Typical of Thoreau, who reveled in paradoxes and honed contrariness into a mode of perception: In winter, read of the tropics; in summer, the Arctic. He was his own antipodes, and writes in "Natural History of Massachusetts":
“Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when the snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida keys, and their warm sea-breezes; of the fence-rail, and the cotton-tree, and the migrations of the rice-bird; of the breaking up of winter in Labrador, and the melting of the snow on the forks of the Missouri; and owe an accession of health to these reminiscences of luxuriant nature.”
The linkage of book to season and place is complicated, and if we could perceive our reading history whole, all at once, it might constitute our truest biography, more telling than a mere catalog of names and dates. Thoreau’s mention of Audubon came back as I was reading “Audubon at Oakley” (Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay). Oakley was the plantation near St. Francisville, La., where John James Audubon lived and worked in 1821. Finlay (1941-1991) was a native Alabaman who received his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University and lived in the state for a decade. Here is the poem:
“My Gallic cunning poured sweet wine into
The calyxes of trumpet-vines and caught
Small drunken birds a bullet blows apart.
Others I shot, pinned them to a board
To draw the fresh-killed life. Elusively
The is that quickens in the living eye
Escaped the sweat of art, drying ink.
I tore blind pages till I reached the one
That pleased my avid mind. The wilderness
There teems with birds I never saw before;
White and wood ibises, the sparrow hawk,
The red-cock woodpecker, and painted finch.
I hunted them for days and nights until
I throve in timelessness. One day stood out.
I heard below all things the river sough;
The fall was blazing in the silent trees.
I saw my book, taut wings of mockingbirds
In combat with the snake knotted beneath
The nest, its open mouth close to the eggs,
Now held forever in the lean, hard line.
And underneath, defining them, combined:
The clean abstraction of their Latin names,
The vulgate richness of this Saxon salt.”
This reads like a self-portrait of the artist. Finlay wrote his doctoral dissertation on the intellectual theism of Yvor Winters and his poem “Odysseus” is written “In honor of Yvor Winters.” Another poem, “The Exiles,” is dedicated to Janet Lewis, the poet, novelist and wife of Winters. “Audubon at Oakley” in particular seems suffused with Winters’ evocatively laconic style: “Now held forever in the lean, hard line.” Like Winters, Finlay honors the physical world despite the difficulty of remaining true to the real: “Elusively / The is that quickens in the living eye / Escaped the sweat of art, drying ink.” The editor of Mind and Blood, David Middleton, reports Finlay was planning a long poem on Audubon., and quotes the poet saying in an unpublished paper:
“Audubon is the prototype of the artist, who has to shift back and forth between two sometimes conflicting worlds: the experience of the wilderness, immediate, sensual, non-intellectual, and the mental state of detachment from that experience, in which the mind works through the wilderness into art.”
That distills a lesson learned late in life by Thoreau, one that many of his readers blithely ignore or fail to recognize.