Gay Wisdom – Thoreau


Today is the birthday of naturalist and transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau (born 1817).  Famous for his writings Walden and Civil Disobedience, historians such as Jonathan Ned Katz have written about Thoreau’s deep attachments to male friends throughout his life. 

Like Whitman and Emerson, much of Thoreau’s meditations on the higher meaning of male friendships can be found in his writing, specifically Thoreau’s notebooks which he kept throughout his life.

From Thoreau’s Notebooks:

[Nov. 5, 1839]
These young buds of manhood in the streets are like buttercups in the meadows, —surrendered to nature as they.

On June 17, 1839, Edmund Sewall of Scituate visited Concord for a week. After five days of sailing and hiking with Edmund, the twenty-two-year- old Thoreau fell in love with him, writing in his journal:

[June 22, 1839] Saturday. I have within the last few days come into contact with a pure, uncompromising spirit, that is somewhere wandering in the atmosphere, but settles not positively anywhere. . . . Such [spirits] it is impossible not to love; still is their loveliness, as it were, independent of them, so that you seem not to lose it when they are absent, for when they are near it is like an invisible presence which attends you.

Two days later, after Edmund’s departure, Thoreau writes a love poem.

[June 24, 1839]
Lately, alas, I knew a gentle boy,
Whose features all were cast in Virtue’s mould,
As one she had designed for Beauty’s toy,
But after manned him for her own stronghold.
On every side he open was as day,
That you might see no lack of strength within,
For walls and ports do only serve alway
For a pretense to feebleness and sin.
Say not that Caesar was victorious,
With toil and strife who stormed the House of Fame,
In other sense this youth was glorious,
Himself a kingdom wheresoe’er he came.
No strength went out to get him victory,
When all was income of its own accord;
For where he went none other was to see,
But all were parcel of their noble lord.
He forayed like the subtile haze of summer,
That stilly shows fresh landscapes to our eyes,
And revolutions works without a murmur,
Or rustling of a leaf beneath the skies..
So was I taken unawares by this,
I quite forgot my homage to confess;
Yet now am forced to know, though hard it is,
I might have loved him had I loved him less.
Each moment as we nearer drew to each,
A stern respect withheld us farther yet,
So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,
And less acquainted than when first we met.
We two were one while we did sympathize,
So could we not the simplest bargain drive;
And what avails it now that we are wise,
If absence doth this doubleness contrive?
Eternity may not the chance repeat,
But I must tread my single way alone,
In sad remembrance that we once did meet,
And know that bliss irrevocably gone.
The spheres henceforth my elegy shall sing,
For elegy has other subject none;
Each strain of music in my ears shall ring
Knell of departure from that other one.
Make haste and celebrate my tragedy;
With fitting strain resound ye woods and fields;
Sorrow is dearer in such case to me
Than all the joys other occasion yields.
Is’t then too late the damage to repair?
Distance, forsooth, from my weak grasp hath reft
The empty husk, and clutched the useless tare,
But in my hands the wheat and kernel left.
If I but love that virtue which he is,
Though it be scented in the morning air,
Still shall we be truest acquaintances,
Nor mortals know a sympathy more rare.
from Jonathan Ned Katz’s Gay American History, Meridian, 1992. pp. 481-494

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