Our Friend John Burroughs
by Clara Barrus
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

I am too much preoccupied, too much at home with myself, to feel any interest in many things that interest my fellows. I have aimed to live a sane, normal, healthy life; or, rather, I have an instinct for such a life. I love life, as such, and I am quickly conscious of anything that threatens to check its even flow. I want a full measure of it, and I want it as I do my spring water, clear and sweet and from the original sources. Hence I have always chafed in cities, I must live in the country. Life in the cities is like the water there—a long way from the original sources, and more or less tainted by artificial conditions.

The current of the lives of many persons, I think, is like a muddy stream. They lack the instinct for health, and hence do not know when the vital current is foul. They are never really well. They do not look out for personal inward sanitation. Smokers, drinkers, coffee-tipplers, gluttonous eaters, diners-out, are likely to lose the sense of perfect health, of a clear, pure life-current, of which I am thinking. The dew on the grass, the bloom on the grape, the sheen on the plumage, are suggestions of the health that is within the reach of most of us.

The least cloud or film in my mental skies mars or stops my work. I write with my body quite as much as with my mind. How persons whose bread of life is heavy, so to speak,—no lightness or buoyancy or airiness at all,—can make good literature is a mystery to me; or those who stimulate themselves with drugs or alcohol or coffee. I would live so that I could get tipsy on a glass of water, or find a spur in a whiff of morning air.

Such as my books are, the bloom of my life is in them; no morbidity, or discontent, or ill health, or angry passion, has gone to their making. The iridescence of a bird's plumage, we are told, is not something extraneous; it is a prismatic effect. So the color in my books is not paint; it is health. It is probably nothing to brag of; much greater books have been the work of confirmed invalids. All I can say is that the minds of these inspired invalids have not seemed to sustain so close a relation to their bodies as my mind does to my body. Their powers seem to have been more purely psychic. Look at Stevenson—almost bedridden all his life, yet behold the felicity of his work! How completely his mind must have been emancipated from the infirmities of his body! It is clearly not thus with me. My mind is like a flame that depends entirely upon the good combustion going on in the body. Hence, I can never write in the afternoon, because this combustion is poorest then.

Life has been to me simply an opportunity to learn and enjoy, and, through my books, to share my enjoyment with others. I have had no other ambition. I have thirsted to know things, and to make the most of them. The universe is to me a grand spectacle that fills me with awe and wonder and joy, and with intense curiosity. I have had no such religious burden to bear as my fathers did—the conviction of sin, the struggle, the agony, the despair of a soul that fears it is lost. The fear of hell has never troubled me. Of sin in the theological sense, the imputed sin of Adam's transgression, which so worried the old people, I have not had a moment's concern. That I have given my heart to Nature instead of to God, as these same old people would have said, has never cast a shadow over my mind or conscience—as if God would not get all that belonged to Him, and as if love of his works were not love of Him! I have acquiesced in things as they are, and have got all the satisfaction out of them that I could.

Over my personal sins and shortcomings, I have not been as much troubled as I should; none of us are. We do not see them in relief as others do; they are like the color of our eyes, or our hair, or the shapes of our noses.

I do not know that it is true that my moral fibre is actually weak. If I may draw a figure from geology, it is probably true that my moral qualities are the softer rock in the strata that make up my being—the easiest worn away. I see that I carry the instinct of the naturalist into all my activities. If a thing is natural, sane, wholesome, that is enough. Whether or not it is conventionally correct, or square with the popular conception of morality, does not matter to me.

I undoubtedly lack the heroic fibre. My edge is much easier turned than was that, say, of Thoreau. Austerity would ill become me. You would see through the disguise. Yes, there is much soft rock in my make-up. Is that why I shrink from the wear and tear of the world?

The religious storm and upheaval that I used to hear so much of in my youth is impossible with me. I am liable to deep-seated enthusiasms; but to nothing like a revolution in my inward life, nothing sudden, nothing violent. I can't say that there has been any abandonment of my opinions on important subjects; there has been new growth and evolution, I hope. The emphasis of life shifts, now here, now there; it is up hill and down dale, but there is no change of direction.... Certain deep-seated tendencies and instincts have borne me on. I have gravitated naturally to the things that were mine.

I could not make anything I chose of myself; I could only be what I am. In my youth I once "went forward" at a "protracted meeting," but nothing came of it. The change in me that I was told would happen did not happen, and I never went again. My nature was too equable, too self-poised, to be suddenly overturned and broken up.

I am not a bit gregarious. I cannot herd with other men and be "Hail, fellow, well met!" with them as I wish I could. I am much more at home with women; we seem to understand one another better. Put me with a lot of men, and we naturally separate as oil and water separate. On shipboard it is rarely that any of the men take to me, or I to them—I do not smoke or drink or tell stories, or talk business or politics, and the men have little use for me. On my last voyage across the Atlantic, the only man who seemed to notice me, or to whom I felt drawn at all, was a Catholic priest. Real countrymen, trappers, hunters, and farmers, I seem to draw near to. On the Harriman Alaskan Expedition the two men I felt most at home with were Fred Dellenbaugh, the artist and explorer, and Captain Kelly, the guide. Can you understand this? Do you see why men do not, as a rule, care for me, and why women do?

I accuse myself of want of sociability. Probably I am too thin-skinned. A little more of the pachyderm would help me in this respect.

Some day I will give you more self-analysis and self-criticism.

I am what you might call an extemporaneous writer—I write without any previous study or preparation, save in so far as my actual life from day to day has prepared me for it. I do not work up my subject, or outline it, or sketch it in the rough. When I sit down to write upon any theme, like that of my "Cosmopolitan" article last April ("What Life Means to Me," 1906), or of my various papers on animal intelligence, I do not know what I have to say on the subject till I delve into my mind and see what I find there. The writing is like fishing or hunting, or sifting the sand for gold—I am never sure of what I shall find. All I want is a certain feeling, a bit of leaven, which I seem to refer to some place in my chest—not my heart, but to a point above that and nearer the centre of the chest—the place that always glows or suffuses when one thinks of any joy or good tidings that is coming his way. It is a kind of hunger for that subject; it warms me a little to think of it, a pleasant thrill runs through me; or it is something like a lover's feeling for his sweetheart—I long to be alone with it, and to give myself to it. I am sure I shall have a good time. Hence, my writing is the measure of my life. I can write only about what I have previously felt and lived. I have no legerdemain to invoke things out of the air, or to make a dry branch bud and blossom before the eyes. I must look into my heart and write, or remain dumb. Robert Louis Stevenson said one should be able to write eloquently on a broomstick, and so he could. Stevenson had the true literary legerdemain; he was master of the art of writing; he could invest a broomstick with charm; if it remained a broomstick, it was one on which the witches might carry you through the air at night. Stevenson had no burden of meaning to deliver to the world; his subject never compelled him to write; but he certainly could invest common things and thoughts with rare grace and charm. I wish I had more of this gift, this facility of pen, apart from any personal interest in the subject. I could not grow eloquent over a broomstick, unless it was the stick of the broom that used to stand in the corner behind the door in the old kitchen at home—the broom with which Mother used to sweep the floor, and sweep off the doorstones, glancing up to the fields and hills as she finished and turned to go in; the broom with which we used to sweep the snow from our boots and trouser-legs when we came from school or from doing the chores in winter. Here would be a personal appeal that would probably find me more inevitably than it would Stevenson.

I have never been in the habit of doing a thing, of taking a walk, or making an excursion, for the purpose of writing it up. Hence, when magazine editors have asked me to go South or to California, or here or there, to write the text to go with the pictures their artist would make, I have felt constrained to refuse. The thought that I was expected to write something would have burdened me and stood in the way of my enjoyment, and unless there is enjoyment, there is no writing with me.

I was once tempted into making an excursion for one of the magazines to a delightful place along the Jersey coast in company with an artist, and a memorable day it was, too, with plenty of natural and of human interest, but nothing came of it—my perverse pen would not do what it was expected to do; it was no longer a free pen.

When I began observing the birds, nothing was further from my thoughts than writing them up. I watched them and ran after them because I loved them and was happy with them in the fields and woods; the writing came as an afterthought, and as a desire to share my enjoyment with others. Hence, I have never carried a notebook, or collected data about nature in my rambles and excursions. What was mine, what I saw with love and emotion, has always fused with my mind, so that in the heat of writing it came back to me spontaneously. What I have lived, I never lose.

My trip to Alaska came near being spoiled because I was expected to write it up, and actually did so from day to day, before fusion and absorption had really taken place. Hence my readers complain that they do not find me in that narrative, do not find my stamp or quality as in my other writings. And well they may say it. I am conscious that I am not there as in the others; the fruit was plucked before it had ripened; or, to use my favorite analogy, the bee did not carry the nectar long enough to transform it into honey. Had I experienced a more free and disinterested intercourse with Alaskan nature, with all the pores of my mind open, the result would certainly have been different. I might then, after the experience had lain and ripened in my mind for a year or two, and become my own, have got myself into it.

When I went to the Yellowstone National Park with President Roosevelt, I waited over three years before writing up the trip. I recall the President's asking me at the time if I took notes. I said, "No; everything that interests me will stick to me like a burr." And I may say here that I have put nothing in my writings at any time that did not interest me. I have aimed in this to please myself alone. I believe it to be true at all times that what does not interest the writer will not interest his reader.

From the impromptu character of my writings come both their merits and their defects—their fresh, unstudied character, and their want of thoroughness and reference-book authority. I cannot, either in my writing or in my reading, tolerate any delay, any flagging of the interest, any beating about the bush, even if there is a bird in it. The thought, the description, must move right along, and I am impatient of all footnotes and quotations and asides.

A writer may easily take too much thought about his style, until it obtrudes itself upon the reader's attention. I would have my sentences appear as if they had never taken a moment's thought of themselves, nor stood before the study looking-glass an instant. In fact, the less a book appears written, the more like a spontaneous product it is, the better I like it. This is not a justification of carelessness or haste; it is a plea for directness, vitality, motion. Those writers who are like still-water fishermen, whose great virtues are patience and a tireless arm, never appealed to me any more than such fishing ever did. I want something more like a mountain brook—motion, variety, and the furthest possible remove from stagnation.

Indeed, where can you find a better symbol of good style in literature than a mountain brook after it is well launched towards the lowlands—not too hurried, and not too loitering—limpid, musical, but not noisy, full but not turbid, sparkling but not frothy, every shallow quickly compensated for by a deep reach of thought; the calm, lucid pools of meaning alternating with the passages of rapid description, of moving eloquence or gay comment—flowing, caressing, battling, as the need may be, loitering at this point, hurrying at that, drawing together here, opening out there—freshness, variety, lucidity, power.

(We wish that, like the brook, our self-analyst would "go on forever"; but his stream of thought met some obstacle when he had written thus far, and I have never been able to induce it to resume its flow. I have, there-fore, selected a bit of self-analysis from Mr. Burroughs's diary of December, 1884, with which to close this subject. C.B.)

I have had to accomplish in myself the work of several generations. None of my ancestors were men or women of culture; they knew nothing of books. I have had to begin at the stump, and to rise from crude things. I have felt the disadvantages which I have labored under, as well as the advantages. The advantages are, that things were not hackneyed with me, curiosity was not blunted, my faculties were fresh and eager—a kind of virgin soil that gives whatever charm and spontaneity my books possess, also whatever of seriousness and religiousness. The disadvantages are an inaptitude for scholarly things, a want of the steadiness and clearness of the tone of letters, the need of a great deal of experimenting, a certain thickness and indistinctness of accent. The farmer and laborer in me, many generations old, is a little embarrassed in the company of scholars; has to make a great effort to remember his learned manners and terms.

The unliterary basis is the best to start from; it is the virgin soil of the wilderness; but it is a good way to the college and the library, and much work must be done. I am near to nature and can write upon these themes with ease and success; this is my proper field, as I well know. But bookish themes—how I flounder about amid them, and have to work and delve long to get down to the real truth about them in my mind!

In writing upon Emerson, or Arnold, or Carlyle, I have to begin, as it were, and clear the soil, build a log hut, and so work up to the point of view that is not provincial, but more or less metropolitan.

My best gift as a writer is my gift for truth; I have a thoroughly honest mind, and know the truth when I see it. My humility, or modesty, or want of self-assertion, call it what you please, is also a help in bringing me to the truth. I am not likely to stand in my own light; nor to mistake my own wants and whims for the decrees of the Eternal. At least, if I make the mistake to-day, I shall see my error to-morrow.

(The discerning reader can hardly fail to trace in the foregoing unvarnished account of our subject's ancestry and environment many of the factors which have contributed to the unique success he has attained as a writer. Nor can he fail to trace a certain likeness, of which our author seems unconscious, to his father. To his mother he has credited most of his gifts as a writer, but to that childlike unselfconsciousness which he describes in his father, we are doubtless largely indebted for the candid self-analysis here given.

But few writers could compass such a thing, yet he has done it simply and naturally, as he would write on any other topic in which he was genuinely interested. To be naked and unashamed is a condition lost by most of us long ago, but retained by a few who still have many of the traits of the natural man. C.B.)


I once asked Mr. Burroughs about his early writings, his beginnings. He replied, "They were small potatoes and few in a hill, although at the time I evidently thought I was growing some big ones. I had yet to learn, as every young writer has to learn, that big words do not necessarily mean big thoughts." Later he sent me these maiden efforts, with an account of when and where they appeared.

These early articles show that Mr. Burroughs was a born essayist. They all took the essay form. In his reading, as he has said, any book of essays was pretty sure to arrest his attention. He seems early to have developed a hunger for the pure stuff of literature—something that would feed his intellect at the same time that it appealed to his aesthetic sense. Concerning his first essays, he wrote me:—

The only significant thing about my first essays, written between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, is their serious trend of thought; but the character of my early reading was serious and philosophical. Locke and Johnson and Saint-Pierre and the others no doubt left their marks upon me. I diligently held my mind down to the grindstone of Locke's philosophy, and no doubt my mind was made brighter and sharper by the process. Out of Saint-Pierre's "Studies of Nature," a work I had never before heard of, I got something, though it would be hard for me to say just what. The work is a curious blending of such science as there was in his time, with sentiment and fancy, and enlivened by a bright French mind. I still look through it with interest, and find that it has a certain power of suggestion for me yet.

He confessed that he was somewhat imposed upon by Dr. Johnson's high-sounding platitudes. "A beginner," he said, "is very apt to feel that if he is going to write, the thing to do is to write, and get as far from the easy conversational manner as possible. Let your utterances be measured and stately." At first he tried to imitate Johnson, but soon gave that up. He was less drawn to Addison and Lamb at the time, because they were less formal, and seemingly less profound; and was slow in perceiving that the art of good writing is the art of bringing one's mind and soul face to face with that of the reader. How different that early attitude from the penetrating criticism running through his "Literary Values"; how different his stilted beginnings from his own limpid prose as we know it, to read which is to forget that one is reading!

Mr. Burroughs's very first appearance in print was in a paper in Delaware County, New York,—the Bloomfield "Mirror,"—on May 18, 1856. The article—"Vagaries vs. Spiritualism"—purports to be written by "Philomath," of Roxbury, New York, who is none other than John Burroughs, at the age of nineteen. It starts out showing impatience at the unreasoning credulity of the superstitious mind, and continues in a mildly derisive strain for about a column, foreshadowing the controversial spirit which Mr. Burroughs displayed many years later in taking to task the natural-history romancers. The production was evidently provoked by a too credulous writer on spiritualism in a previous issue of the "Mirror." I will quote its first paragraph:—

Mr. Mirror,—Notwithstanding the general diffusion of knowledge in the nineteenth century, it is a lamentable fact that some minds are so obscured by ignorance, or so blinded by superstition, as to rely with implicit confidence upon the validity of opinions which have no foundation in nature, or no support by the deductions of reason. But truth and error have always been at variance, and the audacity of the contest has kept pace with the growing vigor of the contending parties. Some straightforward, conscientious persons, whose intentions are undoubtedly commendable, are so infatuated by the sophistical theories of the spiritualist, or so tossed about on the waves of public opinion, that they lose sight of truth and good sense, and, like the philosopher who looked higher than was wise in his stargazing, tumble into a ditch.

In 1859 or 1860, Mr. Burroughs began to contribute to the columns of the "Saturday Press," an organ of the literary bohemians in New York, edited by Henry Clapp. These were fragmentary things of a philosophical cast, and were grouped under the absurd title "Fragments from the Table of an Intellectual Epicure," by "All Souls." There were about sixty of these fragments. I have examined most of them; some are fanciful and far-fetched; some are apt and felicitous; but all foreshadow the independent thinker and observer, and show that this "Intellectual Epicure" was feeding on strong meat and assimilating it.

I assume that it will interest the reader who knows Mr. Burroughs only as the practiced writer of the past fifty years to see some of his first sallies into literature, to trace the unlikeness to his present style, and the resemblances here and there. Accordingly I subjoin some extracts by "All Souls" from the time-stained pages of the New York "Saturday Press" of 1859 and 1860:—

A principle of absolute truth, pointed with fact and feathered with fancy, and shot from the bow-string of a master intellect, is one of the most potent things under the sun. It sings like a bird of peace to those who are not the object of its aim, but woe, woe to him who is the butt of such terrible archery!

For a thing to appear heavy to us, it is necessary that we have heft to balance against it; to appear strong, it is necessary that we have strength; to appear great, it is necessary that we have an idea of greatness. We must have a standard to measure by, and that standard must be in ourselves. An ignorant peasant cannot know that Bacon is so wise. To duly appreciate genius, you must have genius; a pigmy cannot measure the strength of a giant. The faculty that reads and admires, is the green undeveloped state of the faculty that writes and creates.

A book, a principle, an individual, a landscape, or any object in nature, to be understood and appreciated, must answer to something within us; appreciation is the first step toward interpreting a revelation.

To feel terribly beaten is a good sign; the more resources a man is conscious of, the deeper he will feel his defeat. But to feel unusually elated at a victory indicates that our strength did not warrant it, that we had gone beyond our resources. The boy who went crowing all day through the streets, on having killed a squirrel with a stone, showed plainly enough that it was not a general average of his throwing, and that he was not in the habit of doing so well; while the rifleman picks the hawk from the distant tree without remark or comment, and feels vexed if he miss.

The style of some authors, like the manners of some men, is so naked, so artificial, has so little character at the bottom of it, that it is constantly intruding itself upon your notice, and seems to lie there like a huge marble counter from behind which they vend only pins and needles; whereas the true function of style is as a means and not as an end—to concentrate the attention upon the thought which it bears, and not upon itself—to be so apt, natural, and easy, and so in keeping with the character of the author, that, like the comb in the hive, it shall seem the result of that which it contains, and to exist for its sake alone.

It is interesting to note, in these and other extracts, how the young writer is constantly tracing the analogy between the facts of everyday life about him, and moral and intellectual truths. A little later he began to knit these fragments together into essays, and to send the essays to the "Saturday Press" under such titles as "Deep," and "A Thought on Culture." There is a good deal of stating the same thing in diverse ways. The writer seems to be led on and on to seek analogies which, for the most part, are felicitous; occasionally crudities and unnecessarily homely comparisons betray his unformed taste. The first three paragraphs of "Deep" give a fair sample of the essay:—

Deep authors? Yes, reader, I like deep authors, that is, authors of great penetration, reach, and compass of thought; but I must not be bored with a sense of depth—must not be required to strain my mental vision to see into the bottom of a well; the fountain must flow out at the surface, though it come from the centre of the globe. Then I can fill my cup without any artificial aid, or any painful effort.

What we call depth in a book is often obscurity; and an author whose meaning is got at only by severe mental exertion, and a straining of the mind's eye, is generally weak in the backbone of him. Occasionally it is the dullness of the reader, but oftener the obtuseness of the writer.

A strong vigorous writer is not obscure—at any rate, not habitually so; never leaves his reader in doubt, or compels him to mount the lever and help to raise his burden; but clutches it in his mighty grasp and hurls it into the air, so that it is not only unencumbered by the soil that gave it birth, but is wholly detached and relieved, and set off against the clear blue of his imagination. His thought is not like a rock propped up but still sod-bound, but is like a rock held aloft, or built into a buttress, with definite shape and outline.

Let me next quote from "A Thought on Culture," which appeared in the same publication a little later, and which is the first to bear his signature:—

In the conduct of life a man should not show his knowledge, but his wisdom; not his money—that were vulgar and foolish—but the result of it—independence, courage, culture, generosity, manliness, and that noble, humane, courteous air which wealth always brings to the right sort of a man.

A display of mere knowledge, under most circumstances, is pedantry; an exercise of wisdom is always godlike. We cannot pardon the absence of knowledge, but itself must be hid. We can use a thing without absolutely showing it, we can be reasonable without boring people with our logic, and speak correctly without parsing our sentences.

The end of knowledge is not that a man may appear learned, any more than the end of eating is that a man may seem to have a full stomach; but the end of it is that a man may be wise, see and understand things as they are; be able to adjust himself to the universe in which he is placed, and judge and reason with the celerity of instinct, and that without any conscious exercise of his knowledge. When we feel the food we have eaten, something is wrong; so when a man is forever conscious of his learning, he has not digested it, and it is an encumbrance....

The evolution of this author in his use of titles is interesting. Compare the crudity of "Vagaries vs. Spiritualism," and "Deep," for example, with those he selects when he begins to publish his books. "Wake-Robin," "Winter Sunshine," "Locusts and Wild Honey," "Leaf and Tendril,"—how much they connote! Then how felicitous are the titles of most of his essays! "Birch Browsings," "The Snow-Walkers," "Mellow England," "Our Rural Divinity" (the cow), "The Flight of the Eagle" (for one of his early essays on Whitman), "A Bunch of Herbs," "A Pinch of Salt," "The Divine Soil," "The Long Road" (on evolution)—these and many others will occur to the reader.

Following "A Thought on Culture" was a short essay on poetry, the drift of which is that poetry as contrasted with science must give us things, not as they are in themselves, but as they stand related to our experience. Our young writer is more at his ease now:—

Science, of course, is literal, as it ought to be, but science is not life; science takes no note of this finer self, this duplicate on a higher scale. Science never laughs or cries, or whistles or sings, or falls in love, or sees aught but the coherent reality. It says a soap bubble is a soap bubble—a drop of water impregnated with oleate of potash or soda, and inflated with common air; but life says it is a crystal sphere, dipped in the rainbow, buoyant as hope, sensitive as the eye, with a power to make children dance for joy, and to bring youth into the look of the old....

Who in his youth ever saw the swallow of natural history to be the twittering, joyous bird that built mud nests beneath his father's shed, and in the empty odorous barn?—that snapped the insects that flew up in his way when returning at twilight from the upland farm; and that filled his memory with such visions of summer when he first caught its note on some bright May morning, flying up the southern valley? Describe water, or a tree, in the language of exact science, or as they really are in and of themselves, and what person, schooled only in nature, would recognize them? Things must be given as they seem, as they stand represented in the mind. Objects arrange themselves in our memory, not according to the will, or any real quality in themselves, but as they affect our lives and stand to us in our unconscious moments. The hills we have dwelt among, the rocks and trees we have looked upon in all moods and feelings, that stood to us as the shore to the sea, and received a thousand impresses of what we lived and suffered, have significance to us that is not accounted for by anything we can see or feel in them.

Here we see the youth of twenty-three setting forth a truth which he has sedulously followed in his own writing about nature, the following of which accounts so largely for the wide appeal his works have made.

Some time in 1860, Mr. Burroughs began to send essays to the New York "Leader," a weekly paper, the organ of Tammany Hall at that time. His first article was made up of three short essays—"World Growth," "New Ideas," and "Theory and Practice." Here beyond question is the writer we know:

The ideas that indicate the approach of a new era in history come like bluebirds in the spring, if you have ever noticed how that is. The bird at first seems a mere wandering voice in the air; you hear its carol on some bright morning in March, but are uncertain of its course or origin; it seems to come from some source you cannot divine; it falls like a drop of rain when no cloud is visible; you look and listen, but to no purpose. The weather changes, and it is not till a number of days that you hear the note again, or, maybe, see the bird darting from a stake in the fence, or flitting from one mullein-stalk to another. Its notes now become daily more frequent; the birds multiply; they sing less in the air and more when at rest; and their music is louder and more continuous, but less sweet and plaintive. Their boldness increases and soon you see them flitting with a saucy and inquiring air about barns and outbuildings, peeping into dove-cota and stable windows, and prospecting for a place to nest. They wage war against robins, pick quarrels with swallows, and would forcibly appropriate their mud houses, seeming to doubt the right of every other bird to exist but themselves. But soon, as the season advances, domestic instincts predominate; they subside quietly into their natural places, and become peaceful members of the family of birds.

So the thoughts that indicate the approach of a new era in history at first seem to be mere disembodied, impersonal voices somewhere in the air; sweet and plaintive, half-sung and half-cried by some obscure and unknown poet. We know not whence they come, nor whither they tend. It is not a matter of sight or experience. They do not attach themselves to any person or place, and their longitude and latitude cannot be computed. But presently they become individualized and centre in some Erasmus, or obscure thinker, and from a voice in the air, become a living force on the earth. They multiply and seem contagious, and assume a thousand new forms. They grow quarrelsome and demonstrative, impudent and conceited, crowd themselves in where they have no right, and would fain demolish or appropriate every institution and appointment of society. But after a time they settle into their proper relations, incorporate themselves in the world, and become new sources of power and progress in history.

This quotation is especially significant, as it shows the writer's already keen observation of the birds, and his cleverness in appropriating these facts of nature to his philosophical purpose. How neatly it is done! Readers of "Wake-Robin" will recognize a part of it in the matchless description of the bluebird which is found in the initial essay of that book.

In 1860, in the "Leader," there also appeared a long essay by Mr. Burroughs, "On Indirections." This has the most unity and flow of thought of any thus far. It is so good I should like to quote it all. Here are the opening paragraphs:—

The South American Indian who discovered the silver mines of Potosi by the turning up of a bush at the roots, which he had caught hold of to aid his ascent while pursuing a deer up a steep hill, represents very well how far intention and will are concerned in the grand results that flow from men's lives. Every schoolboy knows that many of the most valuable discoveries in science and art were accidental, or a kind of necessity, and sprang from causes that had no place in the forethought of the discoverer. The ostrich lays its eggs in the sand, and the sun hatches them; so man puts forth an effort and higher powers second him, and he finds himself the source of events that he had never conceived or meditated. Things are so intimately connected and so interdependent, the near and the remote are so closely related, and all parts of the universe are so mutually sympathetic, that it is impossible to tell what momentous secrets may lurk under the most trifling facts, or what grand and beautiful results may be attained through low and unimportant means. It seems that Nature delights in surprise, and in underlying our careless existences with plans that are evermore to disclose themselves to us and stimulate us to new enterprise and research. The simplest act of life may discover a chain of cause and effect that binds together the most remote parts of the system. We are often nearest to truth in some unexpected moment, and may stumble upon that while in a careless mood which has eluded our most vigilant and untiring efforts. Men have seen deepest and farthest when they opened their eyes without any special aim, and a word or two carelessly dropped by a companion has revealed to me a truth that weeks of study had failed to compass....

Nature will not be come at directly, but indirectly; all her ways are retiring and elusive, and she is more apt to reveal herself to her quiet, unobtrusive lover, than to her formal, ceremonious suitor. A man who goes out to admire the sunset, or to catch the spirit of field and grove, will very likely come back disappointed. A bird seldom sings when watched, and Nature is no coquette, and will not ogle and attitudinize when stared at. The farmer and traveler drink deepest of this cup, because it is always a surprise and comes without forethought or preparation. No insulation or entanglement takes place, and the soothing, medicinal influence of the fields and the wood takes possession of us as quietly as a dream, and before we know it we are living the life of the grass and the trees.

How unconsciously here he describes his own intercourse with Nature! And what an unusual production for a youth of twenty-three of such meagre educational advantages!

In 1862, in an essay on "Some of the Ways of Power," which appeared in the "Leader," he celebrated the beauty and completeness of nature's inexorable laws:—

There is an evident earnestness and seriousness in the meaning of things, and the laws that traverse nature and our own being are as fixed and inexorable, though, maybe, less instantaneous and immediate in their operation, as the principle of gravitation, and are as little disposed to pardon the violator or adjourn the day of adjudication.

There seems to be this terrible alternative put to every man on entering the world, conquer or be conquered. It is what the waves say to the swimmer, "Use me or drown"; what gravity says to the babe, "Use me or fall"; what the winds say to the sailor, "Use me or be wrecked"; what the passions say to every one of us, "Drive or be driven." Time in its dealings with us says plainly enough, "Here I am, your master or your servant." If we fail to make a good use of time, time will not fail to make a bad use of us. The miser does not use his money, so his money uses him; men do not govern their ambition, and so are governed by it....

These considerations are valuable chiefly for their analogical import. They indicate a larger truth. Man grows by conquering his limitations—by subduing new territory and occupying it. He commences life on a very small capital; his force yet lies outside of him, scattered up and down in the world like his wealth—in rocks, in trees, in storms and flood, in dangers, in difficulties, in hardships,—in short, in whatever opposes his progress and puts on a threatening front. The first difficulty overcome, the first victory gained, is so much added to his side of the scale—so much reinforcement of pure power.

I have said elsewhere that Mr. Burroughs has written himself into his books. We see him doing this in these early years; he was an earnest student of life at an age when most young men would have been far less seriously occupied. Difficulties and hardships were roundabout him, his force was, indeed, "scattered up and down in the world, in rocks and trees," in birds and flowers, and from these sources he was even then wresting the beginnings of his successful career.

It was in November, 1860, when twenty-three years of age, that he made his first appearance in the pages of the "Atlantic Monthly," in the essay "Expression," comments upon which by its author I have already quoted. At that time he was under the Emersonian spell of which he speaks in his autobiographical sketch. Other readers and lovers of Emerson had had similar experiences. Brownlee Brown, an "Atlantic" contributor (of "Genius" and "The Ideal Tendency," especially), was a "sort of refined and spiritualized Emerson, without the grip and gristle of the master, but very pleasing and suggestive," Mr. Burroughs says. The younger writer made a pilgrimage to the home of Brownlee Brown in the fall of 1862, having been much attracted to him by the above-named essays. He found him in a field gathering turnips. They had much interesting talk, and some correspondence thereafter. Mr. Brown admitted that his mind had been fertilized by the Emersonian pollen, and declared he could write in no other way.

Concerning his own imitation of Emerson, Mr. Burroughs says:—

It was by no means a conscious imitation. Had I tried to imitate him, probably the spurious character of my essay would have deceived no one. It was one of those unconscious imitations that so often give an impression of genuineness.... When I began to realize how deeply Emerson had set his stamp upon me, I said to myself: "This will never do. I must resist this influence. If I would be a true disciple of Emerson, I must be myself and not another. I must brace myself by his spirit, and not go tricked out in his manner, and his spirit was 'Never imitate.'"

It was this resolution, as he has before told us, that turned him to writing on outdoor subjects.

In rereading "Expression" recently, I was struck, not so much by its Emersonian manner, as by its Bergsonian ideas. I had heard Mr. Burroughs, when he came under the spell of Bergson in the summer of 1911, say that the reason he was so moved by the French philosopher was doubtless because he found in him so many of his own ideas; and it was with keen pleasure that I came upon these forerunners of Bergson written before Bergson was born.

At the time when Mr. Burroughs was dropping the Emersonian manner, and while his style was in the transition stage, he wrote an essay on "Analogy," and sent it also to the "Atlantic," receiving quite a damper on his enthusiasm when Lowell, the editor, returned it. But he sent it to the old "Knickerbocker Magazine," where it appeared in 1862. Many years later he rewrote it, and it was accepted by Horace Scudder, then the "Atlantic's" editor; in 1902, after rewriting it the second time, he published it in "Literary Values."

Because of the deep significance of them at this time in the career of Mr. Burroughs, I shall quote the following letters received by him from David A. Wasson, a Unitarian clergyman of Massachusetts, and a contributor to the early numbers of the "Atlantic." Their encouragement, their candor, their penetration, and their prescience entitle them to a high place in an attempt to trace the evolution of our author. One readily divines how much such appreciation and criticism meant to the youthful essayist.

Groveland, Mass., May 21, 1860

Mr. Burroughs,—

My Dear Sir,—Let me tell you at the outset that I have for five years suffered from a spinal hurt, from which I am now slowly recovering, but am still unable to walk more than a quarter of a mile or to write without much pain. I have all the will in the world to serve you, but, as you will perceive, must use much brevity in writing.

"Expression" I do not remember,—probably did not read,—for I read no periodical literature—not even the "Atlantic," which is the best periodical I know—unless my attention is very especially called to it, and often, to tell the truth, do not heed the call when it is given. Where I am at present I have not access to back numbers of the "Atlantic," but shall have soon. The essay that you sent me I read carefully twice, but unfortunately left it in Boston, where it reached me. I can therefore only speak of it generally. It certainly shows in you, if my judgment may be trusted, unusual gifts of pure intellect—unusual, I mean, among scholars and literary men; and the literary execution is creditable, though by no means of the same grade with the mental power evinced. You must become a fine literary worker to be equal to the demands of such an intellect as yours. For the deeper the thought, the more difficult to give it a clear and attractive expression. You can write so as to command attention. I am sure you can. Will you? that is the only question. Can you work and wait long enough? Have you the requisite patience and persistency? If you have, there is undoubtedly an honorable future before you.

But I will not conceal from you that I think you too young to have written "numerous essays" of the class you attempt, or to publish a book consisting of such. No other kind of writing requires such mental maturity; stories may be written at any age, though good ones are seldom written early. Even poems and works of art have been produced by some Raphael or Milton at a comparatively early season of life, and have not given shame to the author at a later age; though this is the exception, not the rule. But the purely reflective essay belongs emphatically to maturer life. Your twenty-four years have evidently been worth more to you than the longest life to most men; but my judgment is that you should give your genius more time yet, and should wait upon it with more labor. This is my frank counsel. I will respect you so much as to offer it without disguise. Let me fortify it by an example or two. Mr. Emerson published nothing, I think, until he was past thirty, and his brother Charles, now dead, who was considered almost superior to him, maintained that it is almost a sin to go into print sooner. Yet both these had all possible educational advantages, and were familiar with the best books and the best results of American culture from infancy almost. I myself printed nothing—saving some poetical indiscretions—until I was twenty-seven, and this was only a criticism on Dr. Isaac Barrow—not a subject, you see, that made great demands upon me. Two years later an article on Lord Bacon, for which I had been indirectly preparing more than two years, and directly at least one; and even then I would say little respecting his philosophy, and confined myself chiefly to a portraiture of his character as a man. At thirty-two years of age I sent to press an essay similar in character to those I write now—and am at present a little ashamed of it. I am now thirty-nine years old, and all that I have ever put in print would not make more than one hundred and thirty or one hundred and forty pages in the "Atlantic." Upon reflection, however, I will say two hundred pages, including pamphlet publications. I would have it less rather than more. But for this illness it would have been even less, for this has led me to postpone larger enterprises, which would have gone to press much later, and prepare shorter articles for the "Atlantic." Yet my literary interest began at a very early age.

In writing essays such as it seems to me you have a genius for, I require:—

1. That one should get the range—the largest range—of the laws he sets forth. This is the sine qua num. Every primary law goes through heaven and earth. Go with it. This is the business and privilege of intellect.

2. When one comes to writing, let his discourse have a beginning and an end. Do not let the end of his essay be merely the end of his sheet, or the place where he took a notion to stop writing, but let it be necessary. Each paragraph, too, should represent a distinct advance, a clear step, in the exposition of his thought. I spare no labor in securing this, and reckon no labor lost that brings me toward this mark. I reckon my work ill done if a single paragraph, yes, or a single sentence, can be transposed without injuring the whole.

3. Vivid expression must be sought, must be labored for unsparingly. This you, from your position, will find it somewhat hard to attain, unless you have peculiar aptitude for it. Expression in the country is far less vivacious than in cities.

I have spoken frankly; now you must decide for yourself. You have mental power enough; if you have accessory qualities (which I think you must possess), you cannot fail to make your mark.

The brevity that I promised you will not find in this letter, but you will find haste enough to make up for the lack of it.

If now, after the foregoing, you feel any inclination to send me the essay on "Analogy" (capital subject), pray do so. I will read it, and if I have anything to say about it, will speak as frankly as above.

I shall be in this place—Groveland, Mass.—about three weeks; after that in Worcester a short while.

Very truly yours,


Groveland, Mass., June 18, 1862.

Mr. Burroughs,—

My Dear Sir,—

I am sorry to have detained your MS. so long, but part of the time I have been away, and during the other portion of it, the fatigue that I must undergo was all that my strength would bear.

I read your essay carefully in a few days after receiving it and laid it aside for a second perusal. Now I despair of finding time for such a second reading as I designed, and so must write you at once my impressions after a single reading.

The inference concerning your mind that I draw from your essay enhances the interest I previously felt in you. All that you tell me of yourself has the same effect. You certainly have high, very high, mental power; and the patience and persistency that you must have shown hitherto assures me that you will in future be equal to the demands of your intellect. As to publishing what you have now written, you must judge. The main question, is whether you will be discouraged by failure of your book. If not, publish, if you like; and then, if the public ignores your thought, gather up your strength again and write so that they cannot ignore you. For, in truth, the public does not like to think; it likes to be amused; and conceives a sort of hatred against the writer who would force it to the use of its intellect. This is invariably the case; it will be so with you. If the public finds anything in your work that can be condemned, it will be but too happy to pass sentence; if it can make out to think that you are a pretender, it will gladly do so; if it can turn its back upon you and ignore you, its back, and nothing else, you will surely see. And this on account of your merits. You really have thoughts. You make combinations of your own. You have freighted your words out of your own mental experience. You do not flatter any of the sects by using their cant. Now, then, be sure that you have got to do finished work, finished in every minutest particular, for years, before your claims will be allowed.

If you were a pretender, your success in immediate prospect would be more promising; the very difficulty is that you are not—that you think—that the public must read you humbly, confessing that you have intelligence beyond its own. I said that the general public wants to be amused: I now add that it dearly desires to be flattered, or at least allowed to flatter itself. Those people who have no thoughts of their own are the very ones who hate mortally to admit to themselves that any intelligence in the world is superior to their own. A noble nature is indeed never so delighted as when it finds something that may be lawfully reverenced; but all the ignoble keep up their self-complacence by shutting their eyes to all superiority.

I state the case strongly, as you will feel it bye and bye. Mind, I am not a disappointed man; and have met as generous appreciation as I ought to wish. I am not misanthropic, nor in the least soured. I say all this, not against the public, but for you.

Now, then, as to the essay. It is rich in thought. Everywhere are the traces of a penetrating and sincere intellect. Much of the expression is also good. The faults of it, me judice, are as follows: The introduction I think too long. I should nearly throw away the first five pages. Your true beginning I think to be near the bottom of the sixth page, though the island in the middle paragraph of that page is too fine to be lost. From the sixth to about the twentieth I read with hearty pleasure. Then begin subordinate essays in illustration of your main theme. These are good in themselves, but their subordination is a little obscured. I think careless readers—and most of your readers, be sure, will be careless—will fail to perceive the connection. You are younger than I, and will hope more from your readers; but I find even superior men slow, slow, SLOW to understand—missing your point so often! I think the relationship must be brought out more strongly, and some very good sentences must be thrown out because they are more related to the subordinate than the commanding subject. This is about all that I have to say. Sometimes your sentences are a little heavy, but you will find, little by little, happier terms of expression. I do not in the least believe that you cannot in time write as well as I. What I have done to earn expression I know better than you The crudities that I have outgrown or outlabored, I also know.

You must be a little less careless about your spelling, simply because these slips will discredit your thought in the eyes of superficial critics.

You understand, of course, that I speak above of the general public—not of the finer natures, who will welcome you with warm hands.

I fear that the results of my reading will not correspond to your wishes, and that it was hardly worth your while to send me your MS. But I am obliged to you for informing me of your existence, for I augur good for my country from the discovery of every such intelligence as yours, and I pledge to you my warm interest and regard.

Very cordially yours,

David A. Wasson

Worcester, Sept. 29, 1862,

My Dear Mr. Burroughs,—

To the medicine proposition I say. Yes. A man of your tastes and mental vigor should be able to do some clean work in that profession. I know not of any other established profession that allows a larger scope of mind than this. There is some danger of materialism, but this you have already weaponed yourself against, and the scientific studies that come in the line of the profession will furnish material for thought and expression which I am sure you will know well how to use.

I am glad if my suggestions about your essay proved of some service to you. There is thought and statement in it which will certainly one day come to a market. The book, too, all in good season. Life for you is very long, and you can take your time. Take it by all means. Give yourself large leisure to do your best. I am about setting up my household gods in Worcester. This makes me in much haste, and therefore without another word I must say that I shall always be glad to hear from you, and that I am always truly your friend.

D. A. Wasson

Of the early nature papers which Mr. Burroughs wrote for the New York "Leader," and which were grouped under the general title, "From the Back Country," there were five or six in number, of two or three columns each. One on "Butter-Making," of which I will quote the opening passage, fairly makes the mouth water:—

With green grass comes golden butter. With the bobolinks and the swallows, with singing groves, and musical winds, with June,—ah, yes! with tender, succulent, gorgeous June,—all things are blessed. The dairyman's heart rejoices, and the butter tray with its virgin treasure becomes a sight to behold. There lie the rich masses, fold upon fold, leaf upon leaf, fresh, sweet, and odorous, just as the ladle of the dairymaid dipped it from the churn, sweating great drops of buttermilk, and looking like some rare and precious ore. The cool spring water is the only clarifier needed to remove all dross and impurities and bring out all the virtues and beauties of this cream-evolved element. How firm and bright it becomes, how delicious the odor it emits! what vegetarian ever found it in his heart, or his palate either, to repudiate butter? The essence of clover and grass and dandelions and beechen woods is here. How wonderful the chemistry that from elements so common and near at hand produces a result so beautiful and useful! Eureka! Is not this the alchemy that turns into gold the commonest substances? How can transformation be more perfect?

During the years of this early essay-writing, Mr. Burroughs was teaching country schools in the fall and winter, and working on the home farm in summer; at the same time he was reading serious books and preparing himself for whatever was in store for him. He read medicine for only three months, in the fall of 1862, and then resumed teaching. His first magazine article about the birds was written in the summer or fall of 1863, and appeared in the "Atlantic" in the spring of 1885. He learned from a friend to whom Mr. Sanborn had written that the article had pleased Emerson.

It was in 1864, while in the Currency Bureau in Washington, that he wrote the essays which make up his first nature book, "Wake-Robin." His first book, however, was not a nature book, but was "Walt Whitman as Poet and Person." It was published in 1867, preceding "Wake-Robin" by four years. It has long been out of print, and is less known than his extended, riper work, "Whitman, A. Study," written in 1896.

A record of the early writings of Mr. Burroughs would not be complete without considering also his ventures into the field of poetry. In the summer of 1860 he wrote and printed his first verses (with the exception of some still earlier ones written in 1856 to the sweetheart who became his wife), which were addressed to his friend and comrade E. M. Allen, subsequently the husband of Elizabeth Akers, the author of "Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight." The lines to E. M. A. were printed in the "Saturday Press." Because they are the first of our author's verses to appear in print, I quote them here:—

TO E. M. A.

A change has come over nature Since you and June were here; The sun has turned to the southward Adown the steps of the year.

The grass is ripe in the meadow, And the mowers swing in rhyme; The grain so green on the hillside Is in its golden prime.

No more the breath of the clover Is borne on every breeze, No more the eye of the daisy Is bright on meadow leas.

The bobolink and the swallow Have left for other clime— They mind the sun when he beckons And go with summer's prime.

Buttercups that shone in the meadow Like rifts of golden snow, They, too, have melted and vanished Beneath the summer's glow.

Still at evenfall in the upland The vesper sparrow sings, And the brooklet in the pasture Still waves its glassy rings.

And the lake of fog to the southward With surges white as snow— Still at morn away in the distance I see it ebb and flow.

But a change has come over nature, The youth of the year has gone; A grace from the wood has departed, And a freshness from the dawn.

Another poem, "Loss and Gain," was printed in the New York "Independent" about the same time.


The ship that drops behind the rim Of sea and sky, so pale and dim, Still sails the seas With favored breeze, Where other waves chant ocean's hymn.

The wave that left this shore so wide, And led away the ebbing tide, Is with its host On fairer coast, Bedecked and plumed in all its pride.

The grub I found encased in clay When next I came had slipped away On golden wing, With birds that sing, To mount and soar in sunny day.

No thought or hope can e'er be lost— The spring will come in spite of frost. Go crop the branch Of maple stanch, The root will gain what you exhaust.

The man is formed as ground he tills— Decay and death lie 'neath his sills. The storm that beats, And solar heats, Have helped to form whereon he builds.

Successive crops that lived and grew, And drank the air, the light, the dew, And then deceased, His soil increased In strength, and depth, and richness, too.

From slow decay the ages grow, From blood and crime the centuries blow, What disappears Beneath the years, Will mount again as grain we sow.

These rather commonplace verses, the first showing his love for comrades, the others his philosophical bent, were the forerunners of that poem of Mr. Burroughs's—"Waiting"—which has become a household treasure, often without the ones who cherish it knowing its source. "Waiting" was Written in the fall of 1862. In response to my inquiry as to its genesis, its author said:—

I was reading medicine in the office of a country doctor at the time and was in a rather gloomy and discouraged state of mind. My outlook upon life was anything but encouraging. I was poor. I had no certain means of livelihood. I had married five years before, and, at a venture, I had turned to medicine as a likely solution of my life's problems. The Civil War was raging and that, too, disturbed me. It sounded a call of duty which increased my perturbations; yet something must have said to me, "Courage! all will yet be well. You are bound to have your own, whatever happens." Doubtless this feeling had been nurtured in me by the brave words of Emerson. At any rate, there in a little dingy back room of Dr. Hull's office, I paused in my study of anatomy and wrote "Waiting." I had at that time had some literary correspondence with David A. Wasson whose essays in the "Atlantic" I had read with deep interest. I sent him a copy of the poem. He spoke of it as a vigorous piece of work, but seemed to see no special merit in it. I then sent it to "Knickerbocker's Magazine," where it was printed, in December, I think, in 1862. It attracted no attention, and was almost forgotten by me till many years afterwards when it appeared in Whittier's "Songs of Three Centuries." This indorsement by Whittier gave it vogue. It began to be copied by newspapers and religious Journals, and it has been traveling on the wings of public print ever since. I do not think it has any great poetic merit. The secret of its success is its serious religious strain, or what people interpret as such. It embodies a very comfortable optimistic philosophy which it chants in a solemn, psalm-like voice. Its sincerity carries conviction. It voices absolute faith and trust in what, in the language of our fathers, would be called the ways of God with man. I have often told persons, when they have questioned me about the poem, that I came of the Old School Baptist stock, and that these verses show what form the old Calvinistic doctrine took in me.

Let me quote here the letter which Mr. Wasson wrote to the author of "Waiting," on receiving the first autograph copy of it ever written:—

Worcester, Dec. 22,1862.

Mr. Burroughs,—

My Dear Sir,—I beg your pardon a thousand times for having neglected so long to acknowledge the letter containing your vigorous verses. Excess of work, and then a dash of illness consequent upon this excess, must be my excuse—by your kind allowance.

The verses are vigorous and flowing, good in sentiment, and certainly worthy of being sent to "some paper," if you like to print them. On the other hand, they do not indicate to me that you have any special call to write verse. A man of your ability and fineness of structure must necessarily be enough of a poet not to fail altogether in use of the poetical form. But all that I know of you indicates a predominance of reflective intellect—a habit of mind quite foreign from the lyrical. I think it may be very good practice to compose in verse, as it exercises you in terse and rhythmical expression; but I question whether your vocation lies in that direction.

After all, you must not let anything which I, or any one, may say stand in your way, if you feel any clear leading of your genius in a given direction. What I have said is designed to guard you against an expenditure of power and hope in directions that may yield you but a partial harvest, when the same ought to be sown on more fruitful fields. I think you have unusual reflective power; and I am sure that in time you will find time and occasion for its exercise, and will accomplish some honorable tasks.

Very truly yours,

D. A. Wasson

It maybe fancy on my part, but I have a feeling that, all unconsciously to Mr. Burroughs, a sentence or two in Mr. Wasson's letter of September 29, 1862, had something to do with inspiring the mood of trustfulness and the attitude of waiting in serenity, which gave birth to this poem:—

... The book, too, all in good season. Life for you is very long, and you can take your time. Take it by all means. Give yourself large leisure to do your best.

Whether or not this is so, I am sure the sympathy and understanding of such a man as Mr. Wasson was a godsend to our struggling writer, and was one of the most beautiful instances in his life of "his own" coming to him.

"Waiting" seems to have gone all over the world. It has been several times set to music, and its authorship has even been claimed by others. It has been parodied, more's the pity; and spurious stanzas have occasionally been appended to it; while an inferior stanza, which the author dropped years ago, is from time to time resurrected by certain insistent ones. Originally, it had seven stanzas; the sixth, discarded by its author, ran as follows:—

You flowret, nodding in the wind, Is ready plighted to the bee; And, maiden, why that look unkind? For, lo! thy lover seeketh thee.

This stanza is a detraction from the poem as we know it, and assuredly its author has a right to drop it. Concerning the fifth stanza, Mr. Burroughs says he has never liked it, and has often substituted one which he wrote a few years ago. The stanza he would reject is—

The waters know their own and draw The brook that springs in yonder heights; So flows the good with equal law Unto the soul of pure delights.

The one he would offer instead—

The law of love binds every heart, And knits it to its utmost kin, Nor can our lives flow long apart From souls our secret souls would win.

And yet he is not satisfied with this; he says it is too subtle and lacks the large, simple imagery of the original lines.

The legion who cherish this poem in their hearts are justly incensed whenever they come across a copy of it to which some one, a few years ago, had the effrontery to add this inane stanza:—

Serene I fold my hands and wait, Whate'er the storms of life may be, Faith guides me up to heaven's gate, And love will bring my own to me.

One of Mr. Burroughs's friends (Joel Benton), himself a poet, in an article tracing the vicissitudes of this poem, shows pardonable indignation at the "impudence and hardihood of the unmannered meddler" who tacked on the "heaven's gate" stanza, and adds:—

The lyric as Burroughs wrote it embodies a motive, or concept, that has scarcely been surpassed for amenability to poetic treatment, and for touching and impressive point. Its partly elusive outlines add to its charm. Its balance between hint and affirmation; its faith in universal forces, and its tender yet virile expression, are all shining qualities, apparent to the critical, and hypnotic to the general, reader. There is nothing in it that need even stop at "heaven's gate." It permits the deserving reader by happy instinct to go through that portal—without waiting outside to parade his sect mark. But the force of the poem and catholicity of its sanctions are either utterly destroyed or ridiculously enfeebled, by capping it with a sectarian and narrowly interpreted climax.

Although the poem is so well known, I shall quote it here in the form preferred by its author;—


Serene, I fold my hands and wait, Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea; I rave no more 'gainst time or fate, For lo! my own shall come to me.

I stay my haste, I make delays, For what avails this eager pace? I stand amid th' eternal ways, And what is mine shall know my face.

Asleep, awake, by night or day, The friends I seek are seeking me; No wind can drive my bark astray, Nor change the tide of destiny.

What matter if I stand alone? I wait with joy the coming years; My heart shall reap where it hath sown, And garner up its fruit of tears.

The waters know their own and draw The brook that springs in yonder heights; So flows the good with equal law Unto the soul of pure delights.

The stars come nightly to the sky, The tidal wave comes to the sea; Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high, Can keep my own away from me.


"Come and go to Slabsides for over Sunday—I think we can keep warm. We will have an old-fashioned time; I will roast a duck in the pot; it will be great fun."

This invitation came from Mr. Burroughs in 1911 to friends who proposed to call on him early in December. Riverby was closed for the season, its occupants tarrying in Poughkeepsie, but, ever ready for an adventure, the Sage of Slabsides proposed a winter picnic at his cabin in the hills.

A ride of some two hours from New York brings us to West Park, where our host awaits us. A stranger, glancing at his white hair and beard, might credit his seventy-five years, but not when looking at his ruddy face with the keen, bright eyes, or at his alert, vigorous movements.

Together with blankets and a market-basket of provisions we are stowed away in a wagon and driven up the steep, winding way; at first along a country road, then into a wood's road with huge Silurian rocks cropping out everywhere, showing here and there seams of quartz and patches of moss and ferns.

"In there," said Mr. Burroughs, pointing to an obscure path, "I had a partridge for a neighbor. She had a nest there. I went to see her every day till she became uneasy about it, and let me know I was no longer welcome."

"Yonder," he continued, indicating a range of wooded hills against the wintry sky, "is the classic region of 'Popple Town Hill,' and over there is 'Pang Yang.'"

Some friendly spirit has preceded us to the cabin; a fire is burning in the great stone fireplace, and mattresses and bedding are exposed to the heat. Moving these away, the host makes room for us near the hearth. He piles on the wood, and we are soon permeated by the warmth of the fire and of the unostentatious hospitality of Slabsides.

How good it is to be here! The city, with its rush and roar and complexities, seems far away. How satisfying it is to strip off the husks and get at the kernel of things! There is more chance for high thinking when one is big enough to have plain living. How we surround ourselves with non-essentials, how we are dominated with the "mania of owning things"—one feels all this afresh in looking around at this simple, well-built cabin with its few needful things close at hand, and with life reduced to the simplest terms. One sees here exemplified the creed Mr. Burroughs outlined several years ago in his essay "An Outlook upon Life":—

I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good.... I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living. Many persons know the luxury of a skin bath—a plunge in the pool or the wave unhampered by clothing. That is the simple life—direct and immediate contact with things, life with the false wrappings torn away—the fine house, the fine equipage, the expensive habits, all cut off. How free one feels, how good the elements taste, how close one gets to them, how they fit one's body and one's soul! To see the fire that warms you, or better yet, to cut the wood that feeds the fire that warms you; to see the spring where the water bubbles up that slakes your thirst, and to dip your pail into it; to see the beams that are the stay of your four walls, and the timbers that uphold the roof that shelters you; to be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird's nest, or over a wild flower in spring—these are some of the rewards of the simple life.

(Illustration of The Living-Room. From a photograph by M. H. Fanning)

The two men were soon talking companionably. When persons of wide reading and reflection, and of philosophic bent, who have lived long and been mellowed by life, come together, the interchange of thought is bound to be valuable; things are so well said, so inevitably said, that the listener thinks he cannot forget the manner of saying; but thoughts crowd thick and fast, comments on men and measures, on books and events, are numerous and varied, but hard to recapture. The logs ignite, sending out their cheering heat, the coals glow, the sparks fly upward, warmth and radiance envelop us; but an attempt to warm the reader by the glow of that fireside talk is almost as futile as an effort to dispel to-day's cold by the fire of yesterday.

A few deserted cottages perched on the rocks near by show us where the summer neighbors of our host live, but at all seasons his wild neighbors are the ones he hobnobs with the most; while his indoor companions are Montaigne, Sainte-Beuve, Carlyle, Arnold, Wordsworth, Darwin, Huxley, Emerson, Whitman, Bergson, and many others, ancient and modern.

"I've been rereading Emerson's essay on 'Immortality' lately, evenings in my study down there by the river," said Mr. Burroughs. "I had forgotten it was so noble and fine—he makes much of the idea of permanence."

In this connection he spoke of John Fiske and his contributions to literature, telling of the surprise he felt on first meeting Fiske at Harvard, to see the look of the bon vivant in one in whom the intellectual and the spiritual were so prominent. Laughing, he recalled the amusement of the college boys at Fiske's comical efforts to discover a piece of chalk dropped during his lecture on "Immortality." Standing on the hearth, a merry twinkle in his eyes, he recited some humorous lines which he had written concerning the episode.

Reverting to the question of immortality in a serious vein, he summed up the debated question much as he has done in one of his essays,—that it has been good to be here, and will be good to go hence; that we know not whence we come, nor whither we go; were not consulted as to our coming, and shall not be as to our going; but that it is all good; all for "the glory of God;" though we must use this phrase in a larger sense than the cramped interpretation of the theologian. All the teeming life of the globe, the millions on millions in the microscopic world, and the millions on millions of creatures that can be seen by the naked eye—those who have been swept away, those here now, those who will come after—all appearing in their appointed time and place, playing their parts and vanishing, and to the old question "Why?" we may as well answer, "For the glory of God"; if we will only conceive a big enough glory, and a big enough God. His utter trust in things as they are seemed a living embodiment of that sublime line in "Waiting"—

"I stand amid the Eternal ways";

and, thus standing, he is content to let the powers that be have their way with him.

"To all these mysteries I fall back upon the last words I heard Whitman say, shortly before the end—commonplace words, but they sum it up: 'It's all right, John, it's all right'; but Whitman had the active, sustaining faith in immortality—

'I laugh at what you call dissolution, And I know the amplitude of time.'"

As the afternoon wanes, Mr. Burroughs hangs the kettle on the crane, broils the chops, and with a little help from one of the guests, soon has supper on the table, a discussion of Bergson's philosophy suffering only occasional interruptions; such as, "Where have those women (summer occupants of Slabsides) put my holder?" or, "See if there isn't some salt in the cupboard."

"There! I forgot to bring up eggs for breakfast, but here are other things," he mutters as he rummages in his market-basket. "That memory of mine is pretty tricky; sometimes I can't remember things any better than I can find them when they are right under my nose. I've just found a line from Emerson that I've been hunting for two days—'The worm striving to be man.' I looked my Emerson through and through, and no worm; then I found in Joel Benton's Concordance of Emerson that the line was in 'May-Day'; he even cited the page, but my Emerson had no printing on that page. I searched all through 'May-Day,' and still no worm; I looked again with no better success, and was on the point of giving up when I spied the worm—it almost escaped me—"

"It must have turned, didn't it?"

"Yes, the worm surely turned, or I never should have seen it," he confessed.

The feminine member of the trio wields the dish-mop while the host dries the dishes, and the Dreamer before the fire luxuriates in the thought that his help is not needed.

The talk on philosophy and religion does not make the host forget to warm sheets and blankets and put hot bricks in the beds to insure against the fast-gathering cold.

The firelight flickers on the bark-covered rafters, lighting up the yellow-birch partition between living-room and bedroom downstairs, and plays upon the rustic stairway that leads to the two rooms overhead, as we sit before the hearth in quiet talk. Outside the moonlight floods the great open space around the cabin, revealing outlines of the rocky inclosure. No sounds in all that stillness without, and within only the low voices of the friends, and the singing logs.

Mr. Burroughs tells of his visit, in October, to the graves of his maternal grandparents:—

"They died in 1854, my first season away from home, and there they have lain for fifty-seven years, and I had never been to their graves! I'm glad I went; it made them live again for me. How plainly I could see the little man in his blue coat with brass buttons, with his decidedly Irish features! And Grandmother, a stout woman, with quaint, homely ways. The moss is on their gravestones now, and two evergreen trees wax strong above them. I found an indigo-bird had built her nest above their graves. I broke off the branch and brought it home."

"There! get up and use that water before it freezes over," the host calls out the next morning, as, mounting the stairs, he places a pitcher of hot water by the door. It is bitter cold, one's fingers ache, and one wonders if, after all, it is so much fun to live in a cabin in the woods in the dead of winter. But a crackling fire below and savory smells of bacon and coffee reconcile one, and the day begins right merrily.

And what a dinner the author sets before us! what fun to see him prepare it, discussing meanwhile the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, recounting anecdotes of boyhood, touching on politics and religion, on current events, on conflicting views of the vitalists and the chemico-physicists, on this and on that, but never to the detriment of his duck. It is true he did serenely fold his hands and wait, between times. Then what an event to see him lift the smoking cover and try the bird with a fork—" to see if the duck is relenting," he explains. At a certain time he arises from a grave psychological discussion to rake out hollow places in the coals where he buries potatoes and onions.

"The baking of an onion," he declares, "takes all the conceit out of him. He is sweet and humble after his baptism of fire." Then the talk soars above ducks and onions, until he gives one of the idlers permission to prepare the salad and lay the table.

For a dinner to remember all one's days, commend me to a thoroughly relented duck; a mealy, ash-baked potato; an onion (yea, several of them) devoid of conceit, and well buttered and salted; and a salad of Slabsides celery and lettuce; with Riverby apples and pears, and beechnuts to complete the feast—beechnuts gathered in October up in the Catskills, gathered one by one as the chipmunk gathers them, by the "Laird of Woodchuck Lodge," as he is called on his native heath, though he is one and the same with the master of Slabsides.

We hear no sounds all the day outside the cabin but the merry calls of chickadees, until in mid-afternoon an unwelcome "Halloa!" tells us the wagon is come to take us down to Riverby. Reluctantly the fire is extinguished, and the wide, hospitable door of Slabsides closes behind us.

Riverby, "the house that Jack built," as the builder boasted, is a house interesting and individual, though conforming somewhat to the conventions of the time when it was built (1874). It is as immaculate within as its presiding genius can make it, presenting a sharp contrast to the easy-going housekeeping of the mountain cabin.

We tarry a few minutes in the little bark-covered study, detached from the house and overlooking the Hudson, where Mr. Burroughs does his writing when at home; we see the rustic summer-house near by, and the Riverby vineyards, formerly husbanded by "the Vine-Dresser of Esopus," as his friends used to call him; now by his son Julian, who combines, like his father before him, grape-growing with essay-writing.

A pleasant hour is spent in the artistic little cottage, planned and built by the author and his son, where live Mr. Julian Burroughs and his family. Here the grandfather has many a frolic with his three grandchildren, who know him as "Baba." John Burroughs the younger is his special pride. Who knows but the naturalist stands somewhat in awe of his grandson?—for as the youngster reaches for his "Teddy," and says sententiously, "Bear!" the elder never ventures a word about the dangers of "sham natural history."

Boarding the West Shore train, laden with fruit and beechnuts and pleasant memories, we return to the city's roar and whirl, dreaming still of the calls of chickadees in the bare woods and of quiet hours before the fire at Slabsides.


There has always been a haunting suggestiveness to me about the expression Rue du Temps Perdu—the Street of Lost Time. Down this shadowy vista we all come to peer with tear-dimmed eyes sooner or later. Usually this pensive retrospection is the premonitory sign that one is nearing the last milestone before the downhill side of life begins. But to some this yearning backward glance comes early; they feel its compelling power while still in the vigor of middle life. Why this is so it is not easy to say, but imaginative, brooding natures who live much in their emotions are prone to this chronic homesickness for the Past, this ever-recurring, mournful retrospect, this tender, wistful gaze into the years that are no more.

It is this tendency in us all as we grow older that makes us drift back to the scenes of our youth; it satisfies a deep-seated want to look again upon the once familiar places. We seek them out with an eagerness wholly wanting in ordinary pursuits. The face of the fields, the hills, the streams, the house where one was born—how they are invested with something that exists nowhere else, wander where we will! In their midst memories come crowding thick and fast; things of moment, critical episodes, are mingled with the most trivial happenings; smiles and tears and sighs are curiously blended as we stroll down the Street of Lost Time.

While we are all more or less under this spell of the Past, some natures are more particularly enthralled by it, even in the very zenith of life, showing it to be of temperamental origin rather than the outcome of the passing years. Of such a temperament is John Burroughs. Now, when the snows of five-and-seventy winters have whitened his head, we do not wonder when we hear him say, "Ah! the Past! the Past has such a hold on me!" But even before middle life he experienced this yearning, even then confessed that he had for many years viewed everything in the light of the afternoon's sun—"a little faded and diluted, and with a pensive tinge." "It almost amounts to a disease," he reflects, "this homesickness which home cannot cure—a strange complaint. Sometimes when away from the old scenes it seems as if I must go back to them, as if I should find the old contentment and satisfaction there in the circle of the hills. But I know I should not—the soul's thirst can never be slaked. My hunger is the hunger of the imagination. Bring all my dead back again, and place me amid them in the old home, and a vague longing and regret would still possess me."

As early as his forty-fifth birthday he wrote in his Journal: "Indeed, the Past begins to grow at my back like a great pack, and it seems as if it would overwhelm me quite before I get to be really an old man. As time passes, the world becomes more and more a Golgotha,—a place of graves,—even if one does not actually lose by death his friends and kindred. The days do not merely pass, we bury them; they are of us, like us, and in them we bury our own image, a real part of ourselves." Perhaps, among the poems of Mr. Burroughs, next to "Waiting" the verses that have the most universal appeal are those of—


He sought the old scenes with eager feet— The scenes he had known as a boy; "Oh, for a draught of those fountains sweet, And a taste of that vanished joy!"

He roamed the fields, he wooed the streams, His school-boy paths essayed to trace; The orchard ways recalled his dreams, The hills were like his mother's face.

Oh, sad, sad hills! Oh, cold, cold hearth! In sorrow he learned this truth— One may return to the place of his birth, He cannot go back to his youth.

But a half-loaf is better than no bread, and Mr. Burroughs has now yielded to this deep-seated longing for his boyhood scenes, and has gone back to the place of his birth amid the Catskills; and one who sees him there during the midsummer days—alert, energetic, curious concerning the life about him—is almost inclined to think he has literally gone back to his youth as well, for the boy in him is always coming to the surface.

It was on the watershed of the Pepacton (the East Branch of the Delaware), in the town of Roxbury, Delaware County, New York, that John Burroughs was born, and there that he gathered much of the harvest of his earlier books; it was there also that most of his more recent books were written. Although he left the old scenes in his youth, his heart has always been there. He went back many years ago and named one of his books ("Pepacton") from the old stream, and he has now gone back and arranged for himself a simple summer home on the farm where he first saw the light.

Most of his readers have heard much of Slabsides, the cabin in the wooded hills back of the Hudson, and of his conventional home, Riverby, at West Park, New York; but as yet the public has heard little of his more remote retreat on his native heath.

(Illustration of Woodchuck Lodge and Barn. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott)

For several years it has been his custom to slip away to the old home in Delaware County on one pretext or another—to boil sap in the old sugar bush and rejoice in the April frolic of the robins; to meander up Montgomery Hollow for trout; to gather wild strawberries in the June meadows and hobnob with the bobolinks; to saunter in the hemlocks in quest of old friends in the tree-tops; and—yes, truth compels me to confess—to sit in the fields with rifle in hand and wage war against the burrowing woodchuck which is such a menace to the clover and vegetables of the farmer.

In the summer of 1908, Mr. Burroughs rescued an old dwelling fast going to decay which stood on the farm a half-mile from the Burroughs homestead, and there, with friends, camped out for a few weeks, calling the place, because of the neighbors who most frequented it, "Camp Monax," or, in homelier language, "Woodchuck Lodge." In the succeeding summers he has spent most of his time there. Though repairing and adding many improvements, he has preserved the simple, primitive character of the old house, has built a roomy veranda across its front, made tables, bookcases, and other furniture of simple rustic character, and there in summer he dwells with a few friends, as contented and serene a man as can be found in this complicated world of to-day. There his old friends seek him out, and new ones come to greet him. Artists and sculptors paint and model him, and photographers carry away souvenirs of their pilgrimages.

In order to withdraw himself completely during his working hours from the domestic life, Mr. Burroughs instituted a study in the hay-barn, a few rods up the hill from the house. A rough box, the top of which is covered with manilla paper, an old hickory chair, and a hammock constitute his furnishings. The hay carpet and overflowing haymows yield a fragrance most acceptable to him, and through the great doorway he looks out upon the unfrequented road and up to Old Clump, the mountain in the lap of which his father's farm is cradled, the mountain which he used to climb to salt the sheep, the mountain which is the haunt of the hermit thrush. (His nieces and nephews at the old home always speak of this songster as "Uncle John's bird.")

(Illustration of Mr. Burroughs in the Hay-Barn Study, Woodchuck Lodge. From a photograph by R. J. H. DeLoach)

As I watched Mr. Burroughs start out morning after morning with his market-basket of manuscripts on his arm, and briskly walk to his rude study, I asked myself, "Is there another literary man anywhere, now that Tolstoy has gone, who is so absolutely simple and unostentatious in tastes and practice as is John Burroughs?" How he has learned to strip away the husks and get at the kernels! How superbly he ignores non-essentials! how free he is from the tyranny of things! There in the comfort of the hills among which his life began, with his friends around him, he rejoices in the ever-changing face of Nature, enjoys the fruits of his garden, his forenoons of work, and the afternoons when friends from near and far walk across the fields, or drive, or motor up to Woodchuck Lodge; and best of all, he enjoys the peace that evening brings—those late afternoon hours when the shadow of Old Clump is thrown on the broad mountain-slope across the valley, and when the long, silvery notes of the vesper sparrow chant "Peace, goodwill, and then good-night." As the shadows deepen, he is wont to carry his Victor out to the stone wall and let the music from Brahms's "Cradle Song" or Schubert's "Serenade" float to us as we sit on the veranda, hushed into humble gratitude for our share in this quiet life.

To see Mr. Burroughs daily amid these scenes; to realize how they are a part of him, and how inimitably he has transferred them to his books; to roam over the pastures, follow the spring paths, linger by the stone walls he helped to build, sit with him on the big rock in the meadow where as a boy he sat and dreamed; to see him in the everyday life—hoeing in the garden, tiptoeing about the house preparing breakfast while his guests are lazily dozing on the veranda; to eat his corn-cakes, or the rice-flour pudding with its wild strawberry accompaniment; to see him rocking his grandson in the old blue cradle in which he himself was rocked; to picnic in the beech woods with him, climb toward Old Clump at sunset and catch the far-away notes of the hermit; to loll in the hammocks under the apple trees, or to sit in the glow of the Franklin stove of a cool September evening while he and other philosophic or scientific friends discuss weighty themes; to hear his sane, wise, and often humorous comments on the daily papers, and his absolutely independent criticism of books and magazines—to witness and experience all this, and more, is to enjoy a privilege so rare that I feel selfish unless I try to share it, in a measure, with less fortunate friends of Our Friend.

(Illustration of Cradle in which John Burroughs was rocked. From a photograph by Dr. John D. Johnson)

It has been my good fortune to spend many delightful summers with Mr. Burroughs at his old home, and also at Woodchuck Lodge. On my first visit he led me to a hilltop and pointed off toward a deep gorge where the Pepacton, although it is a placid stream near Roxbury, rises amid scenery wild and rugged. It drains this high pastoral country, where the farms hang upon the mountainsides or lie across the long, sloping hills. The look of those farms impressed me as the fields of England impressed Mr. Burroughs—"as though upon them had settled an atmosphere of ripe and loving husbandry." I was often reminded in looking upon them of that line of Emerson's: "The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the wide, warm fields." There is a fresh, blue, cleansed appearance to the hills, "like a newly-washed lamp chimney," as Mr. Burroughs sometimes said.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse