Quote of the Day: Thoreau on dreams

The first in an occasional series of posts to be completed when I need some content to post.  Several other pieces are in the works, but none of them are finished,and I do have a day job, after all.

Photo of Walden Pond.

Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts. In total, Thoreau spent roughly two years living there, later writing about his experiences as though they happened over four seasons of a year. (Qwrrty/Flickr/CC-SA)

Walden, By Henry David Thoreau, is one of those books I tend to pick up and re-read every few years.  I didn’t discover it until graduate school, and I don’t really remember why I began reading it then, as I’m certain it was not on any reading list for any course I was taking.  Yet somehow, as I read it, admittedly slogging through the sometimes tangled undergrowth of Thoreau’s prose, I knew I would return for another read.  Finishing the book, I put the date in the inside cover.  In subsequent re-reads I added a few sentences about what I was doing at the time.  Since I write in those books which are most important to me, they become very personal, my notes recording something of my thoughts at the time.

Thoreau’s very quotable.  When I teach Walden, I often simply have students pull their favorite quotes from the text and explain why they like them.  This, from the final chapter “Conclusion,” is one of my favorites:

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 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. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. 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.

Oddly enough, this passage is often misquoted on coffee mugs and such as simply “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you’ve imagined.”  There’s an odd humor to simplifying Thoreau’s language — since Thoreau himself preached a doctrine of simplicity (often at odds with his actual practice of life), perhaps we should simplify his language as well?

Nope.  Quotes are quotes because they’re quoted.  I like ’em accurate.


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