Thoreau’s Sentences

I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Journals and posting passages online for the last

couple of weeks, and have enjoyed the first-hand observations of this great

writer from Concord, Massachusetts.  He wrote not only about his daily

walks, his observations of nature and his neighbors, but he also commented

on his readings (mostly in the classics), the politics of the day, made

philosophical reflections, and thought deeply about the nature of writing

itself.  

 

Collected here are several passages in which Thoreau wrote about writing,

about writers and their sentences, which show an interesting progression. 

The first one I stumbled on was from the January 5, 1842 entry:

“I want to see a sentence run clear through to the end, as deep and fertile as a well-drawn furrow which shows that the plow was pressed down to the beam.  If our scholars would lead more earnest lives, we should not witness those lame conclusions to their ill-sown discourses, but their sentences would pass over the ground like loaded rollers, and not mere hollow wooden ones, to press the seed and make it germinate.

A well-built sentence, in the rapidity and force with which it works, may be compared to a modern corn-planter, which furrows out, drops seed, and covers it at one movement.”

 

I love Thoreau’s comparison of writing sentences to plowing furrows and

planting seeds: a sentence should be “as deep and fertile as a well-drawn

furrow.”  His image of “the plow…pressed down to the beam” is carried over

into the next paragraph in the “well-built sentence” having “rapidity and

force.”  Obviously, not all sentences should be rapid and forceful nor straight

as a furrow, as Thoreau knew and addresses in a later journal passage.

 

In March, Thoreau was still thinking about the nature of the sentence as

he continued to work out the writing style that he would later employ in his

longer prose works, including Walden.  On March 18th Thoreau wrote the

following aphorism:

 

“Whatever book or sentence will bear to be read twice, we may be sure was thought twice.”

 

If not rethinking the idea of the “forceful sentence” which he described

in January, Thoreau here is describing a different type of sentence, one

more thoughtful or contemplative perhaps, requiring multiple readings—

this sentence the result of reworking by a more nuanced or philosophical

writer.

 

The next journal reference to the nature of sentences occurs on March 26th:

 

“A book should be a vein of gold ore, as the sentence is a diamond found in the sand, or a pearl fished out of the sea.”

 

Here the sentence seems even more transformed and more distanced from

the straight, forceful furrow in the first entry.  Now the sentence has been

worked on over time and is compared to a “diamond” and a “pearl.”  The

sentence is now something more akin to an aphorism, something brilliant

that catches the eye, something that has been polished and is durable.

 

The next entry seems even further from Thoreau’s original idea of the

sentence quoted above.  This description is longer and comes nearly ten

years later in a lengthy journal passage from August 22, 1851:

“It is the fault of some excellent writers . . . that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail.  They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness.  They do not affect us by an ineffectual earnestness and a reserve of meaning, like a stutterer; they say all they mean.  Their sentences are not concentrated and nutty.  Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression; sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct; to frame these, that is the art of writing. Sentences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; which a man might sell his grounds and castles to build.”

 

First, Thoreau criticizes “excellent” writers whose sentences are “ineffectual”

because “they say all that they mean.  Their sentences are not concentrated

and nutty.”  This image of concentrated and nutty sentences echoes the

sentences like “diamonds” and “pearls,” sentences that are “twice-thought.” 

Then in two twice- or thrice-thought sentences Thoreau describes the “art of

writing” using seven dependent clauses introduced with “which” and 

connected by five semi-colons.  I will separate and list the dependent clauses

below:

 

which suggest far more than they say,

which have an atmosphere about them, 

which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression;

which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct;

which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went; 

which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across;

which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; 

which a man might sell his grounds and castles to build.

 

The art of writing is to frame sentences that are suggestive, that “have an

atmosphere about them,” that “make a new impression,” that “are expensive”

as life, that “lie like boulders on the pages,” that “contain the seed of other

sentences,” that are as valuable as a man’s property.  These final two

sentences illustrate in their structure his idea of sentences “like boulders”

that a reader must navigate a way around or over, and by containing the

“seed of other sentences” lead us back to his original idea of a sentence that

is “deep and fertile” like a furrow in which seed is planted.

 

Thoreau’s Journals are not merely the observations, reflections, and

memories of the writer, but they stand as a complex elaboration of the ideas

and beautifully wrought sentences which were later refined further,

assembled, and published as his well-known prose works.  Thoreau’s

Journals comprise fourteen volumes written between 1837 and 1860 and

published in a two-volume set by Dover Publications, which I purchased

many years ago, but many are collected in less-expensive editions.  I urge

you to delve into them and enjoy the myriad observations of this great

American writer.

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My story began:

 

No one remembers their birth

(but everyone has heard a story about it)

My story began: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

 

I remember my mother telling me about the rain and the wind

on the night I was born in the early morning hours.  (For those

of you interested, she also said I was a bit on the larger side for a

baby; I’d have to look at my birth certificate to “remember” my

weight and length).  I have no way of judging the reliability of this

particular “story” – but, I must concede: my mother should know

better than anyone.  However, it should also be noted that in

San Diego stormy nights in October are uncommon.

 

My memory is that my mother told me this during the time when

the “Peanuts” comic strip featured Snoopy sitting on his doghouse

roof typing the first line of his novel: “It was a dark and stormy night.” 

It may be coincidental, but from this time or earlier, I had dreamed

of being an author.  

 

(Around 1959-1969 when the movie Ben-Hur was winning a record number of Oscars (and I was reading that somewhat difficult novel by General Lew Wallace (I was not yet in junior high at this time), I began typing a novel set during Roman times on an old Remington clunker of a typewriter.  Fortunately (in all likelihood) I have lost those pages somewhere along the way (although I still have a school journal I wrote in 5th grade with a character named Cecil the horsefly, who suffered through numerous adventures, which I shared with my classmates.  We also performed a few scenes from The Iliad that year; I also remember constructing and painting a cardboard sword and shield for my roll as Ajax, Greek hero).

 

But I have digressed.  Be warned that Tristram Shandy is one of my

favorite novels, and I believe that Holden’s numerous digressions that

make Catcher in the Rye an interesting book.

 

The line “World Famous Author” Snoopy types on his doghouse roof

references and mocks the notoriously “florid & melodramatic” opening

line of an 1830 novel by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton;

earlier, in 1809 “It was a dark and stormy night” was used by Washington

Irving.  Thanks to Wikipedia for this information, by the way. 

The line is also used by Madeleine L’Engle in her young adult novel

A Wrinkle in Time, which I was reading with one of my granddaughters

recently (I wonder if she reads this, will she remember us reading it

together? – hmmm).  And, finally, it appears that Joni Mitchell also uses

the line along with several other similar cliches in a song that I do not know.

 

And now – I have used the line – more than once.  And without that

childhood story, I doubt if I ever would have.

fragment #2

 

imagine the same boy 

now a teenager

living in a house in San Diego – 

the same house where he had that early memory of the fire truck . . .

 

He grew up in the upstairs house, the two-story street-level

house above the apartment where he’d lived during his first

one or two years of school (in the meantime, his family had

moved to Oceanside for several years and later returned to

this house in San Diego)

 

On the top floor of that upstairs house were two bedrooms

(one large with many windows facing the street, and one

smaller on the backyard side) and squeezed between the two

a tiny, narrow bathroom with a slanted ceiling (due to the

roofline).  As the oldest child, the boy had the largest bedroom;

he loved its spaciousness, its many windows and two small

balconies (although these were seldom used), and even the

one-window alcove where the bed was ”hidden.”

 

A wide staircase led from a short hall between living room

and dining room to the two upstairs bedrooms. At the bottom

of the stairs, a short divider of paneled wood partially hid

the staircase from the dining room; opposite this paneled wall

was a short rail which wrapped around itself to form a “hollow”

curved newel visible from the living room.  Mounted on a

bracket on top of this circular newel was a cast metal sculpture

with a dark finish of a draped woman holding a torch

(reminiscent of Lady Liberty); the torch-lamp with flame-like,

frosted glass could be lit with a pull chain to light the bottom

of the stairwell.  This beautiful lamp was one of the furnishings

about his home that the boy loved best.

 

At some point, during the years when the boy went off to

college, the sculptured lamp was knocked off its base

(to which it was attached with screws) and damaged beyond

repair.  The boy’s mother always said that the boy had broken

the lamp one night when he came in late while home from

college, but the boy had absolutely no memory of doing such

a thing.  Either he suppressed the memory because it upset

him too much to think that he had damaged this treasured

lamp, or his mother misremembered and ascribed to her son

an act of one of his siblings –  or someone else.  But there’s

no reason why she would do so.

 

The boy, who had plenty of other shameful memories by the

time he was middle-aged, had no idea why this particular

memory should have been “erased,” (presumably out of guilt). 

And no, for those of you thinking the boy had been drinking;

in those days he drank only beer and only at school – never

at home.

 

That newel stood bare and unadorned for many years –

and to the boy it was a recurring accusation

of an alleged misdeed that he could never

remember.

 

Many years later,

the boy (now a man)

purchased a replacement lamp

for his father’s birthday –

a hot air balloon light of multi-colored glass,

the basket a base that attached to the newel.

fragments of a childhood

imagine a boy

playing with a red fire engine

(this is one of his earliest memories) 

either on a carpeted floor inside a screen door

or outside on a stone-paved porch;

 

he has an earlier memory 

of a house with a curved roof, 

which he will later learn was a Quonset hut

on a military base near San Diego, maybe Camp Elliott;

if this is a real memory, 

the boy might have been 3-years old; 

the memory of the fire truck (if it even was a fire truck)

it might have been another type of truck; 

was it made of metal or wood?  the boy doesn’t remember; 

memories can be very unreliable

altered or invented even,

or perhaps transformed as we remember them,

reinvent them

 

the stone-paved porch, 

where the boy may have played with a fire engine,

had brick steps leading up to street-level 

to the two-story main house above;

(the boy will remember this clearly because he will live in this house for many years) 

 

the boy playing with the fire engine might have been 4 years old 

(at age 5 he would attend kindergarten at a school a short walk away) 

this boy lived downstairs from the main house with his mother and father, 

although sometimes his father was gone (because he was in the Marine Corps);

this boy had a sister who was 3 years younger, 

but he doesn’t have memories of her from this time 

 

the boy has another memory from around this time 

of his great-grandmother Hoffmann 

who lived upstairs with his grandmother and grandfather; 

he seems to be on the floor again, 

(probably near the fireplace hearth)

his great-grandmother in a rocking chair by a window

 

each memory a fragment

 

as we grow older 

and as our memories come closer to present day 

the fragments become longer and more detailed; 

we can fill in more gaps,

but our memories remain fragments: 

ordinary moments & beautiful moments, 

sad moments & shameful moments 

 

fragments of our lives:

 

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

– T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

“Too much silence is too much”

(sorry for the long hiatus) – I’m getting myself back into the writing habit with a little transcribing.

 

 

All that goes before forget.

Too much at a time is too much.

That gives the pen time to note.

I don’t see it but I hear it there behind me.

Such is the silence.

When the pen stops I go on.

Sometimes it refuses.

When it refuses I go on.

Too much silence is too much.

Or it’s my voice too weak at times.

The one that comes out of me.

So much for the art and craft.

 

First paragraph (broken into lines) of “Enough” by Samuel Beckett