Walden excerpt - Mercer Island School District

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Stafford/American Literature/Transcendentalists
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From Walden by Henry David Thoreau
 I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of
life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I
had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to
practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the
marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a
broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if
it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its
meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a
true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange
uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded
that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into
men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our
best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered
away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in
extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!
1. What does it mean to “live deliberately”? What does Thoreau mean when he says, “I wanted to
live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”?
2. Thoreau began his experiment on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. What is significant about this day?
What could Thoreau be declaring independence from?
3. What does Thoreau mean when he says, “Still we live meanly, like ants”?
4. What does it mean to live “Spartanlike”? Why did Thoreau want to live this way? Think of the
repeated use of “simplicity” at the end of this excerpt?
5. One of Thoreau’s most famous quotes (not in your reading) is “If a man does not keep pace with
his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Discuss a time when you’ve
witnessed or experienced someone marching to the beat of “a different drummer”?
 Walden inspired journal write.
A. Thoreau says he wishes “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…”
What do you consider to be the essential facts of life?
B. What would it mean to you to discover that you had lived? What is the marrow of your life?
C. Below, construct your own “Walden” experience. How would it look? Consider the following:
1) If you were to extract yourself from society, what would you be protesting? This could be societal,
familial, or political?
2) List what “Spartan-like” essentials would you bring with you? Remember that simplicity is your goal, as
is self-reliance.
3) Where would you go to remove yourself, and why would you pick that place?
4) In his concluding chapter of Walden, Thoreau says, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if
one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has
imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind,
will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves
around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal
sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings." "If you have built castles in the air,
your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
What do you imagine you would find? This is, of course, impossible to know, but what might you learn
from your stance, your solitude, your simplicity? Does this seem scary or exciting, or both?
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Chapter 1. Economy - Part A - "No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can
be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some
had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields."
Chapter 1. Economy - Part C - "I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by
Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down
some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber."
Chapter 1. Economy - Part D - "Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to
perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave.
What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners?"
Chapter 2. Where I Lived, & What I Lived for - "Little is to be expected of that day,
if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the
mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired
force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial
music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air — to a higher life than
we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good,
no less than the light."
Chapter 5. Solitude - "This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one
sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty
in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirtsleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to
attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to
usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind
from over the water."
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Chapter 7. The Bean-Field - "Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean
stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, making the yellow soil express
its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper
and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass — this was my daily
work."
Chapter 13. House-Warming - "At length the winter set in good earnest, just as I had
finished plastering, and the wind began to howl around the house as if it had not had
permission to do so till then. Night after night the geese came lumbering in the dark
with a clangor and a whistling of wings, even after the ground was covered with
snow, some to alight in Walden, and some flying low over the woods toward Fair
Haven, bound for Mexico."
Chapter 17. Spring - "One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I
should have leisure and opportunity to see the Spring come in. ... Fogs and rains and
warmer suns are gradually melting the snow; the days have grown sensibly longer;
and I see how I shall get through the winter without adding to my wood-pile, for
large fires are no longer necessary."
In his "Conclusion" chapter of Walden, Thoreau says, "I learned this, at least, by my
experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and
endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success
unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible
boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves
around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor
in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings."
That is what I think freedom really is. He concludes the paragraph: "If you have built
castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put
the foundations under them."
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