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Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time

A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday


Thanks Brevity for publishing

The Hermit Thrush.

Read it here.

It's, well, short.


But please come back for our feature below.

Main feature

September 22, 2023



from “Winter Hours”

in Upstream: Selected Essays

by Mary Oliver



“In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.” 

—Mary Oliver


Mary Oliver’s poetry won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, poet and critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.” Our feature is from her selected essays, Upstream.

The Paragraph of the Week

Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.

—Mary Oliver



What does “the precognition of the spiritual side of the world” mean? It is an idea that Mary Oliver pursued for the last third of her long career as poet and essayist, but she admits she doesn’t know “what to call it.” It lies somewhere between the words “precognition” and “recognition,” but is distinct from cognition itself. After all, knowledge has entertained her and shaped her life, but also “failed” her. It is distinct, too, from “faith,” which she only hopes for. I’m reminded of William Wordsworth, one of her heroes, who defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” For her tranquility is an attitude of reverence for nature in which she trusts her “vivid intuitions” over “demonstrated truths.” Courting the absurd by committing the pathetic fallacy and ignoring the anthropomorphic concerns of scientists, she sees owl, thunderworm, daffodil, and red-spotted newt as “a company of spirits, as well as bodies.” She does not write about wind, tree, and leaf but “on their behalf,” composing “praise poems” for “unawakened hearts.” For her it is “our way to a sustainable world together.”



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A Word about Social Media

and The Humble Essayist

Due to the increasingly toxic nature of social media The Humble Essayist has decided to reduce its presence on these sites. We will still advertise on Facebook and X once a week on Fridays, but no longer during the rest of the week. The best way to keep up with us is to subscribe, and we will send free, brief, weekly reminders of our features directly to your email. Please click on the blue button below.

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Thanks to Brevity magazine for publishing the short prose piece “The Hermit Thrush” from my newest manuscript, The Sorrow of Naming.

You can read the entire piece at Brevity here.


Return to the Main Feature here

Hunger Mountain

Thanks to Hunger Mountain for publishing “Aubade,” my exploration of perception in a prose ode. It begins with this epigraph from the artist Paul Cézanne: “The landscape thinks itself in me and I am its consciousness.” 


You can read the entire brief piece here.

Zone 3 Interview on The Beloved Republic


Thanks to Amy Wright and the folks at Zone 3 for granting me an interview about my new book. Amy reads with discernment, asks great and surprising questions, and listens carefully to the answers. Check out the question she opens with in the sidebar--it goes right to the heart of the matter! See the full interview here.

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The Beloved Republic by Steven Harvey

Available at Bookstores and Online

See more at the author's website and check out our video trailers here.

Trailer One

Trailer Two

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Announcement: The Beloved Republic


I am pleased to announce that my fourth collection of personal essays  won the Wandering Aengus Press. Thanks to the Press for this honor.

What is the Beloved Republic? E. M. Forster, who coined the phrase, called it “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” who “have the power to endure” and “can take a joke.” Pitted against authoritarianism, the Beloved Republic is the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. Taking Forster’s phrase for its title, my book can be read as dispatches from that besieged land.

Available online and at bookstores. Learn  more at the author's website 

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Folly Beach 

Folly Beach is a book-length personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word.  In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.


In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.

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Follow on Goodreads

and write a review.

You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.

THE Mission

We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques.  A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought.  But what is a paragraph?  And what, in particular, is a good one?  You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith.  So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary.   We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life.  Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work.  We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.


The Humble Essayist thanks Clipartpal for the public domain artwork of "The Old Man Reading" that is the logo for the site.

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