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May. 12, 2014
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        for Robert D. Richardson, Jr.


You may have known that Thoreau

lost his brother, John, the closest friend he ever had,

his simpatico companion, the one he went with

down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,

the one person with whom

his elm-tree-like tendencies were least.

Tetanus shots didn’t exist yet,

and when John nicked himself while stropping his razor,

the signs of lockjaw soon appeared, and the doctor said,

“No hope.”  He died in agony in Henry’s arms.

A few days later, Henry too had the symptoms,

it was feared that he would die, but it turned out

that it was sympathy, not lockjaw, that he had,

and he recovered.  But he never got over it—why would he?—

the loss of his older brother, his life-long friend.

When he said in Walden, in his half-cheerful, enigmatic way,

“I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove…”

it must have been partly John that he was thinking of.


And you may have known that Emerson

lost his son, Waldo, five years old.

The boy was fine, and then he came down

with scarlet fever, and five days later he was delirious,

and in the evening he died.  Louisa May Alcott,

nine years old, came to the door the next morning

to ask how Waldo was.  Years later she remembered

Emerson coming to the door, so worn with watching

and changed by sorrow that she was startled

and could only stammer her question, and Emerson replied,

“Child, he is dead.”  Years later she wrote,

“That was my first glimpse of a great grief.”

Emerson never got over it—why would he?—

and it was after this that he wrote

the great essays “Experience” and “Fate.”


You may have known about these incidents.  I did, but

I never knew that they both took place in the same month—

January, 1842.  The day that Thoreau recovered

was the day Waldo fell ill.  A hard time in Concord.

Some people are annoyed by their long, demanding sentences,

the grandiosity of their philosophy, so impractical—

always telling us to be more than we are.

I’ve always liked them.  But somehow until I read

about that terrible month, I never grasped  

how much stoicism you need to be an optimist.

They were made of pond water and starry skies, pickerels

and loon cries, large thoughts, blows that knock you

to your knees, extravagantly strong wills.  OK.  

I’ll be that too, or try.  Not to think what they thought,

much as I’m moved by their thinking, but to be what they were—

a sensible thing for a man to be—a Transcendentalist.





Howard Nelson was born in New Jersey in 1947. He was educated at Gettysburg College and Hollins College. He moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1970 and has lived there ever since, teaching at Cayuga Community College. He is married and has three grown children. His collections of poems are:  Creatures (1983), Singing into the Belly (1990), Gorilla Blessing (1993), Bone Music (1997), and The Nap by the Waterfall (2009). His poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, and read on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” All the Earthly Lovers: Selected & New Poems will be published in 2014. He also writes criticism and essays, and is the author of Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry and editor of On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying and Earth, My Likeness: Nature Poetry of Walt Whitman. He contributed to Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. He is a member of the Thoreau Society, and his recent pieces on Thoreau have appeared in The Thoreau Society Bulletin. On Saturday, May 17 at 7pm at Woodland Pattern, Nelson will read with Antler as part of the Milwaukee Poets Laureate Reading Series.


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