Liberal Arts Blog — What a Pair! Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau

John Muresianu
5 min readJan 11, 2022


Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Religion, and Culture Day

Today’s Topic: What a Pair! Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

Neither married. Neither appears to have ever had sex. With man or woman. Both died relatively young. Thoreau at 44. Dickinson at 55. Thoreau lived in semi-seclusion in a cabin by Walden pond for two years and two months. Dickinson lived in isolation in a bedroom in her parent’s home for decades. But Thoreau was basically quite sociable, while Dickinson was not. Today, a few quotes I have stumbled upon recently from these two 19th century Massachusetts eccentrics, as well as a few comments from Hawthorne, Emerson, and Stevenson on Thoreau. Finally, a footnote on Emily’s white dress. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

EMILY DICKINSON (1830–1886) — poetry, nature, art

1. “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.”

2. “Morning without you is a dwindled dawn.”

3. “This is my letter to the world That never wrote to me”

NB: “Nature is a haunted house — but Art — is a house that tries to be haunted.”

HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1817–1886) — the best books, details, the greatest compliment

1. “Read the best books first or you may never have a chance to read them at all.”

2. “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

3. “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

NB: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”


1. “He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne — above)

2. “That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, & ventures on & performs tasks which I am forced to decline. In reading him, I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, & illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. ’Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, & saw youths leap, climb, & swing with a force unapproachable, — though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings & jumps.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

3. “Thoreau’s thin, penetrating, big-nosed face, even in a bad woodcut, conveys some hint of the limitations of his mind and character. With his almost acid sharpness of insight, with his almost animal dexterity in act, there went none of that large, unconscious geniality of the world’s heroes. He was not easy, not ample, not urbane, not even kind; his enjoyment was hardly smiling, or the smile was not broad enough to be convincing; he had no waste lands nor kitchen-midden in his nature, but was all improved and sharpened to a point. “He was bred to no profession,” says Emerson; “he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. When asked at dinner what dish he preferred, he answered, ‘the nearest.’” So many negative superiorities begin to smack a little of the prig. From his later works he was in the habit of cutting out the humorous passages, under the impression that they were beneath the dignity of his moral muse; and there we see the prig stand public and confessed.”(Robert Louis Stevenson)

FOOTNOTE — Emily Dickinson’s white dress, visitors, the promise broken

1. “She dresses wholly in white and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful.” (Mabel Loomis Todd)

2. “Dickinson was buried in white and enclosed in a white casket.” (fourth link)

3.“She did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face.”

NB: “Although she continued to write in her last years, Dickinson stopped editing and organizing her poems. She also exacted a promise from her sister Lavinia to burn her papers.” Some promises are best broken.

Emily Dickinson — Wikipedia

Emily Dickinson House (U.S. National Park Service)

Emily Dickinson — Wikiquote

Emily Dickinson’s White Dress — Emily Dickinson Museum

Myths and Misconceptions | The Walden Woods Project

Henry David Thoreau — Wikipedia


PDF with headlines — Google Drive

YOUR TURN Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to words, language, literature, religion, culture. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to Words, Language, Literature (eg. quotes, poetry, vocabulary) that you have not yet shared.

This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.



John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.