Thursday, September 29, 2005


Imperatives and Ebenezer

Henry David Thoreau, Journals (July 16, 1850):
Do a little more of that work which you have sometime confessed to be good, which you feel that society and your justest judge rightly demands of you. Do what you reprove yourself for not doing. Know that you are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with yourself without reason. Let me say to you and to myself in one breath, Cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil. Regard not your past failures nor successes. All the past is equally a failure and a success; it is a success in as much as it offers you the present opportunity. Have you not a pretty good thinking faculty, worth more than the rarest gold watch? Can you not pass a judgment on something? Does not the stream still rise to its fountain-head in you? Go to the devil and come back again. Dispose of evil. Get punished once for all. Die, if you can. Depart. Exchange your salvation for a glass of water. If you know of any risk to run, run it. If you don't know of any, enjoy confidence. Do not trouble yourself to be religious; you will never get a thank-you for it. If you can drive a nail and have any nails to drive, drive them. If you have any experiments you would like to try, try them; now's your chance. Do not entertain doubts, if they are not agreeable to you. Send them to the tavern. Do not eat unless you are hungry; there's no need of it. Do not read the newspapers. Improve every opportunity to be melancholy. Be as melancholy as you can be, and note the result. Rejoice with fate. As for health, consider yourself well, and mind your business. Who knows but you are dead already? Do not stop to be scared yet; there are more terrible things to come, and ever to come. Men die of fright and live of confidence. Be not simply obedient like the vegetables; set up your own Ebenezer. Of man's "disobedience and the fruit," etc. Do not engage to find things as you think they are. Do what nobody can do for you. Omit to do everything else.
"Your own Ebenezer" is a bit of a puzzle.

"Ebenezer" means "stone of help" in Hebrew, and appears at 1 Samuel 7.12:
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.
Edward Cook, discussing the Hebrew word, quotes the beginning of the second stanza of the hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (1758) by Robert Robinson:
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
here by thy great help I've come.
I wonder if Thoreau had this very hymn in mind, since both the hymn and the journal entry use a possessive pronoun with Ebenezer. The hymn is sung to the rousing tune Nettleton (1813, audio and text, score as .pdf file).

Or, "your own Ebenezer" might mean "your own dissenting chapel," since dissenters often gave the name Ebenezer Chapel to their meeting-houses.

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