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Walden | Quotes


We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.

Thoreau, Chapter 1

Thoreau makes this excellent observation in Walden's second paragraph, when he explains that he does not mean his experiences to speak for everyone. He is the person whom he knows best; he has written the book partly to answer many people's questions about his experience at Walden Pond, and he believes that a writer's main responsibility is to set forth an account of his own life as he experiences it. "As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them."

"Always the first person that is speaking" means that whether or not a book is told in the third person, it is still only the author's personal story. An author using a first-person narrative is no more "egotistical" than one who writes in the third person. She or he is the same narrator, regardless of how many times the writer says "I."


I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.

Thoreau, Chapter 1

This is the beginning of Thoreau's argument that working for the sake of working is not a virtue but a pointless exercise. Farmers may own large amounts of land, but they're forced to work that land; their labors turn them into "serfs of the soil." Thoreau goes on to explain that working men have no time to be "anything but a machine."

At Walden Pond, Thoreau hopes to reverse the normal custom of working six days a week and resting on the seventh. He will work one day a week and use the remaining six days to live mindfully in the present. His purpose in living in his little cabin is to improve his mind by learning from the best teacher—Nature. The ordinary duties of ordinary people's lives will not help him toward this goal; they would only get in his way.


Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.

Thoreau, Chapter 1

The quotation finishes, "... and not rather a new wearer of clothes." A situation that requires new clothes requires conformity to a social standard, which is inauthentic and false. Rather, all change should be internal and for the betterment of the individual.


The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Thoreau, Chapter 1

One of Thoreau's most famous sayings, this reflects his belief that most humans allow their employment and possessions to own them and diminish their lives.


Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.

Thoreau, Chapter 2

Mornings at Walden are sacred times for Thoreau, and he performs his own version of a religious ceremony each day. He wakes early and, if the weather is right for it, swims in the pond. To him, this is a form of renewal. Thoreau states, "For an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night." The dawning of day reflects the daily dawn in our souls; waking up is a moral act as well as a physical one.


Simplify, simplify.

Thoreau, Chapter 2

Purging one's life of trivial possessions and frivolous pursuits is a key tenet of Transcendentalism. Thoreau believes that paring existence down to the essentials clears away mental and physical detritus. What we need, he says in this chapter, is "a rigid economy, a stern and modern simplicity of life and elevation of purpose"—requirements that call to mind the poet Wordsworth's phrase, "Plain living and high thinking" from his poem "Written in London. September, 1802."


Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.

Thoreau, Chapter 2

The notion that time is a meaningless concept is found in Buddhist thinking as well as in the Meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–80). No doubt Thoreau has read it in both places. He and the emperor both mean to say that our lives, though so important to us, are just fleeting moments—mere flickers in the flow of eternity.


Society is commonly too cheap.

Thoreau, Chapter 5

This is a line from the chapter "Solitude." People often ask Thoreau if he feels lonely living by himself, and he can honestly answer "No." Not only does nature provide the companionship he needs, he also finds that if he spends too much time in the company of others, each interaction becomes less and less meaningful. Even gathering for meals only reminds our companions of what "old musty cheese" we are.

Whether Thoreau is correct is a matter of opinion, but the quote reveals Thoreau's youthful inability to imagine that what works for him might not work for other people. "It would be better if there were but one inhabitant to a square mile, as where I live," says Thoreau, omitting the fact that, for a number of reasons, that wouldn't work at all. But American literature has been vastly enriched by the fact that it worked for Thoreau himself!


We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction.

Thoreau, Chapter 7

A refreshing reminder from Thoreau that the value we place on "our" plants is not absolute; we only think they're better than weeds and grass because we can eat them. The crops we grow consider the sun their "principal cultivator," not us, and they rely on rain as much as on our patient tilling. Moreover, woodchucks and birds deserve a share from our gardens! We are no more important to the cosmos than the creatures around us.


I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.

Thoreau, Chapter 12

One of Walden's most famous passages is the war between the ants in "Brute Neighbors." Passing by his woodpile one day, Thoreau is lucky enough to catch sight of a pitched battle between two ant species, one red and one black. He describes the battle with as much drama as if it were a saga from heroic mythology; he even captures three of the ants and watches them under a glass in his house. The passage is a virtuosic display of Thoreau's energy and skill when he writes about nature.


Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

Thoreau, Chapter 16

When Thoreau speaks this line, it is early on a winter morning. To fill his daily bucket of water, Thoreau has just cut his way through "a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice" on Walden Pond. He pauses to "look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes," with its soft light, bright sandy floor, and its "perennial waveless serenity." For him, paradise is something we experience on Earth, not in the afterlife, and it is found in unexpected places: not only in a beautiful sunset but also on a frozen pond in the depths of winter.


If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Thoreau, Chapter 18

In the last chapter of Walden, Thoreau discusses his reasons for moving out of the cabin and his feelings about doing so. In this statement, he provides an ode to nonconformity. Thoreau argues that a person should not be trapped by conformity and should seek individual enlightenment in the pursuit of exploring the mind.

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