Thoreau on Carnac
Medieval History

Thoreau on Carnac

Thoreau, though he never left these American shores, wrote about Carnac! At this late hour, I can do little but happily quote favorite lines and revel in his own mixed emotions. He's traveling down the Concord and Merrimack rivers and he starts to worry about nature and history.

"There lie the stones which completed their revolutions perhaps before thoughts began to revolve in the brain of man."

He keeps on looking at the trees and stones around him in his beloved American landscape and resigns himself to say "These, and such as these, must be our antiquities, for lack of human vestiges."

He then gets defensive, thinking on Rome and all of its vestiges:

"Our own country furnishes antiquities as ancient and durable, and as useful, as any... What if we cannot read Rome, or Greece, Etruria, or Carthage, or Egypt, or Babylon, on these; are our cliffs bare? The lichen on the rocks is a rude and simple shield which beginning and imperfect Nature suspended there."

And then he lets loose among his stones and trees: "Carnac! Carnac! here is Carnac for me." But he doesn't leave the matter until a full poem emerges:

This is my Carnac, whose unmeasured dome
Shelters the measuring art and measurer's home.
Behold these flowers, let us be up with time,
Not dreaming of three thousand years ago,
Erect ourselves and let those columns lie,
Not stoop to raise a foil against the sky.
Where is the spirit of that time but in
This present day, perchance the present line?
Three thousand years ago are not agone,
They are still lingering in this summer morn,
And Memnon's Mother sprightly greets us now,
Wearing her youthful radiance on her brow.
If Carnac's columns still stand on this plain, 
To enjoy our opportunities they remain.
     --- from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

He's seeking to displace Carnac's monumentality, I think, in favor of that of his beloved own stones and flowers, but he's drawn to Carnac's stoniness, to its age, to the age of its stoniness before it became art - as though trying (maybe?) to separate out the stone from the art. But at the same time, I think that somewhere in there (in his seeking of "that time" - the time of the stones, right?) he admires art's ability to hold nature in place. Maybe just a little bit. He does speak of the measuring art, albeit beneath an unmeasured dome.  May we all have our Carnacs, though for me, I will gladly always "stoop to raise a foil against the sky."

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