Ars Poetica?       

Czeslaw Milosz
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
There was a time when only wise books were read,
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
Berkeley, 1968
 from The Collected Poems: 1931-1987.  (The Ecco Press, 1988)

Walking Meditations

Thoreau did not invent the leitmotif of walking meditation — the idea was not uncommon in romantic literature.  But he renews it with quiet vigor. It’s a fruitful frame for thinking, as I’ve discovered yet again.

Roberto Unger, the author of The Religion of the Future, asks us not to “squander our supreme good lifewith its surfeit, spontaneity and surprise.” The threat and reality of a bad life is one of deprivation, deadening routine, and numbness. So how do we awaken our capacity for “surfeit, spontaneity, and surprise?”

For several years – it’s going on decades — I’ve passed out Kathleen Norris’ book, A Cloister Walk, to my students. They’re meant to walk with her narrative, to discover what it might mean for them.  It’s something like a diary or journal of a middle-aged woman who has been teaching poetry to high school kids in New York City. She finds her world falling apart and seeks a lengthy retreat to collect herself. What better place than a Benedictine Cloister in Minnesota?

Most of us would be numbed by the thought of a stifling monastic routine: early rising, too much prayer, doing the dishes for dozens, not having a single old friend in sight, no movies, TV, restaurants, concerts. Not even drives in the countryside or to the ocean.

It sounds like numbness and deprivation. Where’s the overflow, the surfeit, the spontaneity, the surprise?

She gets to walk in the cloister, and a meditative walk is surely good for the soul; its flow encourages spontaneity and surprise. Partly the spontaneity comes from freedom to read at will through poetry and psalms, through the lives of the saints, and to have time to remember family and the stark beauty of the Great Plains. And she has daily walks that suspend ordinary time and let her enter a spontaneous stream of fullness and surprise.

She has imagination in gear.

She’s rich in imagination, not in the sense of making things up, or slipping into fantasy but in an opposite sense. Imagination lets her dive into reality, bring things alive. It raises the dead. Benedictine ways of living and praying, singing and walking, come alive. And the soft smell of late summer gardens and a comforting sky come alive.

She had gone numb in the impersonal bustle of New York City. Her world went missing. The city and her personal life there were stripped of the renewals and replaced by cycles of anxiety, anger, banality. The monastery feeds her imagination, her spirit, and lets the world – a world overflowing with surprise — be raised from the dead.

The Benedictine life and liturgy, its beliefs, customs, dress, prayers, walks, and hymns, bring her alive. She doesn’t convert to Catholicism or seek life-membership. At the start, she’s barely a believer in anything. But she seeks spiritual cleansing and renewal. She needs to strip down. (Her lasting impression of her native protestantism is having to dress up Sundays and paint on a smile.)

To my ear, she has a vaguely spiritual or religious craving awaiting to be shaped. Her time reading poetry, religious and otherwise, and the lives of the saints and the psalms, provide grist for an imagination on the way to a religious way of life. She walks a life of mysteries: the mystery of love, of spring daffodils, of kids at play.

Imagination both gives her access to their elusiveness and access to possible schemes of interpretation.

What do daffodils, love, and playful kids tell me about the world’s fullness, spontaneity, and surprise? What do St Francis, Benedict, or Jeremiah tell me about fullness, spontaneity, and surprise? What do prayer, chants and psalms — what do Dickinson and swaying boughs — tell me of excess and wonder?

Where have all the flowers gone? Where has the voice of God gone? She brings them back from the dead, in part through prayer, in part through quiet imagination, in part through walking meditation, in part through singing.

**   **

When I began teaching in California in the late sixties a friend sent me a book titled The Inward Morning: Philosophical Reflections in Journal Form.  Twenty years later I brought the book back from the dead, getting it reissued. The author, a Harvard Professor, had moved to Montana to save his soul.  He defined philosophy as “A Walking Meditation of the Place.” He was not a Benedictine but he was a meditative walker bringing fullness, spontaneity, and surprise to his soul – and his fullness, spontaneity, and surprise was contagious.

I devoured the book having very little sense of where I was going, or where the author was going — or coming from. It was a walk into wilderness. Here’s how he enticed me to follow.

He had been reflecting on music’s power to awaken him to reality, and his struggle to make sense of that awakening. And then he shifts. He reflects on his time in the Canadian Rockies before being called to War in the Pacific. Here is his walking meditation:

I remember that this walking in the presence of things came to a definitive stage.  It was in the fall of ‘41, October and November, while late autumn prevailed throughout the northern Canadian Rockies, restoring everything in that vast region to a native wildness. Some part of each day or night, for forty days, flurries of snow were flying.

I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality. 

The aspens and larches took on a yellow so vivid, so pure and trembling in the air, as to fairly cry out that they were as they were, limitlessly.

And it was there in attending to this wildness, with unremitting alertness and attentiveness, yes, even as I slept, that I knew myself to have been instructed for life, though I was at a loss to say what instruction I had received.

Job was accosted by the wild of the whirlwind’s creation. Then he put his hand upon his mouth and said, “I knew not what I was saying; I’m quieted, I melt away.” His is a silence of fullness, not of deprivation.

Bugbee too is immersed in wild creation. Like Job, after the whirlwind, he knows that life is full, bountiful, spontaneous, an overflowing surprise. But none of that gives specific instruction about what specifically to do in life. No ten commandments follow from such religious, wilderness experience.

The message is – be alert to such moments; don’t rule them out; embrace their wonder. When it arrives, welcome fullness, spontaneity, and surprise.

The agents of wonder are the bountiful things of creation – clouds, hawks, rocks, waters, snow. There is the Biblical motif in this passage.  “Forty days into the Rockies” mimics Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fast. The retreat of each, like Norris’ retreat to the cloister, is a prelude to new life. The 40 day retreat to the Rockies” mimics Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fast. Like Norris’ retreat to the cloister, each is a prelude to new life.

We can seek out wilderness and cloister walks. And sometimes wildness is thrust upon us, unhappily, and is anything but a choice. Yet it can carry latent religious goods, nonetheless.

Creation can be terrible, horrific, life depleting: think of typhoons or forest fires. And yet to a willing spirit it can carry religious opportunity.

The Pacific War interrupted Bugbee’s work for a PhD at Berkeley. He suddenly became captain of a small mine sweeper and then was dive-bombed by a kamikaze. As his crew fires skyward, desperately, the plane keeps coming, and comes close enough for Henry to see the pilot’s eyes from the ship’s bridge. It’s deadly mission is thwarted.

The ship lowers in the deep trough of the waves. The plane slams into the side of the sea just yards away. Bugbee recounts this episode and adds that he knew in his bones that he could have been the pilot and the pilot could have been him. Their common humanity, even in battle, lay deeper than their nations or the war that called them enemies.

In a sense this is to lose one’s distinctive difference. Stripped away is the weight of wearing this uniform rather than that, of firing at this plane rather than aiming to sink that ship. In imagining this transposition of social and national and military position, my true glory is, for the moment, to slip into a supernatural landscape where such differences among persons disappears.

If Bugbee becomes a radiant beacon – as he does for me in this moment of transcendence – in that moment he loses everything that particularizes him. He loses his language, his uniform, his being a PhD candidate, his being captain of a ship. He undergoes a  moment of resurrection from the war as the war dies away and humans meet without differentiation, as pure souls, as it were.

This is his imagination bringing a new world alive. He is, in a sense, everything good and pure — and in ordinary terms, nothing, without pretense and without differentiation.  Perhaps Jesus on the cross is everything and nothing.

Sometimes the psalms pass on this sense of losing oneself, of being ecstatic in joy and contentment, melting into landscape: “I lay me down before still waters, my cup runneth over.” This is a quiet, non-walking meditation, a sort of lying down reverie, or, as Thoreau would say, “dreaming awake.”

And sometimes, in stark contrast, the psalms exalt the movement of warriors, not least a warrior God who leads armies against the wicked. But we also have, say in Psalm 68, a God who protects widows, not as a warrior but as a compassionate defender. And also lies behind or brings about the fullness and surprise of nature:

O God, when thou went forth before thy people, when you marched through the wilderness; The earth shook, the heavens dropped in the presence of God: even Mount Sinai itself was moved, shook, in his mighty presence.

The quiet of a walking meditation might wall us off from the terror of a warrior God, and the surprise of earthquakes. On the other hand the quiet of walking might conceal tumult within.

Meditating on battles might not be apt in time of war – there’s dangerous work to be done, demanding one’s full attention. You can’t meditate while walking under fire. But Bugbee remembers battles as if from the middle of them – or at least has insights then that could later sprout into meditations in a contemplative – if still terrifying — vein.

He imagines exchanging places with the Kamikaze pilot, as if to say “this is a war with no enemies, with no victors.” The warrior Lord is out to vanquish the enemy but it’s also a Biblical theme that there are no enemies, that we are brothers and sisters. It’s like the Captain of a US mine sweeper, in the midst of deadly sea battle, being brother to a Japanese Kamikaze pilot.

There were men for the moment alone on patrol in the forests in WWII suddenly encountering a single enemy, also on patrol. Each pauses, and seems to offer a pledge to a common humanity over a pledge to kill.

Each turns away, granting life to the other, turns his back on the other, as if privy to some extraordinary revelation just then descended. This might be merely prudent, a self-interested — and by good fortune, shared — calculation. Then again they might have miraculously become, at that moment, non-warriors, vessels of a sacred humanity.

Walking meditations seldom give us single answers: Are there enemies or only brother and sisters? Is God a Warrior for warrior peoples and something else more gentle for gentle people? Does a God of Love love those who hate and are hateful?

Perhaps it is asking too much of humans to love the very being of those who are hateful killers, especially if they have tortured us or our kin.  Perhaps it is asking too much to lower our rifles and turn away.

I think of the world as opening to minor and major ecstasies – minor and major salvations. I think of this as just a fact of life and also an awesome truth that can come to us in walking meditation.

A surplus of truths seems to accost us here, raising many more questions than answers.  Surely, more questions than answers.

Yet we can woo the faith that our walking meditations lead us away from deprivation and numbness and into gardens of fullness and surprise.

A Poet of Simple Wonder


Mary Oliver is Thoreau reincarnated, a poet of the everyday and of the wonder and mystery suffusing the everyday, and a person daily immersed in creation with an unmistakable passion — a passion for life and a passion for words that intensify and dance with life:

I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

—  the second half of her poem When Death Comes

She writes in A Poetry Handbook,

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

I’d only quibble that words at their best are not marks on a page or humdrum vehicles of news. They are, when delivered with discretion and verve, in fact “. . . fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Absurd Joy amidst Suffering

Let me lead up to Thoreau’s life of absurd joy by mentioning a recent heartbreaking report from Scandinavia. It’s relevance will become clear.

It’s been officially decided by pollsters that Sweden and Norway are the two happiest countries in the world. The US is ranked 14th and falling. A few weeks ago a photo circulated of two early teens in a Swedish hospital.

These teens are lying on hospital cots, unconscious. The accompanying New Yorker article of a week ago reports that they are two of hundreds of teens dying not from opiate abuse and not from any disease of the body. Their souls are dying.

They are unconscious, and only tubes keep them alive. They have no will to live. They have slipped into the pit, into Sheol, into the land of the dead.

Days earlier they learned they would be deported. We become helpless, hopeless onlookers. Abundant joy is nowhere in sight.


We seem to live in the middle of an infinite or boundless contradiction, an infinite absurdity, if you will.  Deep Joy and deep Suffering suffuse all of death-and-life.

We find this harsh contradiction, “absurd joy,” in the life of Thoreau.

We know from Walden and other writing that he celebrated a joyful life.  And we know from his political writing how much he worked for abolition and detested the evil of slavery.  Less well known is a personal trauma undergone before his writing career was launched. 

Despite what reads like a  joyful life Thoreau underwent first-hand the boundless absurdity of death. He sang the joys of nature. He might have joined Psalm 16:

Make me know the path of life.

Joys overflow in your presence,

Delights flow from Your right hand forever.

But he knew infinite suffering, as well. His writing, his singing, was therapy for the tragic loss of his brother John.

When the brothers were in their mid-twenties, as Henry held him, John died from lockjaw.  Henry had been an uncle to the five year old Waldo Emerson, and a few days after John’s death, Waldo died.

 “Joy is the condition of life,” he writes in one of the earliest of his Journal entries.  

John’s death was excruciating. He doubled backward in death-spasms. Henry held him through it all. A few days after John’s death those terrible symptoms overtook Henry. It was as if Henry would not let his brother die alone, and would follow him into the pit. His body mimicked John’s death. Doctors were baffled.

Like the hundreds of young adults in Sweden, unconscious for no discernible physiological reason, he seemed to have lost the will to live.  Gradually, he recovered but he was convalescent for nearly a month.


Thoreau had an enormous capacity to find joy in life — despite his brother’s death, despite slavery, despite the hanging of John Brown, despite slave-catchers in Concord woods.

This was, in a sense, an “absurd joy,” a joy held against his unblinking knowledge of tragedy. He came to believe that Nature’s life-and-death should be joyously affirmed and stoically mourned. Nature herself mourned the constant dying of her children.

In his indignant essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau complains that he can no longer take pleasure in his walks. He hears gunshots in the woods as Southern slaveholders pursue their fleeing property.

Then, a miracle occurs. The scent of a swamp Lilly wafts from the waters as he trudges in near despair. It gives him a whiff of paradise, arising bracingly from the muck. It gives him an eff of the ineffable.

For us this is a parable of the inscrutable marriage of heaven and hell. Yet faced with this inscrutable clashing of despair and abundant joy, we have little choice but to side with the singer of song 16, side with Thoreau and with joy.

The Psalm ends,

You will not forsake my life to Sheol,

You won’t let your faithful one see the Pit.

Make me know the path of life.

Joys overflow in your presence,

Delights flow from Your right hand forever.



Thoreau suffered a severe mental and physical collapse on the sudden deaths, within days, of his brother John, and the equally sudden shock, just 10 days later, of little Waldo Emerson.  He was as close as brothers can be to John, and had lived in the Emerson household with little Waldo. He loved children.

His collapse was sudden and to doctors, mysterious and life-threatening.

John had died of lockjaw, and Henry had held him for hours as he went through excruciating spasms that threw his head back, and bent his back backward, over and over.

Several days later Henry took on all of John’s symptoms, terrifying his family and friends. They were relieved when this episode of involuntary physical mimicry subsided and his own death was no longer in question. But Henry went through a long period of convalescence when he wrote nothing, and was more or less housebound, unable to continue his daily journal writing or walking.

The collapse still seems frightening to me, and his recovery through writing somewhat miraculous. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack was his eulogy for John and therapy for Henry.

His despair and recovery came to mind as I read portions of an academic report from two Princeton economists who described white working-class Americans caught in a deadly “sea of despair.” Consider these charts:



I know what led me to juxtapose these charts and Thoreau’s “sea of despair.” I take Thoreau’s recovery to be rather miraculous, and I wondered what miracle would rescue working class whites from their “sea of despair.” [That’s the term Case and Deaton use.]

I plead utter ignorance on this score. Writing journals and taking walks will not rescue these victims of deadly depression. Jobs would be the more obvious answer. And of course Washington’s strong-man appeals to the weak, depressed, and forgotten. Yet the juxtaposition of this sea of despair and Thoreau’s remains somehow poignant to me.

Perhaps my readers will have a way to make sense of it.

A Book on Thoreau

It is a pleasure to be known, to be acknowledged, and when the space of acknowledgment is broadly public rather than private and personal, there is added gratification. Thus I feel both humbled and buoyed by a review essay by a colleague in philosophy who gives a generous, and to my (far from disinterested) ear, sensitive and discerning account of a project that absorbed several years of my writing life, Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion [Bloomsbury, 2015, 274pp.]

The review that follows is by Stanley Bates, Middlebury College, and appears in the most recent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

This is, from my point of view, a delightful book. It consists of 15 chapters, 12 of which are “heavily revised” versions of previously published essays, and three brief closing sections. It is addressed to those who are at least somewhat familiar with the work of Thoreau, and who will take seriously the idea that his work is relevant to philosophy. The philosopher who is most responsible for the existence of such readers is, of course, Stanley Cavell, and Cavell is a continuing background to, and inspiration for, Edward F. Mooney’s work. However, his focus is somewhat different. Cavell concentrated on Walden in his The Senses of Walden, because he found it to have been dramatically underread. Mooney refers to, and occasionally quotes from, Walden, but he attempts to cultivate a more intimate relationship with Thoreau, and to understand Thoreau’s own way of life, or, perhaps better, the phenomenology of Thoreau’s being-in-the-world, against the background of Thoreau’s commitment to the idea of philosophy as a way of life. Mooney, therefore, draws more on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and on Thoreau’s essays, journals and letters, as well as Walden. In all of these writings, Thoreau’s personality (or, perhaps, persona) is self-consciously to the fore. Thoreau is not however intentionally providing an autobiography, and a reader of Mooney’s book would be helped by some familiarity with Thoreau’s biography. Because Mooney’s book collects, and revises, essays, he does not attempt to provide a full biographical and historical account of Thoreau’s life.

Mooney is not just interested in explicating Thoreau. The title, Excursions with Thoreau, is meant more seriously. The essays attempt not only to show us Thoreau’s way of living, (or, what I called above, his being-in-the-world) but, to some degree, to initiate Mooney himself, and his readers, into that way of life. He wants his readers to see what he sees in Thoreau’s writing, and to be affected by it in the way Mooney himself has been. Of course, this fits exactly with the tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” that Thoreau both preaches and exemplifies. Thoreau in the works discussed, not only provides a number of descriptions of his encounters with the natural world including his human encounters; he also provides a kind of phenomenology of the moods that these encounters evoke. Mooney masterfully characterizes the complexity (and sometimes contradiction) that structure these ways of being in the world. Thoreau gives accounts of the beauty and terror of natural scenes, of the celebration and the mourning that are part of our existence. He is both happy in the world, and so revolted by the reality of slavery that the world can seem utterly disgusting (though that mood is redeemed in the text by an encounter with a flower).

What may be the biggest problem of the structure of this book may also be its greatest strength. As I wrote above, the chapters are revisions of earlier papers written on different occasions for different journals and books. This means that not only are the major themes of the author’s reading of Thoreau present in most of the essays, but even the same passages and quotations are visited pretty frequently. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s remark, in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, in which he compares his (lack of) method to “sketches of landscapes.” He continues, “The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made.” If one reads the book from start to finish, one is struck by this sense of seeing the same issues from different points of view. Some of the events of Thoreau’s life have a particularly central role in influencing Mooney’s reading of him. The death of his brother John, and the death of Waldo Emerson, which occurred near in time, were shattering instances of human mortality for Thoreau. His attempt to recover something of the remains of Margaret Fuller after her drowning, and his description of that attempt, seem revelatory to Mooney. Thoreau’s experience of desolation at the top of Mount Katahdin is a crucial moment that Mooney cites in considering the complexity of Thoreau’s account of his response to the world. The combination of mourning and celebration in his writing are understood relative to those events. In these cases, Thoreau’s writing about the events demands serious interpretive study, and Mooney provides close readings of his carefully constructed sentences.

Another central occurrence in Thoreau’s life was his meeting with John Brown. Thoreau wrote about Brown’s capture at Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent hanging in two lectures/essays. Brown’s character is, of course, one of the most contested topics in American history. He is often, now, portrayed as a murderous fanatic. Thoreau would have none of that. It is useful to be reminded that abolitionists like Thoreau and Emerson could regard the United States constitution as a contract with absolute evil. They regarded the great constitutional compromise on slavery as what we would now call a crime against humanity. Were they wrong? Surely not. Until the abolition of slavery during and after the Civil War, the United States permitted one of the most radically unjust systems in human history — racially-based chattel slavery. Mooney explicates Thoreau’s understanding of Brown beautifully — most memorably his claim that Brown had not died at his hanging. Thoreau, of course, wrote strikingly on the limits of our duty to the state. Indeed, this may have been his most influential writing because of its impact on Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Thoreau is often mocked because of his willingness to spend one night in jail (until Emerson got him out) as though this limited punishment undercuts his account of the limits of political obligation. Mooney will have none of such mockery.

I’ll briefly comment on one more aspect of Mooney’s reading of Thoreau. This like several other themes runs through several essays. He interprets Thoreau as a thinker who is, in a broad sense, a part of Romanticism. (This is no surprise since American Transcendentalism is usually thought of as a part of the broad current of Romanticism.) This bears on the relationship of Romanticism to modern science. The great Romantic thinkers are often thought of as hostile to science. (This is, in fact, false. Richard Holmes has written a marvelous book about Romanticism and science.[1]) However, what was being resisted was a kind of scientism that had been erected on the foundation of an 18th century materialism (derived from ancient atomism) and the overpowering example of Newtonian physics. This scientism was held to entail what has been called the disenchantment of the world. The central theme of Romanticism, in philosophy and poetry, is a refusal of this disenchantment.[2] Mooney sees Thoreau with his commitment to the observation of the natural world as both grounded in science, and as resisting scientism. This seems fair to me. Moreover, Mooney in several passages, particularly in the essay “Grounding Poetry” relates this to current debates and concerns about the value of the humanities in the university curriculum. He argues that it is a stunted conception of knowledge that would deny the reality of what Thoreau calls “Sympathy with Intelligence.” Mooney goes on, “Our highest most fulfilling attunement to the world comes when we are alert for local ‘Intelligence,’ as radiant things give radiant news of love, dread, grief, or delight — from this alder or that rock, or from this grand vista.”[3] Mooney is clear that Thoreau does not hold the view (which he calls hyper-Romantic) that science somehow kills poetry or is incompatible with it — but science (or scientific knowing) is not our basic way of being-in-the-world. This account of Thoreau runs through all of Mooney’s readings and, one hopes, might bring his readers back to Thoreau’s writings. I’ll let Mooney have the final word here on the kind of writing that he finds in Thoreau.


The writing articulates life at once philosophical, religious, literary-poetic. It is a life of walking, seeing, tasting, hearing in imagination-drenched immersions. We sense a way of taking up with the world and of being happy to be of it. Yet seeking life and serenity can miserably fail. Will the emphasis fall on despair or exaltation, on confidence or self-doubt, on loss or return? Reality is difficult and gives us reasons for both . . . Thoreau is startled into life and delight and invites us along.[4]


[1] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Wonder and Terror of Science. (Pantheon Books, 2008)

[2] For elaboration, see Stanley Bates, “Refusing Disenchantment: Romanticism, Criticism, Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, (Vol. 40, No. 2, October 2016)

[3] Mooney, p. 220

[4] ibid., p. 198

The Gentle Transformations of Snow


Of course the near-landscape is transformed: parked cars morph into snow-banks, streets and sidewalks are conjoined, one walks in one as well as in the other. The view to blue water is set off by billows and borders of white. As flakes drift steadily down, no matter which way you look, all lines between earth and sky are dissolved.

Inhabitants seem cheered by it all. One, dusting off his car, says cheerily, “Another day in paradise.” A septuagenarian sipping coffee as I wait in line says, “I kicked snow all the way here.” She was gently transformed. For an hour or so, she would be a kid.

As I waited to order a middle aged bundled woman said to no one in particular, “Oh, I forgot my wallet, I’ll be back in a minute.” But she had just trudged through cold and snow to arrive, and however happily in snow, just then coffee was on her mind. Although she was a stranger, I said without losing a beat, “Let me buy you one.” She was surprised, I was surprised, and I attribute any generosity in the air to the snow in the air. We exchanged names and chatted about dogs and snow.

As I returned, coffee in hand, to my flat, oblivious whether I was walking on streets or sidewalks or space in between, without exception people called out from under their muffling caps and scarfs (it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit). We hailed each other as friendly wayfarers in the gentle, slightly windswept whiteness. The snow had lightened our spirits and brought in good cheer.


Everywhere, it invited quiet and rest and welcome.