John Burroughs' Essays
by H. S. Salt
There is a certain class of literature—essentially a product of the last half-century—whose chief exponents have been not inaptly designated as our “poet-naturalists.” Since the time when old Gilbert White of Selborne devoted himself to the duty of observing and chronicling, in his homely and prosaic fashion, the fauna and flora of his Hampshire village, the literary treatment of natural history has been expanded and exalted no less than the poetical conception of nature itself; with the result that the idealising tendency of modern poetry, as expressed in an intense sympathy with woods and fields and streams, has affected and permeated even such apparently matter-of-fact and unpoetical studies as botany and zoology. Thus there has arisen a small but brilliant school of writers who have neither confined their attention, on the one hand, to certain favoured species—the lambs, the nightingales, the roses, the lilies, and the other traditional objects of the poet’s devotion—nor, on the other hand, have treated natural history as if it were merely a bald scientific study; but have attempted to combine the power of minute and patient observation with the exercise of a highly idealistic and imaginative faculty. The first and foremost of these “poet-naturalists” was Thoreau, the transcendentalist of Concord, whose diaries and published volumes bear witness on every page to his almost miraculous insight into the secrets of nature and the strong trait of mysticism which tinged all his philosophical reflections. At the time of Thoreau’s death, in 1862, his two destined successors, one in England, the other in America, were busily though unconsciously occupied in collecting material for the work they have since accomplished. Richard Jefferies, then a boy of fourteen, was wandering about the downs and lowlands of his Wiltshire home, and filling his mind with those images of country scenes which he was afterwards to reproduce again and again with marvellous fidelity in the series of brilliant volumes which has made his name famous. John Burroughs, a fellow-countryman and admiring student of Thoreau, was a young man of twenty-five, already deeply versed in the lore of open-air life, and possessed of a practical experience much in advance of his years.
The family from which Burroughs sprang was partly English, partly Irish, in its origin. His grandfather and grandmother were settlers in Delaware County, New York, travelling to their adopted home with only a sledge drawn by a yoke of oxen, and themselves cutting a road through the woods. With the help of some neighbours, they built their own log-house of birch and maple-wood, the floor being made of hewn log, the roof of black ash-bark. Here they settled and brought up their family, and it was at Roxbury in this district, that John Burroughs was born on April 3, 1837. “I think April is the best month to be born in,” he says in one of his essays; “in April all nature starts with you.” His childhood was spent in healthy open-air life amid the scenery of this wild pastoral country, which he has described in his “Pepacton” (the Indian name for the eastern branch of the river Delaware) as “lifted into long round-backed hills and rugged wooded ranges by the subsiding impulse of the Catskill range of mountain, and famous for its superior dairy and other farm products.” “From childhood,” he says in another essay,1 “I was familiar with the homely facts of the barn, and of cattle and horses; the sugar-making in the maple woods in early spring, the work of the corn-field, hay-field, potato-field; the delicious fall months with their pigeon and squirrel shootings; threshing of buckwheat, gathering of apples, and burning of fallows; in short everything that smacked of, and led to, the open air and its exhilarations. I belonged, as I may say, to them; and my substance and taste, as they grew, assimilated them as truly as my body did its food. I loved a few books much, but I loved nature, in all those material examples and subtle expressions, with a love passing all the books in the world.” But though his heart, as he tells us, was always true to the scenes thus associated with his earliest reminiscences, it was not long before the restlessness of youth prompted him to go forth to seek his fortunes in the world—a world which was known to him in boyhood only by the occasional glimpses he obtained of the wonders of the town, with its great river and steamboats, when he assisted in taking to market the produce of his native farm. At the age of seventeen he went off and settled at Olive, Ulster County, where he supported himself by teaching. From 1863 to 1873 he held an appointment in the Treasury Department at Washington, but in later life he has resided chiefly at Esopus, on the bank of the Hudson River, eighty miles north of New York city. That in all places and under all circumstances he has been an observant and indefatigable student of nature, cannot be doubted by anyone who is at all familiar with his published writings.
Burroughs’ essays may be conveniently classed, according to their subjects, under the three heads of Nature, Travels, and Literature, of which the first-named is by far the most important and characteristic division. As a poet-naturalist, reproducing in graphic word-pictures the idyllic charm of outdoor life, and initiating his readers into the mysteries of woodcraft and bird-lore, he offers many points of resemblance both to Thoreau and Jefferies; there is the same intense watchfulness, the same patient self-possession, the same determined concentration of eye and ear on some particular locality. Of all Thoreau’s epigrammatic utterances, none, perhaps, has been so often challenged and criticised by incredulous readers as his apparently whimsical assertion, recorded by Emerson, that his native village of Concord was the most favoured centre for natural observation, since it contained in a small compass all the phenomena that could be noted elsewhere. Yet precisely the same sentiment may be found, independently expressed, both by Jefferies and Burroughs. “It has long been one of my fancies,” says the former, “that this country is an epitome of the natural world, and that if anyone has really come into contact with its productions, and is familiar with them, and what they mean and represent, then he has a knowledge of all that exists on the earth.”2 “I sit here,” says Barroughs, “amid the junipers of the Hudson, with purpose every year to go to Florida, or the West Indies, or to the Pacific Coast, yet the seasons pass and I am still loitering, with a half-defined suspicion, perhaps, that if I remain quiet, and keep a sharp look-out, these countries will come to me.” A sharp look-out Burroughs has certainly kept from his watch-tower on the Hudson—as sharp as that which Thoreau kept at Concord, or Jefferies at Coate. He also resembles Thoreau at times (though here with considerable limitations) in the habit of moralising in a vein of transcendental phantasy, and borrowing images from the life of nature to be applied to the life of man. Thus, in his essay entitled “Roof-Tree,” he expatiates, in an idealistic and Thoreau-like fashion, on the delights of building one’s own dwelling-house. “It seems to me,” he says, “that I built into my house every one of those superb autumn days which I spent in the woods getting stone. I did not quarry the limestone ledge into blocks any more than I quarried the delicious weather into memories to adorn my walls. Every load that was sent home carried my heart and happiness with it.” This sentiment might pass for one taken from “Walden” itself; and in the same way there are many passages in Burroughs’ writings, especially those indicative of a passion for wild free life, which suggest a close affinity of thought and temperament not only to his American predecessor, but also to his English contemporary.
On the other hand, Burroughs has none of the mysticism which underlies Jefferies’ writings, nor the self-consciousness which is so apparent in Thoreau; “the man that forgets himself,” he says, “he is the man we like.” He does not trouble himself about the mysteries of existence, or the perplexing spiritual problems by which the metaphysician is beset; it is the physical aspect of nature, in its simplest and most unsophisticated form, by which his attention is attracted. His genius shows itself in a thoroughly robust, healthy, genuine manner of thought, and in a literary style which is at once strong, picturesque, and idiomatic. He is no dilettante man of letter, no ambitious place-hunter, but a single-hearted lover of nature, endowed with all the simplicity and sincerity of Gilbert White, while he possesses also the finer instincts and deeper sympathies of a poet. “I had rather have the care of cattle,” he says in one of his essays, “than be the keeper of the great seal of the nation;” and all his writings bear evidence of the same hearty and disinterested spirit; of the powerful brain and the clear eye; of the sanity (for this is his dominant characteristic) that preserves a just balance between the powers of the body and the powers of the mind “What little literary work I do,” he writes in a letter to an American journal, “is entirely contingent on my health. If I am not feeling absolutely well with a good appetite for my food, a good appetite for sleep, for the open air, for life generally, there is no literary work for me. If my sleep has been broken or insufficient, the day that follows is lost to my pen. What do I do, then, to keep healthy? Lead a sane and simple life; go to bed at nine o clock, and get up at five in summer, and at six in winter; spend half of each day in the open air; avoid tea and coffee, tobacco, and all stimulating drinks; adhere mainly to a fruit and vegetable diet, and always aim to have something to do which I can do with zest.” However we may regard Burroughs’ fanciful assertion, that he built into his house on the Hudson the rich autumn days no less than the quarried limestone, his readers cannot fail to discover that he has written into his literary essays the strength and sanity which are an integral part of his life and character. His writings breathe the very freshness and flavour of the open air and the country-side.
In those essays which are based on reminiscences of his early days, as, for instance, in his “Phases of Farm Life,” Burroughs has drawn some delightful pictures of old-fashioned dwelling-houses; of Dutch barns, with hooded doors and huge gables; of scenes of threshing and dairy-work; of visits to the distant market-town across wild upland tracks when the writer, then a boy, made the journey, as he relates, “perched high on a spring-board, and saw more sights and wonders than I have ever seen on a journey since, or ever expect to see again;” of ploughing, fence-building, and other farm occupations; of flax-growing, hay-harvesting, and sugar-making in the maple-woods in spring. On the other hand, in such essays as “Spring at the Capital," which may be compared with much of Richard Jefferies’ “Nature near London,” we have some interesting records of Burroughs’ residence at Washington, giving proof that the true naturalist always keeps touch with nature, even when he is compelled to dwell in the town. It was not, however, altogether a town-life at this period. “I was then,” he says, “the fortunate and happy lessee of an old place with an acre of ground attached, almost within the shadow of the dome of the Capitol. Behind a high but aged and decrepit board-fence I indulged my rural and unclerical tastes. Inside that gate was a miniature farm, redolent of homely, primitive life, a tumble-down house and stables and implements of agriculture and horticulture, broods of chickens, and growing pumpkins, and a thousand antidotes to the weariness of an artificial life. Outside of it were the marble and iron palaces, the paved and blistering streets, and the high vacant mahogany desk of a government clerk.” Lastly, in “A River View,” and several other essays which deal with his later life at Esopus, he has given us some vivid and graphic sketches of the varied scenery of the Hudson, which at this point is a majestic river, navigated by large steamers—one of the great highways of civilisation, though wild and almost primeval forests stretch back from its bank. Now we see the river “sensitive, tremulous, and palpitating” in the full glory and pomp of summer; now entranced and becalmed in the haze of a mild autumn; now spell-bound and silent in the winter frosts, or ringing with the operations of the annual ice-harvest, when “the scenes and doings of summer are counterfeited upon these crystal plains;” and now again flowing with open current when set free by the wild winds and rains of spring.
Few writers have shown so great an appreciation as Burroughs of the picturesque element and impressive features in the constant march and succession of the four seasons, or have delineated so delicately the ambiguous shades of gradation that divide them. Here is a delightful spring picture (evidently a reminiscence of boyhood) from “A March Chronicle”:
I think any person who has tried it will agree with me about the charm of sugar-making, though he have no tooth for the sweet itself. It is enough that it is the first spring work, and takes one to the woods. The robins are just arriving, and their merry calls ring through the glades. The squirrels are now venturing out, and the woodpeckers and nuthatches run briskly up the trees. The crow begins to caw, with his accustomed heartiness and assurance; and one see the white rump and golden shafts of the high-hole as he flits about the open woods. Next week, or the week after, it may be time to begin ploughing and other sober work about the farm; but this week we will picnic among the maples, and our camp-fires shall be an incense to spring. Ah, I am there now! I see the woods flooded with sunlight; I smell the dry leaves, and the mould under them just quickened by the warmth; the long-trunked maples in their grey rough liveries stand thickly about; I see the brimming pans’ and buckets, always on the sunny side of the trees, and hear the musical dropping of the sap; the “boiling-place” with its delightful camp-features, is just beyond the first line, with its great arch looking to the south-west. The sound of its axe rings through the woods. The huge kettles or broad pans boil and foam, and I ask no other delight than to watch and tend them all day, to dip the sap from the great casks into them, and to replenish the fire with the newly-cut birch and beechwood.
A still more suggestive essay is that on “Autumn Tides,” in which Burroughs describes the autumn as in some respects an imitation or parody of the spring, “a second youth of the year,” when the air is again humid, the streams full, the leafage conspicuous, the birds less silent and retiring; “Nature,” he says, “is breaking camp, as in spring she was going into camp; the spring yearning and restlessness is represented in one by the increased desire to travel.” “For my part,” he adds in the same essay, “I find all literary work irksome from April to August; my sympathies run in other channels; the grass grows where meditation walked. As fall approaches, the currents mount to the bead again. But my thoughts do not ripen well till after there has been a frost.” Winter (if we may judge by the excellence of his writings on that theme) is the season which is especially congenial to Burroughs’ temperament, his stern, clear, masculine mind finding its natural spur and stimulant in the keen air, the crisp snow, and the firm frost-bound earth. “Winter Sunshine” is the title given to one of his most remarkable volumes, and the glories of winter have seldom been better celebrated than in such essays as “The Exhilarations of the Road” and “The Snow-Walkers,” from the latter of which the following passage is taken:
The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer. I should say winter had given the bone and sinews to literature, summer the tissues and blood. The simplicity of winter has a deep moral. The return of Nature, after such a career of splendour and prodigality, to habits so simple and austere, is not lost either upon the head or the heart. It is the philosopher coming back from the banquet and the wine to a cup of water and a crust of bread.
And then this beautiful masquerade of the elements—the novel disguises our nearest friend put on! Here is another rain and another dew, water that will not flow, nor spill, nor receive the taint of an unclean vessel. And, if we see truly, the same old beneficence and willingness to serve lurk beneath all.
Look up at the miracle of the falling snow,—the air a dizzy maze of whirling, eddying flakes, noiselessly transforming the world, the exquisite crystal dropping in ditch and gutter, and disguising in the same suit of spotless livery all objects upon which they fall. How novel and fine the first drifts! The old, dilapidated fence is suddenly set off with the most fantastic ruffles, scalloped and fluted after an unheard-of fashion! Looking down a long line of decrepit stonewall, in the trimming of which the wind had fairly run riot, I saw, as for the first time, what a severe yet master artist old Winter is. Ah, a severe artist! How stern the woods look, dark and cold, and as rigid against the horizon as iron!
It cannot be said of Burroughs, as Emerson has said of the humanitarian Thoreau, that “though a naturalist he used neither trap nor gun.” Directly or by implication, he pleads guilty to having borne his share in many a hunting expedition by field and forest, whether in tracking and trapping the fox among the snows of winter, or shooting the grey squirrel in the autumn woods, or “cooning” in the early spring, as when Cuff, the farm-dog, had discovered the whereabouts of a raccoon, “that brief summary of a bear,” in a neighbouring tree. It is, however, not the beasts, but the birds, that are the chief objects of Burroughs’ interest and attachment; not Wilson, nor Audubon, nor Michelet himself, could regard the bird-creation with a more enthusiastic devotion. A whole volume, “Wake-Robin,” is given up to the discussion of bird-lore; the title of another, “Birds and Poets,” bears witness to the same partiality for the feathered race; while a number of scattered essays—“A Bird Medley,” “Birds and Birds,” “Birds-Nesting,” and the like—deal with the same subject. It is noted by Burroughs that the valley of the Hudson, like other water-roads running north and south, forms a great natural highway for the birds in their annual migrations; so that from his home at Esopus he looks out, as from a post of vantage, on the movements of the various species. In April it is the robin that strikes the prevailing note; in May the bobolink; in the summer months the song-sparrow. Much mention is there also of the wood-thrush, and the mocking-bird, the pewee, the chickadee, the phœbe-bird, and a score of other unknown to English eyes and ears, yet made seemingly familiar by such writings as those of Thoreau and Burroughs. There is something contagious in the enthusiasm with which he records the sight of a long line of swans wending their way northwards high overhead; or of eagles and crows perched on floating blocks of ice; or of a soaring buzzard “placidly riding the vast aërial billow”; or of the rare incursion of multitudes of passenger-pigeons, “making the naked woods suddenly blue, as with fluttering ribbons and scarfs, and vocal as with the voices of children. “The very idea of a bird,” he says, “is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense is his life—large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song. The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all chimes, and knowing no bounds—how many human aspirations are realised in their free holiday-lives—and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!”
Bees also, and especially the wild bees, claim their due share of attention in Burroughs’ open-air studies, the title of one of his volume, “Locusts and Wild Honey,” giving an indication of the direction of his tastes, the name carrying with it, as he remarks, “a suggestion of the wild and delectable in nature, of the free and ungarnered harvests which the wilderness everywhere affords to the observing eye and ear.” In the essay on “The Pastoral Bees” he deals mainly with the domestic apiary, in the “Idyll of the Honey Bee” with the more exciting topic of honey-hunting in the wild woods, in which occupation the keen eye and strong nerve—two of Burroughs’ characteristic qualities—are indispensable to success. “I have never had any dread of bees,” he says, “and am seldom stung by them. I have climbed up into a large chestnut that contained a swarm in one of its cavities and chopped them out with an axe, being obliged at times to pause and brush the bewildered bees from my hands and face, and not be n stung once.”
Two of the most graceful and idyllic of Burroughs’ essays are those on “Our Rural Divinity” (the cow) and “The Apple.” The latter is, I think, the choicest of all his writings, with its pervading sense of mellow humour, its rich, ripe thought, and unfailing felicity of expression. The very flavour of the apple seems to have passed into such passages as the following:
Noble common fruit, best friend of man and most loved by him, following him like his dog or his cow, wherever he goes. His homestead is not planted till you are planted, your roots intertwine with his; thriving best where he thrives best, loving the limestone and the frost, the plough and the pruning-knife, you are indeed suggestive of hardy, cheerful industry, and a healthy life in the open air. Temperate, chaste fruit! you mean neither luxury nor sloth, neither satiety nor indolence, neither enervating heat nor the frigid zones. Uncloying fruit, fruit whose best sauce is the open air, whose finest flavour only he whose taste is sharpened by brisk work or walking knows; winter fruit, when the fire of life burns brightest; fruit always a little hyperborean, leaning toward the cold; bracing, sub-acid, active fruit. I think you must come from the north, you are so frank and honest, so sturdy and appetising. You are stocky and homely like the northern races. Your quality is axon. Surely the fiery and impetuous south is not akin to thee. Not spices or olives, or the sumptuous liquid fruit, but the grass, the snow, the grains, the coolness is akin to thee. I think if I could subsist on you, or the like of you, I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never be feverish or despondent. So far as I could absorb or transmute your quality, I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived and should shed warmth and contentment around.
Of the second class of Burroughs’ essays—those recording his experiences of foreign travel—little need here be said. His “Fresh Fields,” and “An October Abroad” which contain his impressions of English society and scenery, are written in a light, pleasant tone; while his keen eye for physical and hereditary traits in men and races serves to bring out very distinctly the radical and essential differences between the old country and the new. Some accounts of minor jaunts and holiday trips by river or forest are scarcely so successful perhaps because they unintentionally suggest comparison with the inimitable “Excursions” of Thoreau; the boat-trip, for instance, described in “Pepacton,” cannot compare for a moment with any of the chapters in Thoreau’s “Week on the Concord and Merrimack River.”
On the other hand, the essays on literary subjects, though few in number are most suggestive and valuable contributions to American criticism, and very characteristic of Burroughs’ own manner of thought. In “Before Genius” and “Before Beauty” he sets forth his views on the question of literature and art, to the effect that for a full and satisfactory expression of the literary and artistic faculties there is need of a background or substratum of healthy physical force; literature apart from life is a sickly and unnatural creation without strength or permanence. He insists that the quality which is indispensable to any lasting success in literature is “the man behind the book.” “Good human stock is the main dependence. No great poet ever appeared except from a race of good fighters, good eater, good sleepers, good breeders. Literature dies with the decay of the unliterary element.” So, too, with artistic beauty. “Beauty without a rank material basis enfeebles. Woe to any artist who disengages beauty from the wide background of rudeness, darkness, and strength—and disengages her from absolute Nature!” Burroughs’ love of wild vigorous, aboriginal nature is thus seen to form the central point of his critical philosophy, which is further exemplified and pressed home in some remarkably luminous and forcible essays on three typical American authors—Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Emerson whom Burroughs had studied, as he tells us, when he was himself “a well-grown country youth,” is regarded by him with the mixed feelings of an admirer and a critic, admiration of his splendid intellectual qualities being tempered by a sense of his deficiency in bulk, emotion, and massive strength. Nowhere, I think, have the salient characteristics of Emerson’s genius been seized and expressed with such insight and felicity as in Burroughs’ essay on “Birds and Poets.”
In fact, Emerson is an essence, a condensation; more so, perhaps, than any other man who has appeared in literature. Nowhere is there such a preponderance of pure statement, of the very attar of thought over the bulkier, circumstantial, qualifying, or secondary elements. He gives us net results. He is like those strong artificial fertilisers. A pinch of him is equivalent to a page or two of Johnson, and he is pitched many degrees higher as an essayist than even Bacon. . . . He is the Master Yankee, the centennial flower of that thrifty and peculiar stock. More especially in his later writings do we see the native New England traits—the alertness, eagerness, inquisitiveness, thrift, dryness, archness, caution, the nervous energy as distinguished from the old English unction and vascular force.
We have had great help in Emerson in certain ways—first-class service. But after him, the need is all the more pressing for a broad, powerful, opulent, human personality to absorb these ideals and make something more of them than fine sayings. With Emerson alone we are rich in sunlight, but poor in rain and dew—poor, too, in soil, and in the moist, gestating earth principle. Emerson’s tendency is not to broaden and enrich, but to concentrate and refine.
Burroughs’ essays on Thoreau are also marked by suggestive and discriminating judgment. He happily describes the Concord recluse as “a kind of Emersonian or transcendental red man, going about with a pocket-glass and an herbarium, instead of with a bow and a tomahawk.” “He went to Nature,” he says, “as to an oracle; and though he sometimes, indeed very often, questioned her as a naturalist and a poet, yet there was always another question in his mind.” This self-consciousness on the part of Thoreau, together with what Burroughs considers to be a lack of human sympathy, prevents him from regarding his fellow-naturalist as a really great personality, though he yields willing homage to his brilliant genius, his rich vein of thought and especially to that innate love of wildness with which he himself is so largely endowed. It was, perhaps, to be expected that Burroughs, with his rough, racy, full-blooded temperament, should miss somewhat of the intense charm which an idealist finds in Thoreau’s more mystic philosophy and humanitarian tendencies; yet, on the whole, even if he has done scant justice to this aspect of Thoreau’s writings, his portrait of the author of “Walden” remains the best word that has yet been said on the subject.
It is in Walt Whitman that he finds the “broad, powerful, opulent, human personality” which he craves as a corrective after the intense, didactic, over-concentrated writings of the Emersonian school. “All the works of Whitman,” he says, “prose and verse, are embosomed in a sea of emotional humanity, and they float deeper than they show; there is far more in what they necessitate and imply than in what they say.” No reader who is acquainted with Burroughs’ strong, sane cast of mind, and has noted his entire belief in full and healthy vitality, will be surprised to find him an ardent and enthusiastic admirer of the great poet of American democracy. His earliest published book was his “Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person,” issued in 1867, a small but interesting volume, unfortunately rather scarce in this country, in which may be found the gist of all, or nearly all, that has been written by Whitman’s later panegyrists; while in “The Flight of the Eagle” (1877), one of the best essays in “Birds and Poets,” he dealt in a shorter form with the same subject, a personal knowledge of the poet himself having now been added to a knowledge of his writings. “To tell me,” he says, “that Whitman is not a large, fine, fresh, magnetic personality, making you love him, and want to be always with him, were to tell me that my whole past life is a deception, and all the impression of my perceptives a fraud. I have studied him as I have studied the birds, and have found that the nearer I got to him the more I saw.” The following passage may be cited as giving the sum of his impressions:
The great lesson of Nature, I take it, is that a sane sensuality must be preserved at all hazards, and this, it seems to me, is also the great lesson of Whitman’s writings. The point is fully settled in him, that however they may have been held in abeyance, or restricted to other channels, there is still sap and fecundity and depth of virgin soil in the race, sufficient to produce a man of the largest mould and the most audacious and unconquerable egoism, and on a plane the last to be reached by the qualities; a man of antique stature, of Greek fibre and gripe, with science and the modem added, without abating one jot or tittle of his native force, adhesiveness, Americanism, and democracy.
We thus see that in his general view of life and conduct Burroughs is distinctly a follower and adherent of Whitman, caring little for the subtleties of creeds, philosophies, and metaphysical speculations, but holding a firm belief in the regenerating power of free, healthy, natural habits and frank human sympathies, while he is as firmly convinced of the dependence of all intellectual supremacy upon underlying physical vigour, or (to quote an expression of his own) on “good red blood, and plenty of it.” On the other hand, his love of wild nature, his keenly observant eye, and instinctive faculty of noting or divining the ways and movements of bird and beast, place him, as I have already remarked, in close affinity with certain other writers, such as Thoreau and Jefferies, whom he also resembles in the possession of that poetic insight which distinguishes the “poet-naturalist” from the naturalist pure and simple, and gives a literary form and a deeper significance to what would otherwise be a dry record of scientific observation. He differs from these kindred writers by reason of his greater sanity or self-possession, but together with this quality he has also the corresponding defects; for while he is saved from falling into the extravagances of thought and expression to which they are liable, his more solid and stable intellect is incapable of rising to the spiritual altitudes to which they sometimes attain. He has produced no volume that is comparable to Thoreau’s “Walden” or Jefferies’ “Story of My Heart,” either in imaginative fervour or literary grace; but his short essays are so strong, and suggestive and picturesque, that they can well hold their ground against any others that have been written on the same class of subjects, either in England or America. As an essayist on nature and natural history, Burroughs certainly deserves to be read and remembered, and the secret of his charm lies in the genuine personality that everywhere backs his writings—in his own formula, “the man behind the book.”
1 “Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person.”
2 The Life of the Fields—essay on “Sport and Science.”
Published: The Gentleman's Magazine, 1889 (Part 1)