Thoreau’s Search for a Hero Leads Him to Walter Raleigh

The Thoreau just keeps on coming here at The Picket Line, as I threaten to make this an All Thoreau All The Time station.

Today, it’s Sir Walter Raleigh, which is based on notes for an article Thoreau was preparing for The Dial before that journal went under — an article that itself was based on a lecture Thoreau gave in .

When reading this essay, I feel out-of-my-depth in a sea of casual references to personalities and events. Raleigh himself I’m pretty vague on — isn’t he the guy John Lennon cursed for bringing tobacco back to Europe? A few days ago, if you’d asked me to add much to that description I would have had to break out the shovel.

So I may very well just not get it, but my first impression of this essay is that it’s kind of ridiculous. I have a hard time understanding how the Thoreau who went on to write moving exhortations of individualist anarchism and conscientious objection started out by writing such things as an admiring profile of an obsequious courtier, palace intriguer, military adventurer, and colonialist gold-hunter.

The reason it is nonetheless an interesting essay to read is that Thoreau was clearly looking for a hero, was unable to find one in “the vast Xerxean army of reformers” in his own time and place, and so he went back in time and back to England to search for a heroic character.

Raleigh, on close examination, didn’t quite fit the bill either. He had all of the temperament of a hero, but was not particularly, or in any case exclusively, interested in pursuits that were honorable enough to justify being valiant for.

So Thoreau imagines some hybrid of Raleigh and a conscientious religious or political dissenter: “if to his genius and culture could have been added the temperament of George Fox or Oliver Cromwell, perhaps the world would have had reason longer to remember him”

We would fain witness a heroism which is literally illustrious, whose daily life is the stuff of which our dreams are made; so that the world shall regard less what it does than how it does it; and its actions unsettle the common standards, and have a right to be done, however wrong they may be to the moralist.

He concludes by begging America to produce such a hero:

We have considered a fair specimen of an Englishman in the sixteenth century; but it behoves us to be fairer specimens of American men in the nineteenth. The gods have given man no constant gift, but the power and liberty to act greatly. How many wait for health and warm weather to be heroic and noble! We are apt to think there is a kind of virtue which need not be heroic and brave — but in fact virtue is the deed of the bravest; and only the hardy souls venture upon it, for it deals in what we have no experience, and alone does the rude pioneer work of the world. In winter is its campaign, and it never goes into quarters. “Sit not down,” said Sir Thomas Browne, “in the popular seats and common level of virtues, but endeavor to make them heroical. Offer not only peace-offerings, but holocausts, unto God.”

, America answered his call with a hero who was more than willing to offer holocausts unto God: John Brown.

Compare, for instance, the following selections from Sir Walter Raleigh and The Last Days of John Brown, and see Thoreau’s John Brown leaping into the template Thoreau prepared for him years before:

…no one can read [Raleigh’s] letter to his wife, written while he was contemplating [suicide], without being reminded of the Roman Cato, and admiring while he condemns him.… The night before his execution, besides writing letters of farewell to his wife, containing the most practical advice for the conduct of her life, he appears to have spent the time in writing verses on his condition…

But he wrote his poems, after all, rather with ships and fleets, and regiments of men and horse. At his bidding, navies took their place in the channel, and even from prison he fitted out fleets with which to realize his golden dreams, and invited his companions to fresh adventures.
To omit his other behavior, see what a work this comparatively unread and unlettered man wrote within six weeks. Where is our professor of belles-lettres, or of logic and rhetoric, who can write so well? He wrote in prison, not a History of the World, like Raleigh, but an American book which I think will live longer than that. I do not know of such words, uttered under such circumstances, and so copiously withal, in Roman or English or any history. What a variety of themes he touched on in that short space! There are words in that letter to his wife, respecting the education of his daughters, which deserve to be framed and hung over every mantelpiece in the land.

Thoreau also read Raleigh’s The Soul’s Errand at a commemoration at the time of Brown’s execution, introducing it by saying: “The well-known verses called ‘The Soul’s Errand,’ supposed, by some, to have been written by Sir Walter Raleigh, when he was expecting to be executed the following day, are at least worthy of such an origin, and are equally applicable to the present case.”

Among the passages of Raleigh’s writing Thoreau refers to is this one, from A Discourse of the Original and Fundamental Cause of Natural, Arbitrary, Necessary, and Unnatural War, which I thought was interesting enough to reproduce here:

[N]o senate nor civil assembly can be under such natural impulses to honor and justice as single persons; for politic members meet with neither encouragement nor reproaches for what was the effect of number only. For a majority is nobody when that majority is separated, and a collective body can have no synteresis, or divine ray, which is in the mind of every man, never assenting to evil, but upbraiding and tormenting him when he does it: but the honor and conscience that lies in the majority is too thin and diffusive to be efficacious; for a number can do a great wrong, and call it right, and not one of that majority blush for it. Hence it is, that though a public assembly may lie under great censures, yet each member looks upon himself as little concerned: this must be the reason why a Roman senate should act with less spirit and less honor than any single Roman would do.