In the summer of 1845, 27-year-old Henry David Thoreau came to Walden Pond to be alone. He recorded his thoughts, observations and beliefs on a wide variety of subjects, particularly the value of the natural world, the tenets of the transcendental movement, and the necessity of civil disobedience in a modern society. The resulting work, Walden, would go on to be one of the most influential books in American history, joining Thoreau’s quotable library of essays, journal entries, correspondence, and other works of writing.
As a prominent transcendentalist in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau believed in the divinity of nature and one’s self, the importance of living a simple, self-reliant life, and the significance of the present moment. His book Walden reflects these beliefs, as does his lifetime of dated journal entries and letters to friends.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” - Walden
“Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.” - Walden
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.” - Walden
“As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.” - Walden
“Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense?” - Walden
“You ask particularly after my health. I suppose that I have not many months to live; but, of course, I know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.” - letter to Myron Benton, 1862
“And the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” - Walden
“Every poet has trembled on the verge of science.” - journal entry from July 18, 1852
“Men are probably nearer the essential truth in their superstitions than in their science.” - June 27, 1852
“It is better to have your head in the clouds and know where you are... than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them and think that you are in paradise.” - letter to Harrison Blake, 1853
“Being is the great explainer.” - February 26, 1841
“We are apt to imagine that this hubbub of Philosophy, Literature, and Religion, which is heard in pulpits, lyceums, and parlors, vibrates through the universe, and is as catholic a sound as the creaking of the earth's axle. But if a man sleeps soundly, he will forget it all between sunset and dawn.” - January 6, 1842
Over and over, Thoreau states his comfort with and preference for solitude. His time at Walden Pond solidified these values for the writer, who found that his silent moments resulted in profound moments of self-discovery.
“In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” - Walden
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” - Walden
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” - Walden
“We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” - Walden
“I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” - Walden
Another tenet of transcendental life involved simplicity. Thoreau did not shy away from this belief; indeed, he often implores his reader to abandon the petty details of their life and live in the present moment.
“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.” - April 24, 1859
“We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.” - Walden
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” - Walden
“That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” - March 11, 1856
“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite — only a sense of existence.” - letter to Harrison Blake, 1853
“Our life is frittered away by detail. … Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. … Simplify, simplify.” - Walden
“You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.” - On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
“The commonest and cheapest sounds, as the barking of a dog, produce the same effect on fresh and healthy ears that the rarest music does. It depends on your appetite for sound. Just as a crust is sweeter to a healthy appetite than confectionery to a pampered or diseased one.” - December 27, 1857
“A slight sound at evening lifts me up by the ears, and makes life seem inexpressibly serene and grand. It may be Uranus, or it may be in the shutter.” - July 10-12, 1841
A transcendentalist values unvarnished truth and the inherent goodness of mankind. Thoreau reflects these beliefs throughout his body of work.
“The lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.” - On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
“It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak, and another to hear.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
“That virtue we appreciate is as much ours as another's. We see so much only as we possess.” - June 22, 1839
“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass -- I the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.” - Walden
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” - Walden
“There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.” - Walden
“Goodness is the only investment that never fails.” - Walden
“Be not simply good — be good for something.” - letter to Harrison Blake, 1848
“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” - Walden
“As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.” - Walden
Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond allowed him to become more connected to nature, as well as the changing seasons and the minute details of the day. These observations and reflections appear in his many journal entries and other written works.
“You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell more than the sweet crust of any bread or cake; you must be able to extract nutriment out of a sand heap. You must have so good an appetite as this, else you will live in vain.” - January 25, 1858
“What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?” - letter to Harrison Blake, 1860
“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.” - Life Without Principle
“A gun gives you the body, not the bird.” - quoted in The Guinness Dictionary of Sports Quotations
“All that is told of the sea has a fabulous sound to an inhabitant of the land, and all its products have a certain fabulous quality, as if they belonged to another planet, from seaweed to a sailor’s yarn, or a fish story. In this element the animal and vegetable kingdoms meet and are strangely mingled.” - Cape Cod
“The bluebird carries the sky on his back”. - April 3, 1852
“We can never have enough of nature … We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” - Walden
“Some sounds seem to reverberate along the plain, and then settle to earth again like dust; such are Noise, Discord, Jargon. But such only as spring heavenward, and I may catch from steeples and hilltops in their upward course, which are the more refined parts of the former, are the true sphere music — pure, unmixed music — in which no wail mingles.” - March 14, 1838
To Thoreau, the morning hours were a sacred and important time of the day. He often returned to these reflections throughout his work.
“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning.” - Walden
“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” - journal from April 20, 1840
“And now, at half-past ten o'clock, I hear the cockerels crow in Hubbard's barns, and morning is already anticipated. It is the feathered, wakeful thought in us that anticipates the following day.” - July 11, 1851
“Morning brings back the heroic ages... There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.” - Walden
Whether the world was frozen over or pleasantly warm, Thoreau was fascinated by it. The seasonal changes informed his view on the human condition, as well as the genius of the natural world.
“Many of the phenomena of Winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.” - Walden
“Is not all the summer akin to a paradise?” - May 9, 1852
“One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.” - Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings
“The same law that shapes the earth-star shapes the snow-star. As surely as the petals of a flower are fixed, each of these countless snow-stars comes whirling to earth...these glorious spangles, the sweeping of heaven's floor.” - January 5, 1856
“Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.” - January 5, 1856
“For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and did my duty faithfully, though I never received one cent for it.” - February 22, 1846
Thoreau repeatedly wrote about the duty of the citizen to uphold justice — even when their government is not returning the favor. His views on civil disobedience would go on to influence famous activists such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” - Slavery in Massachusetts
“The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.” - Walking
“I would remind my countrymen, that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour. No matter how valuable law may be to protect your property, even to keep soul and body together, if it do not keep you and humanity together.” - Slavery in Massachusetts
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” - On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
"The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free." - Slavery in Massachusetts
“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” - On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
“Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant.” - Slavery in Massachusetts
Whether it was in Walden, his journal or his many other works, Thoreau often had advice and reflections about how to live one’s life. Each quote is an apt reminder to be truly self-reflective and honest about our experiences.
“There is no remedy for love but to love more.” - July 25, 1839
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” - Walden
“One cannot too soon forget his errors and misdemeanors. To dwell long upon them is to add to the offense. Repentance and sorrow can only be displaced by something better, which is as free and original as if they had not been.” - January 9, 1842
“The perception of beauty is a moral test.” - June 21, 1852
“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.” - August 30, 1856
“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” - February 3, 1860
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” - August 5, 1851
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?” - Walden
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” - Walden
“Wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.” - Walden
“Who looks in the sun will see no light else; but also he will see no shadow. Our life revolves unceasingly, but the centre is ever the same, and the wise will regard only the seasons of the soul.” - March 10, 1841
“My life has been the poem I could have writ, but I could not both live and utter it.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
“We are as much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge. The hands only serve the eyes.” - April 9, 1841
“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” - Walden
“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” - November 13, 1839
“Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.” - Walden
Success to a transcendentalist is not the same as success to the average person. Thoreau’s views on a person’s success had less to do with their achievements and more to do with their self-fulfillment.
“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” - letter to Harrison Blake, 1857
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” - Walden
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” - Walden
“The world is but a canvas to our imagination.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
At only 27, Thoreau was able to see Walden Pond and the rest of the world through youthful eyes. He often reflected on life through this context and periodically returned to it as he grew older.
“Things do not change; we change.” - Walden
“The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” - July 14, 1852
“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” - Walden
“We seem but to linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish out of memory ere we learn the language.” - February 19, 1841
“I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” - Walden
Even though Thoreau valued his solitude, he also had love for his friends. Each quote about friendship reflects Thoreau’s understanding that the comfort of solitude is magnified when one knows that friends are around the corner.
“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance. They make the latitudes and longitudes.” - letter to Lidian Jackson Emerson, 1843
“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend's life also, in our own, to the world.” - February 28, 1840
“The Friend asks no return but that his Friend will religiously accept and wear and not disgrace his apotheosis of him. They cherish each other’s hopes. They are kind to each other’s dreams.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
“The most I can do for my friend is simply to be his friend. I have no wealth to bestow on him. If he knows that I am happy in loving him, he will want no other reward. Is not friendship divine in this?” - February 7, 1841
“True friendship can afford true knowledge. It does not depend on darkness and ignorance.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
A prolific writer and reader alike, Thoreau knew the value of a good book. His reflections on high-quality literature and the essence of poetry satisfy every lover of the written word.
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
“A truly good book is something as wildly natural and primitive, mysterious and marvelous, ambrosial and fertile, as a fungus or a lichen.” - November 16, 1852
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book? The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered.” - Walden
“As for style of writing if one has anything to say, it drops from him simply and directly, as a stone falls to the ground.” - letter to Daniel Ricketson, 1857
“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” - August 19, 1851
“If you are describing any occurrence... make two or more distinct reports at different times... We discriminate at first only a few features, and we need to reconsider our experience from many points of view and in various moods in order to perceive the whole.” - March 24, 1857
“Good poetry seems so simple and natural a thing that when we meet it we wonder that all men are not always poets. Poetry is nothing but healthy speech.” - November 30, 1841
“Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.” - Walden
Thoreau wasn’t only a reflective, serious writer — he often had some funny remarks! His wry sense of humor is especially evident in his later years, though one need not look too hard for it throughout his body of work.
“I fear that I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold.” - A Yankee in Canada
“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” - November 11, 1850
“Nothing is so much to be feared as fear. Atheism may comparatively be popular with God himself.” - Excursions
“Fire is the most tolerable third party.” - January 2, 1853
Henry David Thoreau may have stood alone at Walden Pond, but he hardly stands alone in the realm of excellent literary quotations. You’ll find many more author quotes by reading: