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Compassion is a very untenable ground: Thoreau’s Dead Horse

December 12, 2010

Daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (1856).

Toward the end of Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden falls this remarkable passage:

Title page, first edition. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854.

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this. I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp—tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal. Compassion is a very untenable ground. It must be expeditious. Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.”

“Compassion is a very untenable ground,” Thoreau says. “It must be expeditious.” “Expedite,” from the Latin “expedere,” literally means: to remove the fetters from a person’s ankles, where the morpheme “ped-” of course has to do with feet (hence its antonym, “impede”). From this we have, for “expedite,” Oxford English Dictionary sense 1: “To clear of difficulties; to clear up (confusion); to facilitate (action or movement); to disentangle, untie (a knot).” Why must our “compassion” be expeditious, which is to say quick and fleet? Because it always stands on “untenable grounds,” grounds which cannot be held (“tenable” deriving from the Latin “tenere,” or “to hold”). To compassionate, as the now disused verb has it, is to “suffer with” (com-, or “with” + pati-, or “suffer,” from which root we have also the word “patience,” e.g.). I go into such nervous detail for good reason. Thoreau is up to his usual verbal excavations in this passage, as also with “stereotyped.” The word belongs to the technology of printing, of course, as in O.E.D. sense 1 for “stereotype” (noun): “The method or process of printing in which a solid plate or type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type, is used for printing from instead of the forme itself.” From which we get the figurative extensions more familiar to most readers (O.E.D. senses 3a-b): “Something continued or constantly repeated without change; a stereotyped phrase, formula, etc.; stereotyped diction or usage. A preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.; an attitude based on such a preconception. Also, a person who appears to conform closely to the idea of a type.”

But let us speak of the earth’s tonic appetite for dead horses, and of good cheer and carrion. Thoreau makes a simple but (to some) unsettling point. You cannot hold to compassion generally, or in the abstract, or at all times, and for all creatures. “Compassion” must be particularized and highly contingent (i.e., never “stereotyped”). We may well mourn the death of some particular person, say, but we cannot, or should not, or perhaps must not, mourn “death.” We must love it. Death, “decay,” “shipwreck”—those points at which a certain incalculable “wildness” touches our lives—are not really to regretted. They should buck us up. Nature is “rife with life.” So “we are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” That last word suits the turn perfectly. Carrion as “repast,” in O.E.D. senses 2a-2b: “A quantity of food and drink forming or intended for a meal or feast. b.fig. As the type of something providing nourishment for the spirit, intellect, etc.” Or why not put the word into its verbal form, the better to get the whole of it? O.E.D. sense 1: “trans. (refl.). To refresh oneself with food and drink. Also fig. Obs.” Nothing like carrion for a good, healthy repast, at least if you take the long view. It slakes the “appetite” of Nature, and testifies to its “inviolable health.” As it is for Walt Whitman, so it is for Thoreau: death is a kind of solace, the very sign of what we mistake for its opposite—vitality. And so we “love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another.” What pleasanter than that this should be so?

Thoreau loves this sort of paradox and provocation: poison is not poison, no wounds are fatal, compassion is “untenable.” Dropping in a word such as “expeditious” here perfects the business. Get on with your compassion. Don’t let it stay in any one place. Don’t fix it, and above all don’t abstract it from the grosser realities. This is what sets Thoreau apart from, say, Whitman: the sheer particularity of the dead things he takes his good cheer from. That horse, for example. “There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this.” Sure, the carcass stank, such that not even Thoreau could hold to his path at times. But how reassuring it all was, and what rich “compensations” it bore. Whitman writes, in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark,

Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward . . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

Walt Whitman, in the engraving that appeared in the 1855 edition of "Leaves of Grass."

All well and good, I say. But all too tenable in its easier disposition, even to the point of stereotype. I mean no aspersion: the lines have their perfect beauty in other registers, and Whitman is of course no rebarbative writer, as Thoreau, at times, can be. As in the following, which comes early in Walden: “I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another’s brass, for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying, and buried by this other’s brass; always promising to pay, promising to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent; seeking to curry favor, to get custom, by how many modes, only not state-prison offenses; lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him.” Hardly the tone Whitman strikes, and hardly the implied relation to the reader that Whitman seeks: “I CELEBRATE myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And so the difference between the two writers stands, mutatis mutandis, in the paragraph about Thoreau’s dead horse, and that passage about “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

For example, compare the long meditation just quoted from Leaves of Grass, in its tone, and in its (lack of) particularity, to what Thoreau gives us, in addition to that vulture and that stinking dead horse: “Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp—tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood!” Thoreau never beats his dead horse into in-particularity, so to speak; it remains a stinking dead horse, nothing at all like “the breasts of young men,” or “offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,” which latter two phrases work well, here, precisely because they are so highly generalized. (I set aside the particularities of Whitman’s well-known “catalogs”; they do not bear on the matter immediately at hand, which concerns two highly divergent Transcendentalist meditations on death—divergent not in theme, ultimately, but in tone and aspect.)

Thoreau gives us a veritable exaltation of blood, what with his tadpoles “squashed like pulp,” and his road-kill: toads and tortoises crushed by the wheels of carriages. Such that, “with the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.” To the wise man, mind you. Let the unwise hold to their disgust, fear, and horror in the face of dead things and death; let them impede themselves with their “compassion.” Your real Transcendentalist will always move with expedition, because that is the way of vitality. “Death is the mother of beauty,” after all, as Wallace Stevens puts it in “Sunday Morning,” quite without reference to the death of Christ: “Hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams / And our desires.” And yet not even Stevens ever ran so expedited in his relationship to mortality as does Thoreau. “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness,” even though that wildness includes as its tonic note a rotting dead horse, and a vulture at his fine “repast” of carrion (not to mention, again, those shipwrecks).

Incidentally, I wonder, at times, whether in that profusion of toads Thoreau has reference to the plague of frogs God set upon Egypt, on record in Exodus 8:2-6: “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs: And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneadingtroughs: And the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.And the LORD spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch forth thine hand with thy rod over the streams, over the rivers, and over the ponds, and cause frogs to come up upon the land of Egypt. And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up, and covered the land of Egypt.” With the difference that what is a plague and an appalling retribution in Exodus becomes, in Walden, a sign of the “universal innocence” of a highly “appetitious” world in which no wounds are ever fatal, and not a poison exists but has its great, satisfying, and “tonic” “compensations.” And on that note I end my own repast.

N.B. For another brief discussion of Thoreau’s prose style within The Era of Casual Fridays, click here. For all entries within these pages that discuss prose style, click here. For an entry in the web-lob “American Environmental Writing” that treats Thoreau’s dead horse in connection with Annie Dillard, click here. I add as a final note that the spell-checker/style-checker within WordPress rebukes H.D. Thoreau for having used a “cliché” in one of the passages quoted above: to “curry favor.” To what undergraduate pass have we come in our technology?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tito permalink
    January 23, 2011 12:12 AM

    A passionate passage indeed. Thank you for this post.
    Yes, growing up in the English countryside, as I did, the fells and downs offered plenty of thistles rising through the eye-sockets of dead sheep, and so forth. The soil holds a record of it all. Did Thoreau ever ‘wax lyrical’ about soil or rocks?
    There was an exhibition at the Kyoto Arts Center a few years ago of the soils of Kansai. The ‘artist’, Koichi Kurita, spoke of it containing all of life – human, animal, vegetable, mineral. When dried and sieved and lined up beside each other, what wonderful colours! Each locality, distinctive. But it is the rocks that preserve thought, I feel.
    For ‘the tonic of wilderness’, come to Mount Ogura with me this spring?

    • January 23, 2011 12:39 AM

      Hi Tito,

      For Thoreau on mountains and rocks, cf. his “Mt. Ktaadin” (collected in “The Maine Woods”). Here’s one passage from the last section of the essay:

      ‘Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain. We were passing over “Burnt Lands,” burnt by lightning, perchance, though they showed no recent marks of fire, hardly so much as a charred stump, but looked rather like a natural pasture for the moose and deer, exceedingly wild and desolate, with occasional strips of timber crossing them, and low poplars springing up, and patches of blueberries here and there. I found myself traversing them familiarly, like some pasture run to waste, or partially reclaimed by man; but when I reflected what man, what brother or sister or kinsman of our race made it and claimed it, I expected the proprietor to rise up and dispute my passage. It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, — not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, — no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, — the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we.’

  2. John Lancaster permalink
    January 23, 2011 12:58 AM

    I am particularly taken with the Google ads that have appended themselves: for Walden University, for “Earn a Bible Degree,” for “Death Quotes,” and then for simply “Online Degree Programs.” The first three are fairly easy to explain; is the fourth triggered by inclusion of “undergraduate”?

    • January 23, 2011 1:37 AM

      Hi John,

      I had no idea that ads popped up for readers of this ‘blog. I never see any. Perhaps that’s because I am always logged in as administrator? I’ll look into that. But if an entry on Thoreau sends someone off to earn a Bible degree, perhaps “on-line,” let him write his thesis on “death quotes.”

      Yours,
      Mark

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