Wednesday, April 21, 2010

`The Colors of the Rainbow in Colorless Ice'

Often in his journals Thoreau starts with an observation, drawn usually from the natural world, a perfect little seed of fact, and he waters it and warms it until it germinates and blossoms into a lush growth of prose-foliage. On Dec. 11, 1855, his visit to Holden Swamp in Conantum begins matter-of-factly: “No snow; scarcely any ice to be detected. It is only an aggravated November.” The last observation is dry Yankee wit, but only the seed or a part of it.

Thoreau notes that a northern bird, the pine grosbeak, has strayed to the southern fringe of its customary range. It doesn’t suggest “poverty,” Thoreau writes, “but dazzles us with his beauty.” Thus the watering and warming of the energy already latent in the seed. Read the entire entry, four paragraphs, but allow me to trace some of the growth of this lovely winter flower:

“The winter, with its snow and ice, is not an evil to be corrected. It is as it was designed and made to be, for the artist has had leisure to add beauty to use. My acquaintances [the grosbeaks], angels from the north. I had a vision thus prospectively of these birds as I stood in the swamps. I saw this familiar – too familiar – fact at a different angle, and I was charmed and haunted by it. It is only necessary to behold thus the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a hair’s breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance. Only what we have touched and worn is trivial,--our scurf, repetition, tradition, conformity. To perceive freshly, with fresh senses, is to be inspired.”

Thoreau’s visual acuity, with eyes physical and spiritual, is hawkish; his clarity, except in most matters political (John Brown), enviable (“I had a vision…”). As a writer, how I’m charmed by his hard-won gift for lifting the mundane (a winter bird) into the beautiful and significant using mere words. He asks us to see the world anew, “with fresh senses.” Two paragraphs later:

“We get only transient and partial glimpses of the beauty of the world. Standing at the right angle, we are dazzled by the colors of the rainbow in colorless ice. From the right point of view, every storm and every drop in it is a rainbow.”

With her Thoreauvian eye Elizabeth Bishop writes in “The Fish”: “…everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

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