As if dispelling the bookish air of the preceding chapter, Thoreau begins to praise a sharp alertness to existence and cautions against absorption in old epic poems. “Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?” he asks, making it clear that we should not be content with book-learning, but should look around and “see” things in our lives. But these things we are to “see” are not grand ideas; the sort of vision Thoreau has in mind is that of idle sitting on a doorstep in the warm sunlight, as he describes himself doing. He hears a sparrow chirp, and contemplates the sumac and some other plants.
Thoreau’s tranquility is interrupted by the “scream” of the Fitchburg Railroad, which passes near his home. His thoughts turn to commerce. While he lauds the active resourcefulness, even calling it “bravery,” of tradesmen, he fears that an excessive zeal for business will ruin the wit and thoughtfulness of the nation. On Sundays Thoreau hears the bells of churches. At night he often hears the owls, “midnight hags,” whose moans he interprets as “Oh-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n!” He rejoices that owls exist, for they can do their “idiotic and maniacal hooting” for men, voicing the “unsatisfied thoughts which all have.” Thoreau notes that even without a rooster or any other kept animals, his home is full of the sounds of beasts. Nature is creeping up, he says, to his very windowsill.
Thoreau describes a “delicious evening” in which he feels at one with nature, “a part of herself.” It is cool and windy, but nevertheless the bullfrogs and night animals give it a special charm. When he returns to his home, he finds that visitors have passed by and left small gifts and tokens. Thoreau remarks that even though his closest neighbor is only a mile away, he may as well be in Asia or Africa, so great is his feeling of solitude. Paradoxically, he is not alone in his solitude, since he is “suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature . . . as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant.” It is not that he is giving up society, but rather that he is exchanging the “insignificant” society of humans for the superior society of nature. He explains that loneliness can occur even amid companions if one’s heart is not open to them. Thoreau meditates on the deep pleasure he feels in escaping the gossips of the town. Instead of their poisonous company, he has the company of an old settler who lives nearby and tells him mystical stories of “old time and new eternity,” and the company of an old woman whose “memory runs back farther than mythology.” It is unclear whether these companions are real or imaginary. Thoreau again praises the benefits of nature and of his deep communion with it. He maintains that the only medicine he needs in life is a draught of morning air.
While the preceding chapter on reading emphasizes the connections between the individual and society (if not the inferior society of Concord, then the grand society of great past authors), these two chapters focus on the individual by himself. Yet, paradoxically, this removal from society does not mean that Thoreau is alone, for he continually asserts that nature offers better society than humans do. What Thoreau means by “solitude,” we discover, is not loneliness or isolation, but rather self-communion and introspection. It has little to do with the physical proximity of others, since he says that a man can be lonely when surrounded by others if he does not feel real companionship with them.
Solitude is thus more a state of mind than an actual physical circumstance, and for Thoreau it approaches a mystical state. Solitude means that he is on his own spiritually, confronting the full array of nature’s bounty without any intermediaries. The importance of worldly affairs, even the ones that occupy him in the first chapters, fades. Far less activity, whether physical or mental, occupies these chapters, than had occupied earlier ones. Thoreau is emptying his life of busy work in order to confront the reality of the cosmos. There are no more messages from great minds to decipher; Thoreau here does not listen to another’s words or heed another’s authority, but rather perceives empty sounds like the hooting of owls, the scream of the Fitchburg train, and the bells of the local church. These sounds are different from the words of Aeschylus and Homer mentioned in the last chapter not only because they are audible rather than silent, but also because they have no wisdom or message to convey. The wail of the train does not signify anything; it merely wails. The sparrow chirps, but there is no clue as to what, if anything, it wishes to communicate.
Unlike the earlier vision of an existence full of ideas and meanings, these chapters offer a vision of a universe strangely absurd, a “tale told by an idiot,” to echo Macbeth, as Thoreau is consciously doing. Thoreau describes the owls’ hooting as “idiotic and maniacal,” and he compares the nocturnal birds to “midnight hags,” referring directly to Macbeth’s description of the three witches as “secret black and midnight hags” (IV, i, 63). And just as the witches express Macbeth’s deep unconscious desire for kingship, so too is Thoreau grateful to the owls for voicing the “unsatisfied thoughts” that men cannot express consciously. Macbeth’s vision of a chaotic and violent universe may seem to have little to do with Thoreau’s tranquil mood in these chapters. But his emphatic allusions to Shakespeare’s play suggest that the basic idea of the mysterious and inscrutable universe is the same in both, as well as the idea that the individual human mind is the source of meaning in it, for good or for bad. Thus Thoreau praises the idea of being a “seer,” just as Macbeth is a visionary hero who sees himself king of Scotland and sees an imaginary dagger before his eyes. Macbeth creates a mental vision of horror that becomes reality for him; Thoreau is also creating a vision of himself similarly powerful and independent, but without succumbing to the voices of the hags.