Aubade: a Transcendentalist Ode to the Morning
Henry David Thoreau, in his writings on Walden Pond, tells us the imaginary tale of a certain “John Farmer,” who, having returned home from a long day at work, sat himself down on his front porch to let his mind wander freely at last. John hoped to leave behind the drudgery of his day and “re-create his intellectual man” through contemplation. Yet he found himself unable to free his mind from thoughts of work, despite his awareness of their banality. The notes of a flute carried across the breeze, however, awoke in him a question, which had hitherto lain dormant: “Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these” (Thoreau, p. 217). John Farmer is not some fictional character, whose moment of questioning should be tossed aside as a meaningless anecdote. John Farmer is the everyman: we are John Farmer and John Farmer is every one of us. We too walk home daily after hours in the fields, at the register, or behind ours desks, unaware that our minds are still tilling the soil, taking inventory, and filing papers. Thoreau’s words, like John’s flute, serve as an alarm to wake us from our slumber. While we might realize the meanness of our current condition, and finally see that there are glorious opportunities ahead, the question remains: “how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither?” (Thoreau 217). This is not only the question of John Farmer, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists, but also the question of human kind. How do we rise above the meanness of our condition to a realm of enlightenment? How do we turn from the shadows on the wall to face the sun? How do we throw off the drowsiness of our time and enter a new age of awakening?
Thoreau worships the morning as devoutly as a monk attending matins. The morning is the “awakening hour” (Thoreau 85), the time when we physically rouse our sleeping bodies, leave our crumpled sheets behind, and prepare ourselves for yet another day. Yet the morning is also something far greater. “Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night” (Thoreau 85). It is in that moment of awakening, that intangible yet unmistakable transition from the realm of dreams to the world of consciousness, that we catch a glimpse of the world as it truly is. Philip Larkin, in the first few lines of his poem, “Aubade,” addresses that strange and fleeting awareness of reality offered by the liminal space between night and day:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there (Larkin, v. 1-4).
It is only in those few pre-dawn hours, after the previous night’s drunkenness has subsided and before the next day’s drudgery begins, that we have the opportunity to “see what’s really always there.” Morning allows us an instance of clarity in the hazy obscurity of our day. While we might think that we pass our days in wakefulness, spending only the night in slumber, Thoreau suggests otherwise: “the millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life” (Thoreau 86). While we might go about our days under the pretense of being awake, it is likely that while our bodies are alert enough to toil, our minds sleep through day and night alike.
But how, it might be asked, can we rise from bed, break our fast, and go to work, if are we not truly awake? In the words of Emerson, “most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief” (135). Some have blinded themselves with the doctrine of the church, others with the dogmatic ideals of a political party, and all with the empty practices and meaningless codes of society. Like Simone de Beauvoir’s homme sérieux, we select a pre-determined set of values so that we can escape the burden of choosing our own, thus “escaping from the stress of existence” (De Beauvoir 46). We live comatose, shrinking fearfully like Sartre’s coward from our responsibility to choose, imagine, and create. Often, we hide our drowsiness under the guise of productivity. We worship technology and industry as a kind of divinity, bowing our heads in prayer to so-called “progress.” In Thoreau and Emerson’s time, the railroad was seen as the pinnacle of this revered progress. “If railroads are not built,” Thoreau asks, mocking his society’s religious idolization of technological innovation, “how shall we get into heaven in season?” (Thoreau 89) Today, as technology and economy take an ever firmer hold on our lives, we could easily rephrase Thoreau’s statement, “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us” (Thoreau 89), to say “we do not program our computers; they program us.”
While this presents a seemingly bleak view of human society as a mass of sleepy conformists, there is a positive and empowering message at its heart. Just as we can choose to cover our eyes with a handkerchief, so too can we choose to take it off. The same power by which the serious man enslaves himself to a certain doctrine also allows him to question, challenge, and invent his own values. Transcendentalists and Existentialists alike would agree on the fundamental idea that as humans, we have the ability to create and re-create ourselves and to re-construct the world in which we live. Just as Thoreau revels in our ability to “carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look” (Thoreau 87), Sartre proclaims that each individual “draws his own portrait” (Sartre 37). Such artistic analogies demonstrate that living is, first and foremost, a creative enterprise. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the value lies in the act of creation, and not in the end product. While Arendt here uses the performing arts as a metaphor for the political sphere, pointing out the parallel between an actor’s performance on stage and the politician’s production in the forum, we might apply the same idea to Thoreau and Sartre’s use of painting a self-portrait as a metaphor for self-construction. We must find our meaning not in some final masterpiece, but rather in the constant choices that define and color our existence.
This process of self-creation is no small or simple task. It would certainly be easier to fall back on pre-conceived worlds than to set out and construct our own, yet Emerson warns us in no uncertain terms that “envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide” (132). In order to find and create new worlds, we must detach ourselves from those old worlds whose preset customs and values cloud our perception of reality. For, as Simone Weil warns us, “attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can only be obtained by someone who is detached” (Weil). Thoreau both physically and mentally detached himself from society in his famous retreat to the isolated shores of Walden Pond. In being alone with nature for a time, Thoreau was able to confront the world in its purest form and front “only the essential facts of life” (Thoreau 87). While Thoreau found his little cabin on Walden pond to be the perfect place to start afresh and see the world through unclouded eyes, he by no means suggests that each and everyone of us must hide away in the woods in order to escape the “shams and delusions” of the civilized world. Just as Descartes describes the wonders of living in hermit-like solitude in the middle of a bustling city (18), and Emerson venerates the great man “who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (Emerson 135), Thoreau praises the student who “in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert” (Thoreau 132). While physical isolation might be a catalyst for spiritual solitude, it is by no means the prerequisite.
Detachment paves the way to authenticity, for we can only see the world through our own eyes when we cease to look through the eyes of others. Walt Whitman, who wove many of Thoreau and Emerson’s Transcendentalist ideals into his poetry, emphasizes the importance of authentic living:
“You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self” (Whitman 2.22-24).
We are often tempted, like the serious man, to take the words of others as absolute truth and adopt their ideas as our own. Who has not read the work of an ancient and revered philosopher, or heard the words of a celebrated and renowned politician, and thought them more legitimate than his own trivial musings? Yet this, Emerson cautions us, is suicidal. As humans, we grow up inundated by the ideas and beliefs of those around us. The child is, as Simone de Beauvoir puts it, “cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, and which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit” (De Beauvoir 35). While this state of dependency is inevitable in a child, we must take care that we do not remain children until we die, shackled, says Kant, by “the fetters of an everlasting immaturity” (Kant 59). Thoreau, while he often romanticized the innocent state of childhood, by no means romanticized this idea of enslaving ourselves to the customs and currency of society. Even those seemingly wealthy and powerful men, he tells us, “have forged their own gold or silver fetters” (Thoreau 14). The only way we can throw off these spiritual chains is to trust ourselves, and to live by our own nature. Just as we must ignore the shouts of eager peddlers crowding the marketplace, praising the quality of their tin-pot wares, so too do must we close our minds to the short-sighted misconceptions which societies hurls at us from all directions. How, though, do we close our ears to the thunder of tradition, the ceaseless calls of convention, and listen only to ourselves? “Trust thyself,” says Emerson, “every heart vibrates to that iron string” (Emerson 132). We must, as Whitman suggests, create a self-filter of sorts, and hear the ideas of others only through the ears of our own genius. This intuitive authenticity is our only hope of self-awakening.
Unlike Sartre, who argues that we must construct any and all meaning in this meaningless universe, Thoreau and Emerson believe that while the individual has the power to shape his or her own existence, he or she also possesses an intangible yet ever-present inner nature. It is this nature, this internal law, which drives our intuition. Where the Existentialists believed only in the value of self-creation, the Transcendentalists saw the beauty of self-discovery. Just as we yearn to explore the world around us, to chart the oceans and map the coastlines of new continents, so too must we track our own waterways and define our own boundaries. Be “the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes,” Thoreau advises his reader. “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought” (Thoreau 312). In doing so, we will gain a deeper understanding of that internal law which drives our being, as well as discovering universal laws, which will bring us into orbit with a “higher order of beings” (Thoreau 315).
While Thoreau counsels self-discovery, he by no means suggests that the natural world is any less worthy of exploration. Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman alike saw nature’s bewildering yet miraculous unpredictability as a reflection of the latent possibilities of mankind. As the three writers lived at the time of the Western Frontier, their emphasis on the parallel between the unexpected wonders of nature and those of humanity is not altogether surprising. The Frontier was a symbol of expansion and discovery. As the American people moved again and again into uncharted territory, they faced a return to primitive conditions and an ensuing “re-civilization.” Frederick Turner, in his essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” writes,
This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character (Turner).
The spirit of the Frontier penetrated American society and gave Americans a new relationship to nature. In New England, Thoreau and Emerson lived closer to European society than those men Turner describes as daily re-encountering their natural and uncivilized state. Yet they seemed to have been drawn in by the very same “tonic of wildness” (Thoreau, p. 308). Humans, says Thoreau, “can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features…” Indeed, “we need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander” (Thoreau, p. 309). It is in observing the untamed and unfettered wildness of nature that we confront the infinitude of our own possibilities. It is only in witnessing nature’s inexhaustible surprises that we become aware of our own capacity for miracles. If we did not see, for instance, how new shoots spring up in a forest ravaged by fire, would we ever have faith in our own ability to regenerate after periods of seemingly irreversible destruction? If we did not watch as waves lapping against a shoreline gradually broke down granite boulders into fine sand, would we believe in our capacity for incremental change? Hence, in the words of Hannah Arendt, “it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and expect miracles” (Arendt 169).
Just as thinkers of the Enlightenment championed empirical deduction and experimentation, the Transcendentalists emphasized the importance of scientific observation. While Enlightenment philosophers drew a barrier between nature and the civilized world, however, the Transcendentalists used their observations as a method of self-reflection. Upon discovering that a pond’s lines of greatest length and breadth intersected at its point of greatest depth, for instance, Thoreau concluded that so too the length and breadth of a man’s behaviors and attitudes would intersect at “the height or depth of his character” (Thoreau, p. 283). Nature, therefore, does not only allow us to have faith in our abstract and unrealized possibilities, but also allows us to recognize the patterns we observe in the natural world within ourselves. Just as we sleep through the night and awaken at dawn, so too do the fish in the pond slumber under a blanket of ice in the winter and awaken in the spring as their blanket splinters and melts under the heat of the sun. We must see our lives not as static events punctuating the linear course of history, but rather as dynamic components of a universal cyclicality. It is only when we realize our unity with nature’s infinite cycle of waking and sleeping, birth and death, and growth and decay, that we can transcend the limits that mortality sets on our lives. We then become, in a sense, eternal, living “with nature in the present, above time” (Emerson 141).
There is a mystical and intangible threshold that separates the winter from the spring, and the night hours from the dawn – an indefinable yet undeniable liminal time-space. It is in this transitory moment that we catch a narrow glimpse of reality. It is the beam of sunlight that rouses us from our slumber, a needle of truth that pierces us for an instant before the fog of routine obscures our vision once more. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Not About Ideas but About the Thing Itself” addresses this barely perceptible moment of awakening:
That scrawny cry—It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality (v.15-20)
The chorister’s c, a single note piercing the March wind before becoming lost in the more artful harmonies of the chorus, represents that very beam of sunlight, that “new knowledge of reality.” It is a moment of clarity, part of that “colossal sun” of truth, which remains ever at a distance. Indeed, the chorister’s symbolic note occurs in March, “at the earliest ending of winter” (v.1), at the very moment of transition into spring which Thoreau deemed so significant. It is heard “at daylight or before” (5) – the listener cannot say exactly when, for he has no name for that impalpable moment between darkness and dawn. It is only in those moments of transition that we can catch a fleeting glimpse of truth, and, in doing so, transcend our condition. In the words of Emerson, power “resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.” That moment, that “scrawny cry,” is over in an instant, yet we are left with an intangible and undeniable awareness of its fleeting presence. It leaves a footprint like impression on our mind: distinct at first, but fading with time until it is imperceptible. While in Larkin and Stevens’ poems this momentary transcendence takes place during the pre-dawn hours, this does not mean that our potential for transcendence is limited to a single instance at the start of each day. In the words of Thoreau, “to him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning” (Thoreau, p. 86). We must train ourselves to awaken again and again, regardless of the hands on the clock and the position of the sun in the sky. It does not matter if we are sitting down to break our fast or eat our supper, “morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me” (Thoreau, p. 86).
The source of this constant reawakening must be our faith that the dawn will not forsake us, no matter how dark the night may seem. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep” (Thoreau, p. 87). We cannot rely on external alarms to wake us from our slumber, but must consciously and consistently awaken ourselves from within. We owe it to ourselves to actively and authentically find and generate meaning. What defines us as human is not our slumbering state of “quiet desperation,” but rather what Hannah Arendt calls our human initium. “God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning: freedom” (Arendt, p. 166). We are human because we create and give birth both to ourselves and to the world around us. This is shown both in Genesis, one of the most ancient chronicles of human existence, as well as in the writings of modern thinkers including, Arendt, Sartre, and, of course, Thoreau. “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions,” he tells us. “Let us spend our lives in conceiving then” (Thoreau 93).
Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Ed. Jerome Kohn. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp., 1976.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Richard Poirier. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? Trans. James Schmidt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.
Larkin, Philip. “Aubade.”
Stevens, Wallace. “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.”
Thoreau, Henry David, and Walter Harding. Walden : an Annotated Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier In American History. New York: Ungar, 1963.
Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
 “Those who conceal from themselves this total freedom, under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I will call cowards” (Sartre, p. 49)
 “…the accomplishment lies in the performance itself and not in an end product which outlasts the activity that brought it into existence and becomes independent of it” (Arendt, p. 151).