Autograph manuscript of ‘The Assabet,’ three pages on two 7.75 x 9.75 sheets, July 18, 1839. Unsigned handwritten manuscript originally sent to Ellen Sewall, in which Thoreau pens all 12 stanzas of his poem. In part: “Up this pleasant stream let’s row / For the livelong summer’s day, / Sprinkling foam where’er we go, / In weather as white as driven snow; / Ply the oars, away! away! / Now we glide along the shore, / Plucking lillies as we go, / While the yellow sanded floor / Doggedly resists the oar, / Like some turtle, dull and slow. / Now we stem the middle tide, / Ploughing through the deepest soil, / Ridges pile on either side, / While we through the furrow glide, / Reaping bubbles for our toil. / Dew before and drought behind, / Onward all doth seem to fly, / Naught contents the eager mind, / Only rapids now are kind, / Forward are the earth and sky. / Sudden music strikes the ear / Leaking out from yonder bank / Fit such voyageurs to cheer / Sure there must be fairies here, / Who have kindly played this prank.” Professionally repaired central vertical and horizontal folds and some staining to edges, otherwise fine condition.
When 22-year-old Henry Thoreau met Ellen Sewall on July 20, 1839, he was immediately smitten. Visiting her grandmother and younger brother Edmund—the former being a boarder with Thoreau’s mother, and the latter a student at his new progressive grammar school—she arrived at a time when the young author was honing his poetry skills; having recently met Emerson and his circle of literary friends, he was urged to contribute essays and poems to The Dial, though poetry never became his strong suit. This poem, written two days prior to her arrival, most likely about one of his many boating trips with Edmund, was the first of many that he would send to her. The following year—unaware that his own brother John had already proposed to her, and that she had rejected him due to her strict Unitarian father’s dislike of the Thoreau’s transcendental beliefs—Henry proposed to Ellen, only to receive the same rejection. According to Walter Harding’s book, The Days of Henry Thoreau, Ellen recalled the reading aloud of some of Thoreau’s poems in a diary entry the following year, writing, ‘The favorite was ‘Up this pleasant stream let’s row.’ That is the first piece Henry gave me…I wonder if his thoughts ever wander back to those times when the hours sped so pleasantly and we were so happy. I think they do.’ Though Ellen went on to a happy marriage, Henry would remain single for the rest of his life. Though seemingly unpublished during his lifetime, three lines of this poem did appear in revised form in his famous book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This is the first poem—and the longest piece of handwritten material in any form—that we have offered from the renowned author, one of the hardest to find and most sought after figures in American literature. Pre-certified John Reznikoff/PSA/DNA and RR Auction COA.