Harding lecture explores measures, mind of Thoreau

On Sept. 12, Geneseo hosted the 10th annual Walter Harding lecture. Dr. Laura Dassow Walls, William P. and Hazel B. White professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, presented a lecture titled “Of Compass, Chains, and Sounding Lines: Taking Thoreau’s Measure” in commemoration of the event. Harding was a professor of English at Geneseo from 1956 to 1982 as well as a pre-eminent scholar of the life of the scientist and poet Henry David Thoreau, about whom he published several books. The annual lectures were the brainchild of Harding’s wife Marjorie Brook Harding in an attempt to commemorate her husband’s studies.

“To my mind, [Harding] remains the most distinguished professor ever to teach at Geneseo,” President Christopher Dahl said, adding that he “really created the field of Thoreau studies in the 20th century as we know it.”

“[Harding] saw Thoreau as a hero,” Walls said. She is an active member of the Thoreau Society and is currently working on a biography about Thoreau.

Walls’ lecture focused on the aspects of “measure” within Thoreau’s works and broke the overall lecture into three essential parts of Thoreau’s studies: “The Metrics of Poetry,” “The Metrics of Science” and “The Metrics of Nature.” Each section included various aspects of “measurement” throughout his work, both literal and figurative; Thoreau used measurement in daily life, through his scientific studies and poetically through the language of his writing.

“It does still seem a truth universally admitted that a romantic poet cannot carry a tape measure in his pocket,” Walls said. “We feel confirmed in our assumptions when we read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous aspersions on the so-called ‘half site’ of science, which fails to recognize that we do not learn by any addition of subtraction or other known quantities but by untaught sallies of the spirit.”

Walls explained Thoreau’s contradiction of Emerson’s assumption. She said that he used measure in order to further delve into the human soul and the human relationship with its surroundings.

“Measurement is at the heart of Thoreau’s literary art,” Walls said. “Taking the measure of things was the soul of his poetics, a hand by which he grasped the world.”

Walls said Thoreau was one of the first to entwine the studies of science and humanities, an act he did through his poetry and writings like Walden.

“The job of the poet scientist … was to do the work of translating the laws discovered by science into the laws of human nature,” Walls said.

The lecture continued into topics of Thoreau’s specific studies, including his experiences and “measurements” taken at Walden Pond, his home for over two years.

Walls concluded her lecture by questioning what exactly Thoreau embodied as a human, to which she answered, “[Thoreau] is a poet who, measure by measure, would step over the chasm between us and sing the cosmos into being.”