few and so faint.
was fourteen, he stopped one day by the wayside to observe the dark outline of an oak against the western sky; and he says that he was at that moment struck with ‘the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country,’ so far as he was acquainted with them, and ‘made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency.’
He spent a long life in studying and telling these beautiful wonders; and yet, so vast is the sum of them, they seem almost as undescribed as before, and men to be still as content with vague or conventional representations.
On this continent, especially, people fancied that all must be tame and second-hand, everything long since duly analyzed and distributed and put up in appropriate quotations, and nothing left for us poor American children but a preoccupied universe.
And yet Thoreau
camps down by Walden Pond
, and shows us that absolutely nothing in Nature has ever yet been described,—not a bird nor a berry of the woods, nor a drop of water, nor a spicula of ice, nor summer, nor winter, nor sun, nor star.
Indeed, no person can portray Nature from any slight or transient acquaintance.
A reporter cannot step out between the sessions of a caucus and give a racy abstract of the landscape.
It may consume the best hours of many days to certify for one's self the simplest out-door fact, but every such piece of knowledge is intellectually worth the time.
Even the driest and barest book of Natural History is good and nutritious, so far as it goes, if it represents genuine acquaintance; one can find summer in January by poring over the Latin
catalogues of Massachusetts
plants and animals in Hitchcock
The most commonplace out-door society has the same attraction.
Every one of those old outlaws who haunt our New-England
ponds and marshes, water-soaked and soakers of something else,—intimate with the pure fluid in that familiarity which breeds contempt,—has yet a wholesome side when you explore his knowledge of frost and freshet, pickerel and musk-rat, and is exceedingly good company while you can keep him beyond scent of the tavern.
Any intelligent farmer's boy can give you some narrative of out-door observation which, so far as it goes, fulfils Milton
's definition of poetry, ‘simple, sensuous, passionate.’
He may not write sonnets to the lake, but he will walk miles to bathe in it; he may not notice the sunsets, but he knows where to search for the blackbird's nest.
How surprised the school-children looked, to be sure, when the Doctor
of Divinity from the city tried to sentimentalize in addressing them about ‘the bobolink in the woods’!
They knew that the darling of the meadow had no more personal acquaintance with the woods than was exhibited by the preacher.
But the preachers are not much worse than the authors.
The prosaic Buckle, indeed, admits that the poets have in all time been consummate observers, and that their observations have been as valuable as those of the men of science; and yet we look even to the poets for very casual and occasional glimpses of Nature only, not for any continuous reflection of her glory.
is perfumed with early spring; Homer
resounds like the sea; in the Greek Anthology
the sun always shines on the fisherman's cottage by the beach; we associate the Vishnu Purana
with lakes and lotuses, Keats
with nightingales in forest dim, while the long grass waving on the lonely heath is the last memorial of the fading fame of Ossian.
Of course Shakespeare
's omniscience included all natural phenomena; but the rest, great or small, associate themselves with some special aspects, and not with the daily atmosphere.
Coming to our own times, one must quarrel with Ruskin
as taking rather the artist's view of Nature, selecting the available bits and dealing rather patronizingly with the whole; and one is tempted to charge even Emerson
, as he somewhere charges Wordsworth
, with not being of a temperament quite liquid and musical enough to admit the full vibration of the great harmonies.
The three human foster-children who have been taken nearest into Nature's bosom, perhaps,—an odd triad, surely, for the whimsical nursing mother to select,—are Wordsworth
, Bettine Brentano
, and Thoreau
Yet what wonderful achievements have some of the fragmentary artists performed!
Some of Tennyson
's wordpictures, for instance, bear almost as much study as the landscape.
One afternoon, last spring, I had been walking through a copse of young white birches,—their leaves scarce yet apparent,—over a ground delicate with wood-anemones, moist and mottled with dog's-tooth-violet leaves, and spangled with the delicate clusters of that shy creature, the Claytonia or Spring Beauty.
All this was floored with last year's faded foliage, giving a singular bareness and whiteness to the foreground.
Suddenly, as if entering a cavern, I stepped through the edge of all this, into a dark little amphitheatre beneath a hemlock-grove, where the afternoon sunlight struck broadly through the trees upon a tiny stream and a miniature swamp,—this last being intensely and luridly green, yet overlaid with the pale gray of last year's reeds, and absolutely flaming with the gayest yellow light from great clumps of cowslips.
The illumination seemed perfectly weird and dazzling; the spirit of the place appeared live, wild, fantastic, almost human.
Now open your Tennyson
‘And the wild marsh-marigold shines like fire in swamps and hollows gray.’
Our cowslip is the English
History is a grander poetry, and it is often urged that the features of Nature in America
must seem tame because they have no legendary wreaths to decorate them.
It is perhaps hard for those of us who are untravelled to