The Listener: 17 August 1851


Audio: Read by Carson Kessler

Not only was Thoreau deeply responsive to music; he was awake to the natural sounds of birds, frogs, crickets, winds, and rushing water. In a sense, his entire practice of living and journal keeping was built around the concept of listening—remaining attuned to the universe and on the alert for its lessons. He wrote this extraordinary journal entry in 1851, when he was thirty-five, after a period of internal struggle. By listening, he found a way forward.

For a day or two it has been quite cool – a coolness that was felt even when sitting by an open window in a thin coat on the west side of the house in the morning – & you naturally sought the sun at that hour– The coolness concentrated your thought however– As I could not command a sunny window I went abroad on the morning of the 15th and lay in the sun in the fields in my thin coat though it was rather cool even there. I feel as if this coolness would do me good. If only it makes my life more pensive why should pensiveness be akin to sadness. There is a certain fertile sadness which I would not avoid but rather earnestly seek– It is positively joyful to me– It saves my life from being trivial. My life flows with a deeper current – no longer as a shallow & brawling stream parched & shrunken by the summer heats– This coolness comes to condense the dews & clear the atmosphere. The stillness seems more deep & significant – each sound seems to come from out a greater thoughtfulness in nature – as if nature had acquired some character & mind – the cricket – the gurgling – stream – the rushing wind amid the trees – all speak to me soberly yet encouragingly of the steady onward progress of the universe– My heart leaps into my mouth at the sound of the wind in the woods– I whose life was but yesterday so desultory & shallow – suddenly recover my spirits – my spirituality through my hearing– I see a goldfinch go twittering through the still louring day and am reminded of the peeping flocks which will soon herald the thoughtful season– Ah! if I could so live that there should be no desultory moment in all my life! That in the trivial season when small fruits are ripe my fruits might be ripe also that I could watch nature always with my moods! That in each season when some part of nature especially flourishes – then a corresponding part of me may not fail to flourish  Ah, I would walk I would sit & sleep with natural piety– What if I could pray aloud or to myself as I went along by the brooksides a cheerful prayer like the birds! For joy I could embrace the earth– I shall delight to be buried in it. And then to think of those I love among men – who will know that I love them though I tell them not. I sometimes feel as if I were rewarded merely for expecting better hours– I did not despair of worthier moods – and now I have occasion to be grateful for the flood of life that is flowing over me. I am not so poor– I can smell the ripening apples – the very rills are deep – the autumnal flowers the trichostema dichotoma – not only its bright blue flower above the sand but its strong wormwood scent which belongs to the season feed my spirit – endear the earth to me – make me value myself & rejoice– The quivering of pigeons’ wings – reminds me of the tough fibre of the air which they rend. I thank you God. I do not deserve anything  I am unworthy of the least regard & yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure & worthless – & yet the world is gilded for my delight & holidays are prepared for me – & my path is strewn with flowers.

Henry David Thoreau’s journal for 8 July–20 August 1851. MA 1302.12. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.