I agree with that completely, I think that people should definitely take time and look whats around them instead of focusing on what they need all the time.
We have an ongoing discussion on this chapter in Iran based on my Persian translation. It is hard for us to imagine that Thoreau is merely referring to early adulthood by the phrase “at a certain season of our life” in the beginning of this chapter. It also seems hard to imagine he is looking for a permanent residence. Thoreau may not be looking for a physical residence in the material world at all. The reason I think so is that later in the chapter, he says, “We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance?” A permanent house was never on T’s mind. He says, “Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?” Even in the beginning of Walden he considers himself “a sojourner of civilized life.” Rumi says, “The whole seven universes are too small for me.” It is most pleasant mysteries of Walden for us in Iran. What certain season and what spot is really Thoreau speaking about here?
[each farmer’s premises]
Poirier (86), in a discussion of T’s use of puns, points out that “premises” here can appropriately mean both property and proposition from which a conclusion is drawn.
There is a parallelism here between Thoreau himself and the house in which he will live. The house is unfinished since Thoreau has just begun to construct his new life. There may also be a suggestion that he hasn’t decided if the house should ever be finished lest it diminish his hearing of the morning wind blowing over his home carrying the poem of creation. Will the completed plastered cabin be a place where the poem of creation can be sung?
[as lustily as a chanticleer]
The rooster, a standard symbol of dawn.
Thoreau was eating his own house. He was tasting life in all its details. This is part of the deliberate life he followed at Walden Pond.
England had established the so-called penny post in 1839. At the time of the publication of W, letter postage in the United States was three cents.
[ride thirty miles an hour]
Railroad trains, the first vehicles to reach such speeds, were just coming into the area, and in fact had reached Concord just the year before T moved out to Walden. While T admired the vigor of the railroads, he despaired of its devotion to material ends (Cronkhite).
[Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly-acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air—to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. ]
Interesting solely if taken at face value but even more so, if thought about metaphorically. Maybe the mechanical nudgings of a servitor are not only the tones of an alarm clock, but the aspirations and meanings given to us by society? Perhaps the Genius that physically awakes us in the morning if we allow it, is also the pull to think above the conventions society has established and to seek our own purpose separate of them as Thoreau seeks to do in is retreat to Walden.
I feel that Walden has made a good point here, but he is living in conflict with his own beliefs. In a lot of ways I view his sojourn into the woods to be a break from reality. Here he is exhaulting the goodness of being one with nature and how it can transform anyone’s life, but he does not understand the true implications of this life. He has not lived it his entire existance. He does not understand the toils of working the land consistantly to survive, he has not felt the gnawing hunger of starvation, and so I don’t feel he has the authority to comment on this. I do realize that he has mentioned that his decsion is for everyone. I read this passage and felt that he was waxing poetic on a lifestyle he does not fully understand.
[and suckled by a wolf]
Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his brother Remus are fabled to have been stranded as babies at the foot of the Palatine hill and adopted and suckled by a she-wolf.
[I wrote the following pages]
Morse (150), choosing these opening lines as a notable example, says, “In truth W is a self-dramatizing, self-advertising and deeply duplicitous book that seeks to mask its excessive ambitions behind a facade of commonsense and practicality.” W is filled with wordplay of all sorts. Lane (1970) analyzes at length the puns in the first three paragraphs of the book. Donald Ross (1971) provides a checklist of the wordplay T uses.
I think that quotations allow us to inspect a text from a different angle, which may, I admit, lead to a quotation being used in a way that is different from that the author had intended. Somewhat like looking at a detail of a painting. It can be something missed or overlooked. Thoreau himself was a quoter, not always attributing it, and not always quoiting correctly when it suited him to do otherwise (look at how he quoted Etzler’s text in “Paradise (to be) Regained.”) And I do think a single quotation can lead a person to the text, somewhat like how a single potato chip can lead you to the whole bag.
[two years and two months]
Exactly two years, two months, and two days—that is, from July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847.
Concord, then a village of about 2,000 people, is 18 miles northwest of Boston. It is now a prosperous suburb with a population of 15,000.
[the shore of Walden Pond]
Lyon discusses Walden Pond as a symbol. “Walden remains Thoreau’s ultimate image of God upon Earth and the central symbol of the work to which it gives its name” (299).
[As if you could kill time without injuring eternity]
I recently saw this quotation on the Henry David Thoreau twitter handle as a stand-alone tweet, without the context of the entire book, or even the immediate context of the passage. It’s interesting to consider how quotations can accurately sum up a theme of a whole section of a book, and can stand alone (as this one seems to be able to do nicely enough)– however, do things like focusing on “nice quotations” lead us to be lazy and not read the whole book, and thus lose the essential(?) support for the quotation? Will things like this easy quoting, tweeting, etc., only, go against the very meaning of this line itself if we don’t bother to read the book itself and merely rely on the “spark notes edition” of things? “I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous.” I think T himself would be somewhat disappointed in how his name was being used, for quotable twitter handles, unless these “scaffolding” type tools like spark notes and easy-to-remember quotations led us to read the actual work.
I wonder if Thoreau is being shortsighted here because it is unlikely that people could survive famine and droughts if we only grew what we could by hand
[the notice of my readers]
For a particularly thoughtful study of the relationship between T and his intended audience, see Railton.
[to have a northern one]
Despite the popular understanding that T fled the problems of modem civilization, he was one of the earliest Americans to protest the northern factory system. He favored beginning one’s reforms at home, rather than in a distant land.
[only his peck of dirt]
“We must eat a peck of dirt before we die” is a proverb that can be traced at least as far back as Oswald Dyke’s English Proverbs of 1709.
Called: T, by the use of this word, stresses how frequently we are misled by the names of things (Cavell, 65).
[contracting yourselves into a nutshell]
“I could be bounded in a nutshell” (Hamlet, II, ii, 260).
This comment was only posted as a trial run. I was not serious about this comment.
The first version of Walden, the 1846-47 manuscript held by the Huntington Library (HM 924), begins, “I should not presume to talk so much about myself and my affairs as I shall in this lecture if very particular and personal inquiries had not been made concerning my mode of life,–what some would call impertinent, but they are by no means impertinent to me, but on the contrary very natural and pertinent, consider the circumstances” (1-2). Having already spent a year at the Pond, Thoreau began work on the first draft of Walden, initially conceived as a lyceum lecture for Concord citizens who were curious about his experimental mode of living. For more on Thoreau’s “A History of Myself” lecture, see Richard Smith, “Thoreau’s First Year at
Walden in Fact & Fiction” at the Thoreau E-server website, http://thoreau.eserver.org/smith.html.
Thoreau moves up one level of abstraction from talking about the fact that “the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of Earths like ours” to “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”. He is implying that the sun has a wider purpose and story rather than just for him. At the end of the paragraph he elaborates that it would be more beneficial to society to see through the eyes of others and consider the fact that you’re a small part of a big picture.
The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling.
This sentence, as an educator, strikes me most forcefully as our current industrial model of education is in need of some quality attention.
[visitors have been there and left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip] So Thoreau had groupies even in his own time. I wasn’t sure if he was considered more of an eccentric than a local celebrity, but I guess it was both. It’s pretty comical, though, that they left him flowers and wreaths and a ring from a willow – those sound like little kid gifts, like “mud pie” or something. I guess that’s the stuff Thoreau likes, though. Nature.
[remove the books and pen and ink]
When T went to Staten Island in 1843 to tutor Emerson’s nephews, he was given an inkstand by his friend and neighbor Elizabeth Hoar. He kept it throughout his life, and it is now on exhibit in the Concord Museum.
“Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”
This paragraph acts as a bridge between reading and sounds. It speaks of the importance of reading, but that there is so much our there, it all cannot be read. The last quote of the paragraph is telling the reader to read what you believe will guide you in your life. The writings of the past will help in your future endeavors. The quote ties into the chapter of Sounds because this chapter focus’s on how listening to and noticing the sounds of the world is a form of “reading” as well. So “reading your fate” also can connect to paying attention to the world around you and noticing what you may have never noticed before.
Thoreau’s pedagogy can be easily pointed out here. “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert.” To Thoreau, this process of always seeking and finding information is an important part of the learning process. This act of constantly seeking and expanding one’s mind through query and action, are important to Thoreau. This idea is reiterated again in paragraph 2 when he states that he did not spend his summer reading, but working, and learning that way. This pedagogy argues that to better fully understand, we must step away from memorizing text and instead go out into Nature with open minds and enthusiasm, and partake in practical experiences. This raises the question of if interest and enthusiasm are vital in a truly successful and empowering learning process.
Does anyone else feel a little shiver go down their spine when Thoreau says, “we think that if railfences are pulled down and stone-walls piled up on our farms, bounds are henceforth set to our lives and our fates decided”? It’s so chillingly true, isn’t it? And think of how, by sheer habit, we condemn ourselves to live like deep-cave-dwelling fish, swimming around sightless in the same pools, because we think that’s all we can do. But even more chilling, strangely, is the idea that I could – could – walk out of my door, with nothing but a pocketful of bus fare, and ride to a different part of the country, begin a new life – that in fact, the boundaries of our lives are not set. Such a simple thought, and yet one that chills with both excitement and fear.
As a teenager, I had not a care in the world. I was never a good student. I spent my time off playing baseball, a game I loved. In June, 1966, I was Drafted. I spent the next three years in the Army. The middle year was spent fighting in an ill conceived war where we had no business being. During my last year in the Army, I decided I wanted to become a social worker, in an attempt to give back to humanity what I had taken away from others. That did not work out. Instead I became a Respiratory Therapist (1970) and spent the next 45 years working in hospitals.
My “experiment” was to practice and excel at my profession, go to college, and pursue my interests, as well as the usual “American Dream” stuff that we all grew up with, and then be able to stop working while I was still a viable human being. So, from when I entered the Army, until my retirement in February, 2015, I was involved with death, more often then not on a daily basis. This reality, that life is fleeting, helped me live in the moment, more often than not. I learned as a 20 year old that the next moment is not always there to do what one wanted to do.
My aspirations were predicated on the thought that if I can get to sleep that day, and awaken after that sleep, and still have my senses about me, and be able to walk and talk, I was ahead of the vast majority of people that whine about every possible thing.
In large part, I believe I was successful in my experiment, and able to accomplish my aspirations while in the work force. I never hated my job. Granted, some places were more trying than others, but I would just move to another hospital, which I found to be very beneficial in the learning process. I took a very long road in completing a degree, and am thankful to the professors and students I encountered. And, I was never so consumed by work or studies, so as to not enjoy my life doing other things.
Now that my life is my own, I take joy in most things around me. I go to bed when I chose, as well as getting up when I decide I am ready, whether it be 3 AM or 7:15 AM. An alarm clock is a thing of the past. The garden outside the kitchen window that is overgrown with Lemon Balm, gives me daffodils in the early Spring, Evening Primrose in June, Tiger Lilies later in the Summer as well as a beautiful red colored flower. I watch the chipmunks dashing about, as well as the squirrels. Mother Groundhog had twins this Spring, so I can watch them, and the beautiful deer and fawns that visit. If I am fortunate, I will see the hen turkey watch over her 8 chicks feeding as they traverse the yard. Not cutting the grass too short in the back yard allows them all a sense of security. And than there are the birds, including all the various woodpeckers. When the weather cools, the same cast of characters will be here, except for the bear. The chicks will be grown and the fawns will have lost their spots. Occasionally, the bear comes to see what is left in the bird feeders or visits me when I am trapped within the garden, picking greens for lunch. Fortunately, I do not seem to be on its list of things to eat.
My life, I believe is simple. I do not need things. Granted my computer is an extravagance, as well as my TV, and my Honda, and then there are my books, but I acquired all these, except for a few books, when I was still working. Retirement has allowed me to do what I chose to do. My goal of never again having to earn a penny is intact. My benefactors are SSI, a pension from my first hospital job, and the Veterans Administration.
My life is lived by what I remember of the 10 Commandments, although I have considered myself an atheist for over four decades. My interest in Buddhism has guided much of my life. My “higher laws” come from living and observing. I believe I understand Right from Wrong and that we are all the same, and killing others and animals will only complicate the future. In this period of devisiveness, I find sadness and sorrow, but realize that there are those that will continue along these paths in attempts to become powerful, and accumulate wealth, while leaving destruction of various types, in their wake.
I really do not know if I built castles in the air. What I am convinced of is that what has preceded this moment has allowed me to live on a firm foundation, and enjoy.
Whether or not I stayed true to the subject of Mark’s question/request is for you who may read this to decide. I am happy with it, and will welcome any comments.
Hannah, I agree that these lines are particularly loaded with meaning – and scary at that! It certainly feels to me like Thoreau is challenging us to do something bigger, to find our own Walden Pond and search for inner fulfillment there.
It calls to mind the famous lines from paragraph 16 of “Where I Lived, And What I Lived For,” where Thoreau writes of going to the pond to “learn what it had to teach.” He’s not going out to see what he can do while at the pond, as many of us would, but to see what living at the pond can do for him. He is unsure of what it can teach, at least going in. I think this is reflected beautifully in the last line of this paragraph: “The universe is wider than our views of it.” So simple a concept, and yet one we can all benefit from taking to heart.
[stupid sailors picking oakum]
On sailing vessels, sailors were often kept busy untwisting old pieces of rope to use in caulking the seams of the ship.
One of the most quoted lines in all of American literature. It has sold countless coffee mugs and motivational calendars, to be sure, but the source is a proverb that goes back into the English tradition as far as the writings of Jonathan Swift and before that, too. While it was a commonplace in Thoreau’s day, the source for Thoreau’s “castles in the air” may have been more specific. Some believe that Thoreau is revising the proverb as he found it in the writings of seventeenth-century English writer Sir Thomas Browne. In his “Letter to a Friend” (1656), Browne writes, “They build not castles in the air who would build churches on earth; and though they leave no such structures here, may lay good foundations in heaven.” Thoreau’s revision thus reads like a refutation to Browne’s Christian humanism. Rather than postpone your dreams for another world, Thoreau says, realize them in the here and now. See Stefano Paolucci, “The Foundations of Thoreau’s ‘Castles in the Air'” in the Thoreau Society Bulletin 290 (Summer 2015), 10. For a history of “castles in the air” as a proverbial expression, see “To Build Castles in Spain” in Wolfgang Mieder, Behold the Proverbs of a People: Proverbial Wisdom in Culture, Literature, and Politics (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014), 415-435.
“Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
I think this quote essentially sums up why Thoreau benefited from the time he spent at Walden Pond. Being isolated from the influences society gave him the opportunity to journey into the depths of his mind. In effect, I believe that the observations he makes about the natural world throughout Walden are reflections of his own soul. When there are no other people around, he imprints his own ideals onto what he sees, and the way he finds meaning in the little details of his surroundings is a sort of self discovery.
What with the democratization of literature and much higher literacy rate today, it could be said that Thoreau’s belief, “Most men have learned to read to serve as a paltry convenience,” is outdated. However, his insistence that reading should not be merely an escape or a pastime but a challenging exercise is much easier to relate to modern readers. Surely Thoreau would see the popularity of reading for fun today as irreverent; students and scholars may actively study the classics, but many more people pick up literature for personal entertainment. Perhaps this could be the modern application of Thoreau’s statement about people reading for their own convenience.
[poet Mîr Camar Uddîn Mast]
“Etant assis, parcourir la région du monde spiritual: j’ai eu cet avantage dans les livres. Etre enivré par une seule coupe de Yin: j’ai éprouvé ce plaisir lorsque j’ai bu la liqueur des doctrines ésoteriques” (M. Garcin de Tassy, Histoire de La Littérature Hindoui, Paris, 1839, I,331). The translation from the French is undoubtedly T’s own. Mast was a Hindu poet of the eighteenth century.
What I see Thoreau saying here is that education, though encouraged and even demanded by our society, is undertaken in the wrong way. He wishes “that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women.” He also points out the trend in our education system to learn what we need to, and not all that we can. When he claims a village should be both a university and a “patron of the fine arts,” he is saying that learning subjects like math and science just so that we can become a functioning member of society isn’t enough. We need to have a passion and drive to learn more than what is necessary.
I find it so interesting that most people think of Thoreau in such a simple-minded way that suggests he just wants to “escape society”, even though he acknowledges himself one of his basic needs is fuel. I think it is extremely interesting that he went into Nature and attempted to live deliberately, although he was only a mile and a half from town, and quite close to the railroad (both ‘civilized’ entities).
What i like most about Thoreau is that he attempts to reconnect individuals with Nature in the places where they actually reside. It is less about rebelling and “leaving society” for Nature, and more about just being present in your environment and living deliberately not only in the place that you are, but the actual physical SPACE. It makes the conclusions he makes much more realistic, and is a response to those critics who try to bash him for being too much of an idealist.
I don’t think Thoreau is measuring time here in any way, or passing time to be specific. To be purely perceptive of, and attuned through the senses to the present moment where one is in that moment, as opposed to being of it, is a critical faculty to possess. Thoreau often refers to the lack of this faculty as being asleep, slumbering, or not experiencing or anticipating the dawn. His quality of attentiveness to where he is inwardly and outwardly in the moment is what brings forth the intuitive moment of the philosopher. I often wonder if his “hound, bay horse, and turtle dove” in the paragraph that follows is in reference to his head, heart, and hand working in concert within any moment? The hound dog being the intellectual capacity to sense, track, and be attentive to the moment, while the bay horse represents the emotional fortitude of the heart to be open and free of like/dislike, while the turtle dove represent the loving hand of wisdom responding humbly to what might be a moment of grace. The obscurities and secrets of this trade resonate well with what the perennial philosophies have been intimating throughout the ages, and what Thoreau is truly after in his experiment called Walden.
To me, the whole last chapter seems to be a direct contradiction to “Pond Scum.” Within this chapter, one can see a certain humility possessed by Thoreau, such as when he discusses himself looking down at the ants. Along with this, it seems clear that he does not have animosity towards humans, but rather seems to possess an animosity towards society. Within this chapter, he discusses how money and fame and riches corrupt people by distracting them from the true values of life. Much like Emerson, he seems to have infinite hope for humanity, if only they can recognize their divine possibilities.
I kept neither dog, cat, cow, pig, nor hens, so that you would have said there was a deficiency of domestic sounds; neither the churn, nor the spinning wheel, nor even the singing of the kettle, nor the hissing of the urn, nor the children crying to comfort one. An old-fashioned man would have lost his senses or died of ennui before this.
This particular passage stood out to me the most for multiple reasons. It made me put a new perspective on the loneliness of Walden Pond. The average person is so used to those sounds that we don’t necessarily notice them anymore, however; we would notice it more if we didn’t hear them on a daily basis. By saying that an “old-fashioned man would have lost his senses or died of ennui before this”, is essentially referring to the idea of not being able to survive after becoming accustomed to the every day scenarios by which average societies deal with. Having such a simplified lifestyle could really make a difference for those of us who are more accustomed to, in a sense, our chaotic lives. We don’t take the time to appreciate quiet because we don’t really know what true quietness is. By pointing out the difference of sounds at Walden Pond, Thoreau is demonstrating what it is that we take for granted in our every day lives, such as domestic animals and house noises. It is a strong, but reasonable point that Thoreau makes through the idea of domestic sounds.
[the lawyer had only to weave arguments]
The use of “weave” here cleverly compares the lawyer’s livelihood with that of the Indian. It shows that they both do what they can do.
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Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homœopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.
I found this especially interesting because I was under the impression that since Thoreau willingly established his residence so far away from others at Walden pond, that he would have no desire to listen to gossip in the town. However, after reading on, he seemed to compare the people and the life in the village to the woods and the woodland life.By saying that visiting the town and hearing the sounds a human life was as refreshing to him as listening to the frogs and leaves, I believe that Thoreau visited the town as a way to get a change of scenery, as someone who lives in the village would visit the woods for some fresh air and a walk through nature.
A pun on the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization.
I find the difference between Thoreau’s attitude towards his bean field and his attitude towards farming as a living interesting to consider. As Thoreau writes in “Where I Lived, And What I Live For,” “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.” Yet here Thoreau commits himself to what seems a little too extensive (what with two and a half acres of beans) to be considered merely a garden. The distinction, I think, is that he views his labors in the bean field as a fulfilling practice rather than a way to make a living. If a man needs to tend to his crops, does a farm, in Thoreau’s view, then become a chain?
Here Thoreau condemns “‘modern improvements,'” and especially those that exist to improve the speed and efficiency of communication. He thinks that these advances improve the pace but not the quality of conversation.
It’s hard to imagine, then, the disdain that he would’ve held for modern technology of today– especially social media platforms. I’m sure he would be dismayed by these websites in which one could argue that “the main object [is] to talk fast and not to talk sensibly” and which are full of celebrity gossip not much more interesting than Princess Adelaide having the whooping cough.
[Achilles’ reproof to Patroclus]
Significantly Achilles, in the Iliad, cultivates the friendship of Patroclus just as T was cultivating that of the woodcutter.
I thought that Thoreau’s arguments against eating meat throughout the “Higher Laws” chapter were a bit lacking. The impression that I got after reading this was that Thoreau did not stop eating animal flesh because he was overly concerned with animal welfare, rather, it seems he became a vegetarian merely because he felt it helped to “preserve his higher or poetic faculties” and that it elevated him to a greater spiritual level. He admits in paragraph 3 that he, “did not pity the fishes nor the worms”. In fact, he describes how he was born and raised with a hunting gun or fishing pole in his hand (he even states that this was the best education of his life…although perhaps partly due to the fact that this led him to spend large quantities of time in Nature). He decided to end his carnivorous ways when he developed the belief that vegetarianism was something that seemed to be “more civilized” and the “destiny of the human race”. Thus, vegetarianism, according to Thoreau, is ultimately about improving oneself, not necessarily about improving the lives and condition of other creatures (he is positioned on the anthropocentric side of the scale much more so than the biocentric side). As a vegetarian, I was personally a bit dissatisfied with Thoreau’s arguments. His claim that meat is “unclean” and “filthy” seemed to me to be almost ludicrous. However, I think the biggest issue that I have with this chapter is the fact that Thoreau seems to hold his own personal elevation and spiritual ascension as the ultimate good–being a vegetarian merely helps him to achieve this egotistical goal. Personally, I do not partake in the vegetarian diet because I believe it to help me, but because I think that it is innately good in and of itself. Overall, I was a bit frustrated with Thoreau’s lack of giving any substantial reason for vegetarianism. However, it should also be remembered that Thoreau is new to the herbivore lifestyle (he was literally just describing his fishing practices in the last chapter). Perhaps this chapter should not be read as an argument primarily about vegetarianism (I personally don’t think Thoreau is a great authority on the subject), but rather as Thoreau’s personal contemplations concerning a new lifestyle choice and his inward struggle to reach a state of “glorious existence”.
Very interesting how this paragraph corresponds with the second paragraph of the “Sounds” chapter. There are all kinds of inversions: morning becomes evening, warmth becomes coolness, the reverie of spirit is disrupted by the sounds of commerce (wagons on the road) in one, while incessant thoughts of work and practical plans become disrupted by the enchantment of a flute in the other.
Professor Harding suggests that John Farmer is a sort of everyman figure. But the parallelism noted above tells me that Henry Thoreau saw himself in this everyman quite clearly. The penetrating question which an inner voice asks of him–“But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither?”–seems genuine and heartfelt. This strikes me as an occasion to perceive that Thoreau’s counsels, which strike some as hectoring and egotistical, are often reflective. Rather than putting himself above or outside our experience of life, he fixes himself firmly within it, showing us that the issues that command our most serious attention also commanded his. I can’t help thinking that the wonderful final line was a resolution he himself had reached.
Thoreau is making the claim that humans will never be “civilized” until they give up eating animals. This begs the question of what it means to be civilized. In urging others to not eat meat, it seems as though he is suggesting that as humans, we should not disturb nature and instead should try to live in harmony with it. Yet, the word civilization often lends the mind to the idea that humans should overcome or transcend nature—perhaps to harness it.
[higher principles]- the pursuit in life.
Aristotle’s Four Cardinal Virtues- Prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Aristotle’s highest good is happiness.
Kant’s highest good is good will. If there are not good intentions behind what is done then what is done is not good.
Summum bonum- “the highest good” in Greek. The life of the righteous and/or the life led in Communion with God and according to God’s precepts.
[Yet a single glass of its water held up to the light is as colorless as an equal quantity of air]
About ten years ago I made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond and, in true pilgrim spirit, stole away a few ounces of its holy water in a capped plastic bottle. To this day it looks as clear and colorless as if I had just purchased the water from a grocery store. In wonderment about this, a while back I sent an email to Professor Sid Bosch of Geneseo’s Biology Department, an expert in freshwater ecology. I didn’t disclose the particulars of my interest, merely inquiring what ought to happen to a plastic container of pond water scooped up from the water’s edge as I had done. He responded that, in general, after some time photosynthesis and other processes ought to set in, discoloring the sides of the container and also discoloring the water.
So why does my Walden water remain so clear? The romantic in me wants to believe in the special purity Thoreau speaks about–a purity so perfect that it resists the onslaughts of time. My realist side has a vague awareness of the process by which many Adirondack lakes have become so environmentally compromised that their crystal waters indicate that they are ecologically dead. In some terror, I ask: does anyone know what’s going on with my Walden water?
[devilish Iron Horse]
Twenty-first century readers of Walden might think that Thoreau was being imaginative when he described the railroad as a “devilish Iron Horse,” and they would be justified in thinking so. And yet, it may be helpful to tease out what particularly is imaginative about this animal-machine metaphor. What’s imaginative about this passage, I’d like to suggest, isn’t the bare fact that Thoreau decided to use the vehicle “horse” to describe the tenor “railroad,” but the very linguistic act of collapsing these two entities into one metaphor. Horses and railroads are already conceptually linked for anyone living in early to middle nineteenth-century America because, in the first few decades of railway transportation, passenger trains were literally horse-powered. Even as late as 1844, some United States railway lines—such as the storied P&C (Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad)—would include horse-drawn trains, even going so far as to allow horse-power at certain hours of the day and steam power during other times. Thoreau, in other words, is imaginatively collapsing two terms—horses and railroads—that are already linked in the popular imagination of the day. Thus the specifically imaginative aspect about this passage isn’t how Thoreau decided to compare railroads to horses, but how he linguistically united them into an apocalyptic vision of forest degradation.
Thoreau says “Nations come and go without defiling [Walden],” so does he consider his dwelling, built within close proximity to the pond, to not alter the landscape in any significant way? Does it lack the permanence of the pond and nature, therefore making it irrelevant?
On a slightly different note, we can certainly say in the modern world that many nations, especially the United States, have defiled great areas of nature, though Walden Pond itself is currently protected by the government of Massachusetts, mainly due to this text. I can’t help but wonder what Thoreau might have to say (or write) about the current state of nature, as well as the attempts at preservation.
After noticing a fact provided courtesy of Walter Harding in one of his comments on this paragraph – about how Thoreau originally intended to build his cabin on the shore of Flint’s pond but had been thwarted by the owner makes this an interesting paragraph. Keeping in mind Thoreau’s original intentions for wanting to live at Walden pond, to find himself and live deliberately in nature, should where he did that have mattered? Would it have been any different if he had in fact been able to build his cabin on the shore of Flint’s pond?
[with compass and chain and sounding line]
In 1939 Edward S. Deevey rechecked T’s survey and analysis of Walden Pond with the latest scientific instruments and concluded that T was amazingly accurate in his observations, when one considers he was using the crudest of instruments, and that his contribution to the science of limnology was original and genuine (Deevey).
“It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.”
This quote really stood out to me in my reading of this chapter. I think that it speaks an immense amount to our nature as humans. I think that what Thoreau might be trying to get at is mans innate desire to be trusting. The majority of our lives revolve around following the rules that we have been told to follow and believing things that we are told to believe in. If you heard from numerous people that Walden Pond was bottomless, what reason do you have to go and check yourself if you believe what they are saying.
It forced me to ponder whether Thoreau thinks that a trusting human nature is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand I think that Thoreau is less than pleased with it because he argues throughout the book that one has to have their own first hand experiences. Hence, why he goes about the business of finding the true depth of the pond and other activities of similar nature. However, on the other hand, I think that he, in a way, might agree somewhat with this even if he would never admit it. He writes Walden with the intent of people learning from his own experiences and questions why people don’t live the way that he does.
[are fit to stand before Valhalla]
In Scandinavian mythology, the hall of immortality into which the souls of heroes slain in battle are received.
[that the Druids would have]
An ancient Celtic race living in Britain to whom the oak tree was sacred.
[the waxwork grooves and crushes]
Waxwork: now more commonly known as bittersweet.
[festoons from the black-spruce trees]
In his copy of W, T corrected this to “white-spruce.” For his confusion of the two species, see the note in “Sounds,” p. 125.
[a shingle tree]
A tree with wood especially good for making shingles.
While this entire chapter distresses me greatly, I will defend Thoreau on two minor points that have come up in remarks above.
It seems that he does not disdain John Field because he is “bogging” for money. Since he initially credits Field as “honest” and “hard-working,” it seems rather that he sympathizes with the way he is being taken advantage of by the neighboring farmer. (That farmer, note, is getting an acre of land cultivated for just ten dollars by an immigrant whose only tools are a spade and a hoe; the farmer doesn’t have to hire someone with a plow and oxen to do the work, presumably at a higher rate.) I think the “shiftless man” business is one of those word-plays that sometimes go awry in interpretation. Does Thoreau refer to how Field is unable to shift for himself well against the shrewd Yankee who has manipulated him into so “poor a bargain”?
The second point is that Thoreau doesn’t declare that Irishmen have no halos; he quotes an unnamed visitor. The concept that some optical effect should avoid certain ethnic groups sounds absurd on the surface, of course. As good an observer as Thoreau was, I have to believe he reports this remark to expose the sort of narrow-mindedness and bigotry that the immigrant Irish could expect to endure from his high-minded neighbors.
All of which brings us back to the point that Thoreau often fails to reveal such humanity and understanding elsewhere in the chapter.
Throughout Walden, it seems as though Thoreau is very unaware of the fact that his life is more privileged than others. When he tells the farmer that his clothes are cheaper than the farmer’s, it is clear Thoreau is not aware that not everyone can live his life and not everyone has his opportunities.
Thoreau’s attitude towards the Field family only reminds me of our class discussions about Thoreau’s position of privilege. While he aspires to inspire his neighbors to embrace his philosophy, Thoreau is preaching to a group of people in a situation quite unlike his. An immigrant family, complete with several children (including an infant), would have a considerably more difficult time endeavoring to build their own”tight, light, and clean house” or spending their day fishing to feed the family. While Thoreau aims to improve their lives, he fails to understand how difficult it may be for John Field to drop his source of income or change his lifestyle significantly with so many people to provide for. Thoreau is mainly in charge of himself.
[Yet I find it not to be an essential ingredient, and after going without it for a year am still in the land of the living]
I think we can read into the subtext a little bit here. There are excesses in the bread’s ingredients that are seen as essential in making the best bread just as there are excesses in life that are seen as basic and necessary fundamentals to living a good life. Thoreau is saying, change the recipe a little bit. You might actually like it.
The bread of life. Again, there are religious themes underlying (what seems like) every paragraph. This makes me think of the bread that Catholics receive during mass, which is God’s body. However, Thoreau said that he changed the recipe for the bread and said he went without essential ingredients for a year and is still in the land of the living. I take this to mean that, although there are religious undertones to finding yourself and reaching a certain kind of peace, you can still reach those things without religion. I say that because a lot of people believe you have to return to your religion to find that peace. Thoreau shows us you dont have to.
[Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?]
Sort of relates to themes we have discussed in other works (The encyclical, Locke, Marx) in that, as a society, we are always in search of the “next best thing.” In this case, we are always trying to keep up with our neighbors or ensure our superiority over others we deem “savages.”
[edge of the village]
T was then living with the Emersons, and the brook he speaks later of jumping was the Mill Brook, which runs between the Emerson and Breed properties (Gleason).
A poem by one of Thoreau’s great admirers that’s worth a look: “Directive.”
The drawing of T’s cabin was made by his sister Sophia, an amateur artist. T himself complained of it, “Thoreau would suggest a little alteration, chiefly in the door, in the wide projection of the roof at the front; and that the bank more immediately about the house be brought out more distinctly” (Sanborn, 1917, 338). Sanborn adds, “He must have noticed that her trees were first and pines, with a few deciduous tress that did not then grow there.” Ellery Channing thought it a “feeble caricature.” Other contemporary drawings of the cabin may be found in Meltzer and Harding (144-5).
[WALDEN; OR, LIFE IN THE WOODS]
Although the first edition gives the title Walden; or, Life in the Woods, on March 4, 1862, two months before he died, T wrote to his publishers, Ticknor & Fields, asking them to omit the subtitle in a new edition. They complied with this request, although it has rarely been followed since. Paul (75) suggests that T may have dropped the subtitle because he feared his audience was taking it too literally and thus missing the more important philosophy permeating the book. T could have derived the subtitle from his friend Charles Lane’s essay “Life in the Woods” in the Dial (IV, 1844, 415) or from John S. Williams, “Our Cabin; or, Life in the Woods” in the October 1843 American Pioneer (DeMott), but not from the then popular The Adirondack; or Life in the Woods, by J.T. Headley (New York, 1849), which did not appear until after T had used the subtitle in an advertisement for W in the back pages of the first edition of A Week. For a comprehensive study of the types of books on which T based the structure of W, see Linck Johnson. For a discussion of the organic structure of W, see Lane (1960). Kurtz is one o the most straightforward analyses of W’s style.
[to wake my neighbors up]
The epigraph is quoted from the second chapter of W. It is omitted from many modern editions, and unfortunately so, for it sets the mood for the whole book. Broderick (1954) points out how this awakening and morning theme is a basic image carried throughout W. A possible source for T’s idea is Orestes Brownson’s statement in his Boston Quarterly Review in 1839 that he “aimed to startle, and made it a point to be as paradoxical and extravagant as he could.”
Is there any possibility of Thoreau borrowing from the Christian tradition and positing “the woods” as a corollary of “wilderness”, where the demons (in us) are often portrayed and living? To reach one’s “higher self”, one must wake up inwardly to those elements that lead the soul (psychological and emotional state) astray.
In his new book, Cryptic Subtexts in Literature and Film: Secret Messages and Buried Treasure (New York: Routledge, 2019), Steven F. Walker offers a new interpretation of Walden’s 1854 subtitle, “Life in the Woods.” It is well known that that subtitle was hardly original, having appeared in several publications prior to the publication of Walden, including an article of that name by Charles Lane which appears in the final issue of The Dial. Walker grants that Thoreau may have used the title “ironically,” that is, “as a vigorous rejoinder to the thesis of Lane’s Dial essay” (13). More intriguing, however, is Walker’s argument that Thoreau may have associated “life in the woods” with a phase of life known in Hindu as “vanaprastha” (literally translated as “life in the woods”)—“the third stage of life—that of the solitary, contemplative hermit living in the forest on the outskirts of the village—as described in The Laws of Manu” (14) which Thoreau read in Emerson’s library in 1840. “Such a new framing,” Walker says, “certainly provides a new perspective on Thoreau’s life-in-the-woods enterprise, which, for all its Yankee originality, also can be seen as a spiritual retreat based on an ancient Hindu paradigm of the stages of life” (16).
February 18, 2019 at 5:48 pm
Posted in: General Discussion
“I felt as if I could spit a Mexican with a good relish…” This is an example of the Dionysian in Thoreau. He is swept up by the martial spirit of music from the village and feels himself capable of violence but instead sublimates his energy into tending his bean-field, doing battle with weeds, or exercising his “chivalry” upon a woodchuck.
See in context
February 18, 2019 at 5:38 pm
That’s why Thoreau says: “We are not wholly involved in Nature.” The “dancer” and “Nature” desist from the dance. Thoreau’s double consciousness is of himself engaged in the “field of action,” as HDT, where he must be ethical, and “outside” the field of action as Spectator (non-judging). Awareness of judging/non-judging attitude in Thoreau helps us to discern some of the seeming paradoxes in his writing.
February 18, 2019 at 5:27 pm
The dichotomy, me and not-me, and the “spectator” is relatable to the Contact passage in “Ktaadn,” where Thoreau distinguishes between spirit (which he says “I am one”) and matter (which he says “has possession of me”). This is, in fact, the condition of purusha (roughly spirit) and prakriti (matter) in the Sankhya Karika Yoga text, which Thoreau read (Sattelmeyer), where the Spectator is watching, or entwined with, the Dancer.
For further evidence that Thoreau read about the “Spectator” in Hindu literature, here’s a quote from “Friday,” in “A Week”: “
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A Hindoo sage said, “As a dancer, having exhibited herself to the spectator, desists from the dance, so does Nature desist, having manifested herself to soul—.”
February 18, 2019 at 5:02 pm
Wonderful Mike, so good of your to allow your full PDF to be shared here!
I urge anyone interested in this problematic to consult Mike’s Transcendental Ethos, p. 22 ff.
Here Cousin gets a fuller gloss and appropriate context, I learned much from it.
I wish I had caught this earlier, but better late than sorry 🙂
February 18, 2019 at 4:54 pm
Also, see: http://commons.digitalthoreau.org/docs/frederick-transcendental-ethos-a-study-of-thoreaus-social-philosophy/
Victor Cousins is discussed in “Transcendental Ethos,” page 22.
February 18, 2019 at 4:41 pm
I agree with Mike that Emerson’s notion of the “me” and “not me” in his essay “Nature” (1836) may also be at play here. Interestingly, Victor Cousin in his Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1828-29; Boston: Hilliard et al., 1832), some years before develops the following argument: “The fundamental fact of consciousness is a complex phenomenon composed of three terms, namely, the me and the not me, bounded, limited, finite; then the idea of something different from these, of the infinite, of unity, &c.; and again, the relation of the me and the not me, that is – of the finite, to the infinite, which contains and unfolds it: these, therefore, are the three terms of which the fundamental fact of consciousness is composed” (159). Cousin then goes on to develop the argument over the following pages. From Walter Harding’s Emerson’s Library (1969), we learn that Emerson owned Cousin’s tomes in the original French. Regarding Thoreau, in turn, we learn from Sattelmeyer’s Thoreau’s Reading (1988) that he extracted Cousin in the English translation (quoted here above) from the Institue of 1770 library at Harvard College, twice in 1837.
The Emersonians will surely have all this covered already, but it is interesting to note that Cousin’s focus is chronological (finite-infinite), whereas Emerson and Thoreau seem more concerned with the spatial (here-not here).
February 18, 2019 at 2:38 pm
I’m unaware of anyone having pointed this out in the literature about Thoreau, but the “grooved walking stick” in this paragraph is related to the central motif of the book, “Walden.” Read para 5 and 11 in “Solitude” and compare with para 11 in “Conclusion,” Artist of Kouroo (paragraph numbers correspond, both 11). Then compare with the last para of “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” “time is but the stream….” Together the three paragraphs inform us of Thoreau’s imaginative rendering of time and eternity.
February 18, 2019 at 2:25 pm
Compare “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” and paragraph 11, the so-called “doubleness” passage, in chapter 5, “Solitude.”
February 18, 2019 at 2:19 pm
For the “spectator,” see Sankhya Karika by Ishvara Krishna. Allen Hodder in his book, “Ecstatic Witness,” identifies the “Karika” as a source for this passage. I would add that the passage is related to Emerson’s notion of the “me” and “not-me” in his essay “Nature.” The passage is also related to time and eternity, especially if we define “eternity” as outside of time, as many spiritual traditions do. The passage is central to the Thoreau’s life and thought.
February 17, 2019 at 5:50 pm
Posted in: Panel of Experts
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