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


When Grindall Reynolds, the minister of Concord’s First Parish Church, called and found him still working on his manuscripts, Thoreau “looked up cheerfully and, with a twinkle in his eye, whispered…‘You know it’s respectable to leave an estate to one’s friends.’ ” In going over his writings he noted mistakes in his published books and asked Ellery Channing to have an error in A Week corrected. As late as thirteen days before his death, finding it difficult to rouse himself for work, he complained that he could not see to correct his Allegash paper—the final chapter in The Maine Woods —saying, “It is in a knot I cannot untie.”

Thoreau realized fully that the end was near. He told Channing that he could never feel warm again, that he had no wish to live except for the sake of his mother and sister, and that “it is better some things should end.” To Bronson Alcott he said, “I shall leave the world without regret.” And when Edmund Hosmer told him of seeing a spring robin, Thoreau replied, “Yes! This is a beautiful world; but I shall see a fairer.” He was greatly moved by the attentions of his friends and neighbors. He “came to feel very differently toward people,” one of them reported, “and said if he had known he wouldn’t have been so offish.”

The devotion of his friends [said his sister Sophia] was most rare and touching; his room was made fragrant by the gift of flowers from young and old; fruit of every kind which the season afforded, and game of all sorts was sent him. It was really pathetic, the way in which the town was moved to minister to his comfort. Total strangers sent grateful messages, remembering the good he had done them. All this attention was fully appreciated and very gratifying to Henry; he would sometimes say, “I should be ashamed to stay in this world after so much had been done for me, I could never repay my friends.”

Remembering how much Thoreau had enjoyed their music box when they had first moved to Concord twenty years before, the Hawthornes brought it to his sickroom. Mrs. Alcott sent over some spearmint from her garden to be used as a tonic, saying in a note to Mrs. Thoreau, “I wish I had some delicacy for the dear patient—but we have none of those things usually so grateful and appetising to the sick.”

When Thoreau learned that some of the boys of the neighborhood had brought him some game to eat, he asked, “Why did you not invite them in? I want to thank them for so much that they are bringing me,” and added, “Well I declare; I don’t believe they are going to let me go after all.”

In his last illness [recalled a child of the neighborhood] it did not occur to us that he would care to see us, but his sister told my mother that he watched us from the window as we passed, and said: “Why don’t they come to see me? I love them as if they were my own.” After that we went often, and he always made us so welcome that we liked to go. I remember our last meetings with as much pleasure as the old playdays.

When Thoreau heard a wandering street-singer playing some tune of his childhood on a hand organ in the streets outside, tears came to his eyes and he said, “Give him some money! Give him some money!”

As long as he could possibly sit up, he insisted on his chair at the family table, and said, “It would not be social to take my meals alone.” When he could no longer negotiate the stairs even with assistance, he requested that the little cane bed he had used at Walden be brought down and placed in the front parlor. ”…This room did not seem like a sick-room,” said his mother. “My son wanted flowers and pictures and books all around here; and he was always so cheerful and wished others to be so while about him.”

Sleeplessness often bothered him. He wished his bed were in the form of a shell so that he might curl up in it. At night he asked that the lamp be set on the floor and the furniture arranged so that he could amuse himself watching the fantastic shadows. He refused opiates, telling Channing that “he preferred to endure with a clear mind the worst penalties of suffering, rather than be plunged in a turbid dream of narcotics.” But when he did sleep he was troubled with strange dreams. “Sleep seemed to hang round my bed in festoons,” he told Channing. And he reported a pitiful dream he had “of being a railroad cut, where they were digging through and laying down the rails, —the place being in his lungs.” Nevertheless he kept up his good spirits.

During his long illness [said Sophia] I never heard a murmur escape him, or the slightest wish expressed to remain with us; his perfect contentment was truly wonderful. None of his friends seemed to realize how very ill he was, so full of life and good cheer did he seem. One friend, as if by way of consolation, said to him, “Well, Mr. Thoreau, we must all go.” Henry replied, “When I was a very little boy I learned that f must die, and I set that down, so of course I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to you as it is to me.”