The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau

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Sierra Club Books, 1986 - 151 pages
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A combination of critical commentary by a respected poet and a selection of verse, journal passages, essays, and travel works by Thoreau

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Contents

page
54
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF THOREAU
141
SOURCES
147
Copyright

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About the author (1986)

In September 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted this social encounter in his journal: "Mr. Thorow dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character---a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. On the whole, I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know." Most responses to Thoreau are as ambiguously respectful as was Hawthorne's. Thoreau was neither an easy person to like nor an easy writer to read. Thoreau described himself as a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. He is a writer of essays about nature---not of facts about it but of his ideals and emotions in its presence. His wish to understand nature led him to Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845 to 1847 in a cabin that he built. Though he was an educated man with a Harvard degree, fluent in ancient and modern German, he preferred to study nature by living "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." Knowing this, we should beware of misreading the book that best reflected this great experience in Thoreau's life: Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). It is not a handbook of the simple life. Though there are elements in the book of a "whole-earth catalogue" mentality, to focus on the radical "economic" aspects of Thoreau's work is to miss much in the book. Nor is it an autobiography. The right way to read Walden is as a "transcendental" narrative prose poem, whose hero is a man named Henry, a modern Odysseus in search of a "true America." Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1846, exactly two years, two months, and two days after he had settled there. As he explained in the pages of Walden: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went to live there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." Growth, change, and development were essential to his character. One should not overlook the significance of his selecting July 4 as the day for taking possession of his residence at Walden Pond, a day that celebrates the establishment of a new government whose highest ideal is individual freedom. In terms of Thoreau's redefinition of the nation-idea, "the only true America" is that place where one may grow wild according to one's nature, where one may "enjoy the land, but own it not." Thoreau believed that each person should live according to individual conscience, willing to oppose the majority if necessary. An early proponent of nonviolent resistance, he was jailed briefly for refusing to pay his poll tax to support the Mexican War and the slave system that had promoted that war. His essay "On Civil Disobedience" (1849), which came from this period of passive resistance, was acknowledged by Mahatma Gandhi (who read it in a South African jail) as the basis for his campaign to free India. Martin Luther King, Jr. later attributed to Thoreau and Gandhi the inspiration for his leadership in the civil rights movement in the United States. Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically afterwards. His health declined over three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly The Maine Woods and Excursions, and petitioning publishers to print revised editions of A Week and Walden. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 44.

Robert Bly lives on a farm in his native state of Minnesota. He edited The Seventies magazine, which he founded as The Fifties and in the next decade called The Sixties. In 1966, with David Ray, he organized American Writers Against the Vietnam War. The Light Around the Body, which won the National Book Award in 1968, was strongly critical of the war in Vietnam and of American foreign policy. Since publication of Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), a response to the women's movement, Bly has been immensely popular, appearing on talk shows and advising men to retrieve their primitive masculinity through wildness. Bly is also a translator of Scandinavian literature, such as Twenty Poems of Tomas Transtromer. Through the Sixties Press and the Seventies Press, he introduced little-known European and South American poets to American readers. His magazines have been the center of a poetic movement involving the poets Donald Hall, Louis Simpson, and James Wright.

Michael McCurdy was born in New York City on February 17, 1942. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston between 1960 and 1966. He received a B.F.A. in 1964 and a M.F.A. in 1971 from Tufts University. He taught drawing and printmaking at Concord Academy and Wellesley College. He also founded Penmaen Press. His wood engravings and scratchboard drawings have been published in more than 200 books for children and adults. His first illustrated children's book, Please Explain by Isaac Asimov, was published in 1973. His other illustration credits include The Owl-Scatterer by Howard Norman, The Seasons Sewn: A Year in Patchwork by Ann Whitford Paul, An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott, American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne, and The Sailor's Alphabet. He died on May 28, 2016 at the age of 74.

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