuka as being where Magellan’s parched and starving men could find no food or water. In the eighteenth century, British sailors, though suffering from scurvy, could not even land: the natives drove them off. In a recent year, a writer called Andrew Evans decided to see if he could have better luck.

No hotels, no restaurants, no tourist industry – it sounded like paradise to me. This was my ultimate desire as a traveller: to show up unannounced like those ailing British sailors, open to the naked fate of true exploration.

True exploration, or truly being a jerk. I interject a passage from The Drinkers’ Guide to the Middle East, by Will Lawson (Edinburgh: Rebel Inc., 1997), a book discussed and quoted in “Interview with Mustafa Kemal.” In a chapter called “The Arab Archipelago,” Lawson writes:


1) Far too easy for anyone to get to. These are coach-partied to bits, full of rip-off artists and half-starved camels, which you will have whipped under your nose by men shouting, ‘Mister, you want camel ride, me good man, take AMEX.’ That kind of place.

Will Lawson, The Drinkers' Guide to the Middle East

2) Far too bloody difficult to get to. These are beloved of really the worst sort of travel snob, he who says, ‘I was ze second man to hang-glide off zis wonderful tomb. Now it is only the tourists who come here. they do not understand the simple life of zese people.’

I don’t know how well Lawson’s division holds up in Polynesia, but even Napuka is far too bloody difficult to get to. Says Andrew Evans,

Flights to the larger atoll of Napuka are not even listed on Air Tahiti’s international website … I opted out of scurvy and long months at sea in favour of the 18-hour flight to Tahiti from Washington DC, measured out in cups of fresh pineapple juice poured by flight attendants wearing floral prints. After a night in Papeete, I boarded a two-hour prop plane to Napuka.

Of course the natives today would take care of him. When they asked why he hadn’t let them know he was coming, he told them he hadn’t wanted to be a burden. When you go somewhere with no hotels or restaurants, you are going to make yourself a burden. Evans accepted an invitation to join the once-a-month boat trip to Tepoto, where there were about forty residents.

Every islander has the right to collect and sell copra for cash, but André explained that the coconut trees had begun to die. A small invasive beetle was killing them, he said, making the leaves fall off and leaving bare, toothpick trunks poking into the air.

There are islands in the Merrimack River, and Thoreau will observe on Wednesday how they can change.

The shifting islands! who would not be willing that his house should be undermined by such a foe! The inhabitant of an island can tell what currents formed the land which he cultivates; and his earth is still being created or destroyed. There before his door, perchance, still empties the stream which brought down the material of his farm ages before, and is still bringing it down or washing it away,—the graceful, gentle robber!

He has recalled how Zeus raised the island of Rhodes from the sea, by the account of Pindar.

George Bean, Aegean Turkey

Back on Tuesday, several pages after mentioning a pleasant harbor for reading, Thoreau says again,

Here was that “pleasant harbor” which we had sighed for, where the weary voyageur could read the journal of some other sailor, whose bark had ploughed, perchance, more famous and classic seas.

Now the “journal” is “an old volume from a London bookshop, containing the Greek Minor Poets.” Says Thoreau, who never left the New World:

I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature. In serene hours we contemplate the tour of the Greek and Latin authors with more pleasure than the traveller does the fairest scenery of Greece or Italy.

I can only add that contemplating authors also takes more work and more preparation than contemplating scenery from a tour bus in Europe or even a propeller plane in Polynesia.

I have been delighted to contemplate, on foot, the scenery of Teos in Ionia, home town of Anacreon, “the first, it is said, after Sappho the Lesbian to make love the theme of his poetry.” Those words are by George Bean in Aegean Turkey (London, 1979). Thoreau does the work of translating some of Anacreon’s poems and giving them to us.

That work is actually the genesis of this whole post. I wanted to record an example of one of Thoreau’s translations. Then I thought there should be an introduction. There it is.

The translations seem to be Thoreau’s. Probably they are. There is a lot of versification in A Week, though James Russell Lowell called it “worsification.” Some of it is in quotation marks, and some is not. The poems of Anacreon are not. Thoreau says, “There is something strangely modern about him. He is very easily turned into English.” Here is one result.

To a Colt

Thracian colt, why at me
Looking aslant with thy eyes,
Dost thou cruelly flee,
And think that I know nothing wise?
Know I could well
Put the bridle on thee,
And holding the reins, turn
Round the bounds of the course.
But now thou browsest the meads,
And gambolling lightly dost play,
For thou hast no skilful horseman
Mounted upon thy back.

How does Thoreau expect us to understand “colt”? According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (ninth edition, 1995), a colt is “a young uncastrated male horse”; but the big Oxford English Dictionary does not specify a sex. It does however say in fine print that when still with the dam, the young horse is usually a foal, and afterwards, the young mare is a filly. Today most of us have lost the subtleties of terminology for domesticated animals; but if we haven’t, and we know a colt is a filly, it seems we ought to call her that.

Penguin Book of Greek Verse

Anacreon’s colt is a filly. As far as I can tell, the poem is the only one of Anacreon’s that Thoreau translates that also appears in an old volume from an Ankara bookshop, The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, “introduced and edited by Constantine A. Trypanis with plain prose translations of each poem” (London: Penguin, 1971). From there I transcribe:

The Thracian Filly

Πῶλε Θρῃκίη, τί δή με λοξὸν ὄμμασιν βλέπουσα
νηλέως φεύγεις, δοκέεις δέ μ’ οὐδὲν εἰδέναι σοφόν;

ἴσθι τοι, καλῶς μὲν ἄν τοι τὸν χαλινὸν ἐμβάλοιμι,
ἡνίας δ’ ἔχων στρέφοιμί σ’ ἀμφὶ τέρματα δρόμου.

νῦν δὲ λειμῶνάς τε βόσκεαι κοῦφά τε σκιρτῶσα ταίζεις,
δεξιὸν γὰρ ἱπποπείρην οὐκ ἔχεις ἐπεμβάτην.

Thracian filly, why do you cruelly avoid me, looking askance and thinking that I have no skill at all? Know that I could put a bridle on you correctly, and hold the reins, and turn you round the end of the racecourse. But now you graze on the meadows, and play about, skipping lightly; for you have no able horseman to mount you.

Thoreau’s translation may be more literal, notably in “Why dost thou … think that I know nothing wise?” and “For thou hast no skilful horseman / Mounted upon thy back.” The latter translates Anacreon’s last line word for word, except that “upon thy back” is only implied by ἐπεμβάτης “mounted.” The first word, δεξιός, comes to us via Latin as “dextrous.” The word ἱπποπείρης is not in the main body of the big lexicon of Liddell and Scott; you have to check the supplement, where the meaning is given as “experienced in horses,” with a reference to Anacreon.

Lexicon open on stand by window

The noun πῶλος can be masculine or feminine. According to the lexicon, it means “foal, whether colt or filly,” and a poet will use the word for a young girl or, less frequently, a young man. It is the name of the impetuous young man in the Gorgias (considered in “Doing and Suffering”); but the participles describing the Polus of Anacreon, and the adjective “Thracian,” are in the feminine gender.

One Comment

  1. Arianne
    Posted June 21, 2020 at 1:57 am | Permalink | Reply

    Just got around to reading this today never ceases to amaze me how articulate you are about so many fascinating things

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Articles on Collingwood « Polytropy on October 17, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    […] I don’t need the observations to be tied together by anything but Collingwood himself, as I don’t need A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to be tied together by anything but Thoreau. […]

  2. By Feminist Epistemology « Polytropy on January 29, 2021 at 6:47 am

    […] Seeing this by chance (or by the plan of the Five Books site, where I was looking at another article), I recognized Walls’s name. I had read her biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (2017), and referred to it in my post of last May called “Thoreau and Anacreon.” […]

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