The Milky Way, the Pond, and the Meaning of Life: Thoreau on Solitude, Sympathy, and the Salve for Melancholy

Two generations later, Hermann Hesse would arrive at his own answer, which might be the universal answer: “Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen,” Hesse wrote as he contemplated solitude, the courage to be yourself, and how to find your destiny. “Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.”
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)


From the the personal he pivots to the universal, from the creaturely to the cosmic:

In one of the boldest and most shimmering passages in all of literature, Thoreau writes:

The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.
It is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.
It is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.

“These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands,” the artist Rockwell Kent wrote as he was finding himself on the solitary shores of Alaska, contemplating the relationship between wilderness, solitude, and creativity while immersed in the writings of the Transcendentalist philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862).

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This… to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man* from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.
Solitude chose Thoreau as much as he chose it, for in it he found a remedy for the most somber recesses of his destiny: his frequent spells of depression, for which, in the epochs before medication, he knew no better medicine than unpeopled time in nature:

This may be the most haunting and most transcendent discovery for any of us who seek and savor those long salutary solitudes under branch and cloud: the realization that the price of consciousness is loneliness, for infinite space and infinite incomprehension exists between any two minds and their singular umwelts. Life may be the art of bridging lonelinesses, but we are born into the one great solitude and die into it. The value of the space between the bookends is what we might call love. Or art.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, observed through the era’s most powerful telescope. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go [out among others] than when we stay in our chambers.

There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men?

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Nearly a century later, Rilke channeled the underlying elemental truth in his observing that “there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear” as he reckoned with the relationship between solitude, intimacy, and creativity, concluding: “People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”