Thursday, March 31, 2011

`The Wild Confidence of Forty-Niners'

One hundred fifty-nine years ago today, Thoreau writes in his journal:

“Methinks I would share every creature’s suffering for the sake of its experience and joy.”

This is nonsense, a Romantic pose he sometimes shared with a much less biologically informed writer, Walt Whitman. Thoreau is not thinking here, but dabbling in contrarian whimsy. No sane person voluntarily chooses a life of disease, hunger and predators. In the final decade of his life, Thoreau shed many delusions, struck fewer poses and saw the natural world with growing acuity. The same can’t be said for his political thinking. The journal entry continues:

“The song sparrow and the transient fox-colored sparrow,—have they brought me no message this year? Do they go to lead heroic lives in Rupert’s Land? They are so small, I think their destinies must be large. Have I heard what this tiny passenger has to say, while it flits thus from tree to tree? Is not the coming of the fox-colored sparrow something more earnest and significant than I have dreamed of? Can I forgive myself if I let it go to Rupert’s Land before I have appreciated it?”

Please, Henry, forgive yourself. We have. More Romantic rapture. Sparrows carry no message but the one we chose to hear – their beauty, the wonder of their otherness, their inter-relatedness with the rest of creation. One sentence, though dubious, redeems the passage: “They are so small, I think their destinies must be large.” A sparrow will never be a sparrowhawk.

“God did not make this world in jest; no, nor in indifference. These migrating sparrows all bear messages that concern my life. I do not pluck the fruits in their season. I love the birds and beasts because they are mythologically in earnest. I see that the sparrow cheeps and flits and sings adequately to the great design of the universe; that man does not communicate with it, understand its language, because he is not one with nature. I reproach myself because I have regarded with indifference the passage of the birds; I have thought them no better than I.”

Thoreau’s constitutional fondness for paradox is sometimes too glib, like the easy one-liners of a nightclub comedian. I don’t know what “mythologically in earnest” means. Being “one with nature” has nothing to do with it. We fail to communicate with a sparrow, “understand its language,” because we are not sparrows. Their otherness is no judgment on us. We haven't somehow failed. We share a world but not a mind. There is no sparrow Weltanschauung for me to comprehend. In “House Sparrows” (The Venetian Vespers, 1979), Anthony Hecht reminds us:

“They are given to nervous flight, the troubled sleep
Of those who remember terrible events,
The wide-eyed, anxious haste of the exiled.”

To remind us that nature is more than unrelieved grimness, however, Hecht concludes his poem like this:

“Yet here they are, these chipper stratoliners,
Unsullen, unresentful, full of the grace
Of cheerfulness, who seem to greet all comers
With the wild confidence of Forty-Niners,
And, to the lively honor of their race,
Rude canticles of `Summers, Summers, Summers.’”

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