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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Burroughs (1837–1921)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JOHN BURROUGHS was born in Roxbury, New York, April 3d, 1837, and like many other American youths who later in life became distinguished, he went to school winters and worked on the farm in summer. He grew up among people who neither read books nor cared for them, and he considers this circumstance best suited to his development. Early intercourse with literary men would, he believes, have dwarfed his original faculty.  1
  He began to write essays at the age of fourteen, but these early literary efforts give little hint of his later work, of that faculty for seeing, and commenting on all that he saw in nature, which became his chief characteristic. He was especially fond of essays; one of his first purchases with his own money was a full set of Dr. Johnson, and for a whole year he lived on ‘The Idler’ and ‘The Rambler’ and tried to imitate their ponderous prose. His first contributions to literature, modeled on these essays, were promptly returned. By chance he picked up a volume of Emerson, the master who was to revolutionize his whole manner of thinking; and as he had fed on Dr. Johnson he fed on the ‘Essays and Miscellanies,’ until a paper he wrote at nineteen on ‘Expressions’ was accepted by the editor of the Atlantic, with a lurking doubt whether it had not come to him on false pretenses, as it was very much like an early essay of Emerson.  2
  Mr. Burroughs ascribes to Emerson, who stimulated his religious nature, his improved literary expression; while Whitman was to him a great humanizing power, and Matthew Arnold taught him clear thinking and clean writing. He had passed through these different influences by the time he was twenty-one or twenty-two; had taught for a while; and from 1863 to 1873 was vault-keeper and afterwards chief of the organization division of the Bureau of National Banks, in the Treasury Department. For several years afterward he was a special national bank examiner.  3
  His first volume, ‘Notes on Walt Whitman as a Poet and a Person’ (1867), was followed by a long series of books on themes drawn from the world of nature. Their very titles give a hint of their charm; as ‘Wake Robin’ (1871); ‘Birds and Poets’ (1877); ‘Locusts and Wild Honey’ (1879); ‘Fresh Fields’ (1884); ‘Ways of Nature’ (1905), and a volume of poems, ‘Bird and Bough’ (1906). In 1916 he was awarded the gold medal of the National Academy of Arts and Letters for eminence as an essayist.  4
  The literary quality of his writings from the first captivates the reader. He has the interpretive power which makes us see what he sees and invites us to share his enjoyment in his strange adventures. The stories of the wary trout and the pastoral bee, the ways of sylvan folk, their quarrels and their love-making, are so many character sketches on paper, showing a most intimate acquaintance with nature.  5
  He is a born naturalist. He tells us that from childhood he was familiar with the homely facts of the barn, the cattle and the horses, the sugar-making and the work of the corn-field, the hay-field, the threshing, the planting, the burning of fallows. He “loved nature in those material examples and subtle expressions, with a love passing all the books in the world.” But he also loved and knew books, and this other love gives to his works their literary charm.  6
  His account of a bird, a flower, or an open-air incident, however painstaking and minute the record, teems with literary memories. The sight of the Scotch hills recalls Shakespeare’s line,
  “The tufty mountains where lie the nibbling sheep.”
The plane-tree vocal with birds’ voices recalls Tennyson,—“The pillared dusk of sounding sycamores”; he hears the English chaffinch, and remembers with keen delight that Drayton calls it “the throstle with sharp thrills,” and Ben Jonson “the lusty throstle.” After much wondering, he finds out why Shakespeare wrote
                  “The murmuring surge
That on the unnumbered idle pebbles chafes,”
his own experience being that sea-shores are sandy; but the pebbled cliffs of Folkestone, with not a grain of sand on the chalk foundation, justified the poet.
  7
  This lover of nature loves not only the beautiful things he sees, but he loves what they suggest, what they remind him of, what they bid him aspire to. Like Wordsworth, he “looks on the hills with tenderness, and makes deep friendship with the streams and groves.” He notes what he divines by observation. And what an observer he is! He discovers that the bobolink goes south in the night. He scraped an acquaintance with a yellow rumpled warbler who, taking the reflection of the clouds and blue sky in a pond for a short cut to the tropics, tried to cross it; with the result of his clinging for a day and night to a twig that hung down in the water.  8
  Burroughs has found that whatever bait you use in a trout stream,—grasshopper, grub, or fly,—there is one thing you must always put on your hook; namely, your heart. It is a morsel they love above everything else. He tells us that man has sharper eyes than a dog, a fox, or any of the wild creatures except the birds, but not so sharp an ear or a nose; he says that a certain quality of youth is indispensable in the angler, a certain unworldliness and readiness to invest in an enterprise that does not pay in current coin. He says that nature loves to enter a door another hand has opened: a mountain view never looks better than when one has been warmed up by the capture of a big trout. Like certain wary game, she is best taken by seeming to pass her by, intent on other matters. What he does not find out for himself, people tell him. From a hedge-cutter he learns that some of the birds take an earth-bath and some a water-bath, while a few take both; a farmer boy confided to him that the reason we never see any small turtles is because for two or three years the young turtles bury themselves in the ground and keep hidden from observation. From a Maine farmer he heard that both male and female hawks take part in incubation. A barefooted New Jersey boy told him that “lampers” die as soon as they have built their nests and laid their eggs. How apt he is in similes! The pastoral fields of Scotland are “stall-fed,” and the hillsides “wrinkled and dimpled, like the forms of fatted sheep.”  9
  And what other bird-lover has such charming fancies about birds, in whom he finds a hundred human significances? “The song of the bobolink,” he says, “expresses hilarity; the sparrow sings faith, the bluebird love, the catbirds pride, the white-eyed fly-catchers self-consciousness, that of the hermit thrush spiritual serenity, while there is something military in the call of the robin.” Mr. Burroughs has been compared with Thoreau, but he seems closer to White of Selborne, whom he has commemorated in one of his most charming essays. Like White, he is a literary man who is a born naturalist in close intimacy with his brute neighbors and “rural nature’s varied shows.” In both, the moral element is back of nature and the source of her value and charm. Never nature for her own sake, but for the sake of the soul that is above all and over all. Like White, too, though by nature solitary, Burroughs is on cordial terms with his kind. He is an accurate observer, and he takes Bryant to task for giving an odor to the yellow violet, and Coleridge for making a lark perch on the stalk of a foxglove. He gloats over a felicitous expression, like Arnold’s “blond meadow-sweet” and Tennyson’s “little speedwell’s darling blue”; though in commenting on another poet he waives the question of accuracy, and says “his happy literary talent makes up for the poverty of his observation.”  10
  And again as with White, he walks through life slowly and in a ruminating fashion, as though he had leisure to linger with the impression of the moment. Incident he uses with reserve, but with picturesque effects; figures do not dominate his landscape but humanize it.  11
  As a critic Mr. Burroughs most fully reveals his personality. In his sketches of nature we see what he sees; in his critiques, what he feels and thinks. The cry of discovery he made when ‘Leaves of Grass’ fell into his hands found response in England and was re-echoed in this country till Burroughs’s strange delight in Whitman seemed no longer strange, but an accepted fact in the history of poetry. The essay on Emerson, his master, shows the same discriminating mind. But as a revelation of both author and subject there are few more delightful papers than Burroughs’s essay on Thoreau. In manner it is as pungent and as racy as Thoreau’s writings, and as epigrammatic as Emerson’s; and his defense of Thoreau against the English reviewer who dubbed him a “skulker” has the sound of the trumpet and the martial tread of soldiers marching to battle.  12
 
 
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