“this Is A Beautiful World; But I Shall See A Fairer”

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A tribute to Thoreau that must have been particularly enheartening to him was the appearance in the April Atlantic of Bronson Alcott’s “The Forester,” saying, in part: I had never thought of knowing a man so thoroughly of the country as this friend of mine, and so purely a son of nature.…He has come nearer the antique spirit than any of our native poets, and touched the fields and groves and streams of his native town with a classic interest that shall not fade.…

One shall not meet with thoughts invigorating like his often: coming so scented of mountain and field breezes and rippling springs, so like a luxuriant clod from under forest-leaves, moist and mossy with earth-spirits.…He seems one with things, of Nature’s essence and core, knit of strong timbers, most like a wood and its inhabitants.…

I know of nothing more creditable to his greatness than the thoughtful regard, approaching to reverence, by which he has held for many years some of the best persons of his time, living at a distance, and wont to make their annual pilgrimage, usually on foot, to the master,—a devotion very rare in these times of personal indifference, if not of confessed unbelief in persons and ideas.

Although Thoreau is not mentioned directly by name in the essay, the many references to Walden Pond and to a book on the rivers made its subject perfectly obvious to his friends and acquaintances.

Daniel Ricketson, reminded of Thoreau by the appearance of Alcott’s “Forester” and word of the forthcoming republication of Walden , started a weekly series of letters to Thoreau noting the progress of the spring. On March 23 he wrote of the arrival of the robin, the bluebird, the, song sparrow, and the cowbird, and on the thirtieth of the coming of the purple finch and some of the warblers. He added the quaint suggestion that Thoreau’s health might improve if he would only move where he could breathe in the fragrance of the pines, saying, “I have heard of people much improved in health who were afflicted in breathing, from this source…” He even suggested a particular pine grove near Plymouth, some seventy miles southeast of Concord.

On the seventh of April Sophia Thoreau replied to Ricketson, reporting that her brother …is now the embodiment of weakness; still, he enjoys seeing his friends, and every bright hour he devotes to his manuscripts which he is preparing for publication. For many weeks he has spoken only in a faint whisper. Henry accepts this dispensation with such childlike trust and is so happy that I feel as if he were being translated, rather than dying in the ordinary way of most mortals…

On the thirteenth, Ricketson wrote again: “Truly you have not lived in vain—your works, and above all, your brave and truthful life, will become a precious treasure to those whose happiness it has been to have known you, and who will continue to uphold though with feebler hands the fresh and instructive philosophy you have taught them.”

Thoreau, though, was disturbed that Ricketson did not come to Concord to see him. When he learned that it was because Ricketson feared his own ability to endure the strain of seeing Thoreau’s emaciated appearance, Thoreau whispered to his sister, “Now Ricketson ought to come and see me; it would do him good.”

But Thoreau’s other friends and neighbors did not shy away. Emerson dropped in frequently to talk of chickadees, the behavior of the river, the ice on Walden Pond, and the arrival of the spring birds. On March 23 Sam Staples, who fifteen years before had placed Thoreau in jail, dropped in for a visit. He later told Emerson that he had “never spent an hour with more satisfaction. Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.” He thought Thoreau to be “serene and happy” and lamented that “very few men in Concord know Mr. Thoreau.”

Thoreau was pathetically interested in the world of nature by-passing him that spring. On a cold morning he tried vainly to scrape the frost from the windowpane, saying with utter sadness, as he failed, “I cannot even see outdoors.” He often asked his sister to throw open the doors to the adjacent room so that he could admire her conservatory of potted plants. And learning that young Edward Emerson was planning a trip to the Far West, he urged him to find an Indian who could tell the secret of the making of stone arrowheads. When he learned that some boys in the neighborhood had been robbing birds’ nests, he requested that they be called into his sickroom and asked them if they knew “what a wail of sorrow and anguish their cruelty had sent all over the fields and through the woods.”

But he did not lose his sense of humor. He told Sanborn that whenever his corpulent, full-faced aunt came to his chamber door to inquire about his welfare, he thought her to be “the rising full moon.” When someone commented how little his hair had grayed, even in his illness, he replied: “I have never had any trouble in all my life, or only when I was about fourteen; then I felt pretty bad a little while on account of my sins, but no trouble since that I know of. That must be the reason why my hair doesn’t turn gray faster. But there is Blake; he is as gray as a rat.”