In The Last Days of John Brown, Thoreau writes:

“He nothing common did or mean Upon that memorable scene, Nor called the gods with vulgar spite, To vindicate his helpless right; But bowed his comely head Down as upon a bed.” What a transit was that of his horizontal body alone, but just cut down from the gallows-tree! We read, that at such a time it passed through Philadelphia, and by Saturday night had reached New York. Thus, like a meteor it shot through the Union from the Southern regions toward the North! No such freight had the cars borne since they carried him Southward alive.

I can understand that one could describe the transport of a body as horizontal, e.g. such that is carried out by train over the surface of the earth. What is meant here be the body itself being horizontal?

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    I think you got the point. Anything else is a matter of personal opinion.
    – Gio
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 8:02
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    What's there to think about? John Brown's body was just cut down from the gallows-tree (where it was hanging vertically). Once it's cut down, whether it initially lies above ground somewhere, or later a-mouldering in the grave, it will obviously be horizontally oriented. Egyptian mummies excepted, humans don't normally store corpses upright! Commented May 7, 2023 at 10:44
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    The part in quotation marks, incidentally, is Andrew Marvell writing about the execution of King Charles I. Commented May 7, 2023 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


The use of horizontal is merely an emphatic, stressing to the reader the deadness of the man, the corpse-like attitude.

Most of us, when not sleeping or lounging, stand vertical; this is a sign of life, of our defiance of gravity. Corpses are usually arranged horizontal. A horizontal person may be sleeping or, in this case, dead.

  • Possibly also contrasting with a soul or spirit which would not be horizontal.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 10:29
  • @StuartF Interesting thought. Yes, I suppose soul and spirit are implicitly three-dimensional. Not that we have any empirical evidence for that, but it seems to be how they are universally imagined.
    – Anton
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 10:56

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