“He goes to the riverside —
Not hook nor line hath he:
He stands on the meadows wide —
Nor gun nor scythe to see
. . . .
Knowledge this man prizeth best
Seems fantastic to the rest.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Wood Notes,” 1840)
I took my two sons to the river the other day. They fished without success, and later wrestled in the chattering water on the shoal. I sat on the river bank, dry and toying with neither “hook nor line,” only refreshing myself with “a green though in a green shade.”
The second tag is from Andrew Marvel, and the “green thought” of which he speaks is fancy. Not fancy in the sense of ornate or refined (which my thoughts by the river were not), but in the old and original sense of fantsy, fantasy, or fantasia. “Green” thoughts are free, not harnessed and driven like mules that drag a plow. They go where they please and stop to sit when they like. They spring up like trees, and grow to weird, fantastic shapes under no compulsion but their own.
And because green thoughts are so very much like trees, they flourish beside a river.
As faithful readers know, I have a fanciful and vagabond mind. I can put it to work to keep clothes on my back, but, even then, I dream of letting it wander down an open road. This is why I nod with understanding when I read those lines from Emerson:
“Knowledge this man prizeth best
Seems fantastic to the rest”
And also, alas, this one as well.
“What he knows nobody wants”
A rational mind marches forward with a method, and at the end of the day has gotten somewhere. A romantic mind wanders off on a whim, and is lucky to make it home for supper. Each looks on the other with some degree of amazement.
* * * * *
There is also a third sort of mind, and this one no less amazing. I speak of the mind—if that is the word—of the shaggy and savage Yahoo. In Gulliver’s Travels, Yahoos are a race of filthy, cruel and lascivious beasts, strangely inflated with pride, who stand as a symbol of everything that is vain and vile in man. As I am a man myself, I must tread carefully when speaking ill of Yahoos. Every man is a Yahoo by nature, and in the heart of every Yahoo there is the conceit that he is better than a mere Yahoo.
Like poets, Yahoos are drawn to rivers, but not in search of green shades in which to sprout green thoughts. They are drawn to rivers because they are fond of lonely places in which they can assemble to frolic in secret orgies and raise a little Hell.
The resemblance of these Yahoo orgies to the infamous black (or witches’) Sabbath is not small, there being in both not only an eruption of lewd pandemonium, but also this fondness for deserted and out-of-the-way places. As a sixteenth-century witch hunter put it, when hags convene to invoke evil spirits, the place
“to be chosen [is] melancholy, doleful, dark and lonely; either in woods or deserts, or in a place where three ways meet, or among ruins of castles, abbeys, monasteries, or upon the seashore when the moon shines clear” (Reginald Scott, The Discovery of Witchcraft ).
And in these out of the way places, witches (like Yahoos)
“fall a dancing and singing of bawdy songs.”
When witches assemble, their frolic is the infamous “dance with the devil,” by which evil women renew their hellish pacts. Also known as “raising Hell,” the witches’ nocturnal dancing, singing and drinking—not to mention their alleged coupling with demon lovers—bear a striking resemblance to the midnight revels of the shaggy and savage Yahoos.
* * * * *
My sons and I walked down to the river from the dead end of a long dirt road. Like many lonely dead ends, night often finds this one haunted by reveling Yahoos. This I know from the tell-a-tale remains of their feasting and drinking: the profuse litter of aluminum cans, cellophane bags and paper wrappers that once contained the industrial comestibles that Yahoos especially relish.
I once heard an archaeologist explain that archeology divides a prehistoric campsite into a “drop zone” that was at the feet of the gnawing savages, and a “throw zone” that was behind their backs. As a prehistoric feast progressed, the drop zone would be sprinkled with the husks of nuts, the throw zone strewn with the bones of beasts. At a modern Yahoo orgy, cigarette butts are dropped and beer cans are thrown, but the zones are much the same.
The Yahoo is, I’m afraid, a slovenly beast, whether at home or abroad. As Swift wrote, he is disposed to “nastiness and dirt,” nasty being here used in the original sense of covered with filth. Indeed, this word nasty likely comes from the archaic word nesty, or nest-like, and thus should call to mind the fetid den of an especially filthy beast. And it is true that, wherever he goes, a Yahoo at once sets to work making himself a nasty nest of his own refuse, waste and debris.
* * * * *
Here is the path by which we made our way down to those green shades by the riverside. As you can see, we did not make our way “through the greenwoods, dark and deep,”* but rather through a nasty Yahoo nest.
The last time I walked this path to the river, the way was blocked by the shell of a large, old-fashioned television set, which the Yahoos had shattered and perforated with a couple dozen rounds from a shotgun. I counted the spent shells, which they naturally left on the ground, along with their spent canisters of beer. At a subsequent orgy, it appears that the Yahoos returned to toss what remained of that old television set from the top of the bluff, for it now lies much nearer the river. This unusual exertion was, no doubt, rewarded by howls of Yahoo jollification.
As you can see in the photograph, the charred remains of a mattress have taken the place of the old television set as the centerpiece of this nasty Yahoo nest. This is, I must confess, a triumph of Yahoo ingenuity, for if one does not mind the soot and stink of burning polyester, or the hazard of explosive ignition, or the sight of charred springs poking through bubbling plastic, a gasoline-soaked mattress must make a very convenient bonfire. At any rate, it certainly makes a fire suited to burn at the center of a black Sabbath, dance with the devil, or orgy of wild Yahoos.
* * * * *
In Jonathan Swift’s great satire, the Yahoos dwell alongside the gentle, rational, and cleanly Houyhnhnms. The Houynhnms have the bodies of horses, and even their speech has a distinctly horse-like quality. In fact, Swift intended that the word Yahoo be pronounced as much as possible like the whinny of a horse.
This was his sly way of saying that, every time a horse whinnies at the approach of a man, the horse is just calling that man by his proper species name.
Because the Houyhnhnms were rational, their society was perfectly ordered, and the only political question that remained to be debated in their councils was,
“Whether the Yahoos ought to be exterminated from the face of the earth.”
Should such a question be raised in a council of which I was part, I assure you I would argue against extermination. Much as I loathe the nasty nests with which they are wont to clutter the ways to my green shades, this earth is no doubt big enough for the both of us. And the bigness of the earth is enhanced by the profound laziness of Yahoos. Toiling to toss that old television set off of the bluff was an unusually laborious feat for the sluggish Yahoos. They are, by nature, roadside creatures who prefer to eat and drink in or beside their vehicles. They will, to be sure, drag a gasoline-soaked mattress some short distance before they set it alight, but this is only to to avoid blistering the paint on their cars.
Although I would not vote to exterminate them, I do know what Gulliver was feeling when he said that he preferred
“to leap into the sea and swim for my life rather than continue among the Yahoos.”
*) “Still through the greenwoods, dark and deep, / Should my little wood-path creep . . . . Then downward to the quiet dell / Where the lily swings its bell.” John Witt Randall, “Fancy’s Kaleidoscope” (1854).