Commonplace Commerce and Transcendence in “The Pond in Winter”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Stephen Hahn, William Paterson University | © Stephen Hahn 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 My presentation today may involve more recollection than revelation, but I thought in the context of the theme of the gathering—Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary—and in response to the resonance that the word POND has suddenly gained over the last year, that revisiting “The Pond in Winter” might be a good way to orient ourselves in the midst of summer to the play between the commonplace and the transcendent in Thoreau’s writing. I want to do so with specific reference to commerce through the figures in this chapter who give emphasis to the word “work” in the chapter’s opening as the narrator transitions from a sort of mystic sleep to his own “morning work.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Much of the chapter, and much of the work Thoreau does in it, or about half of its paragraphs in the interior, relates to his attempt to dispel the local legend of the bottomless pond and to survey its contours, to locate the reader in the realm of measurement and containment, to emphasize how in comparison to its breadth the pond is shallow, as in comparison to its planar bottom the mountain is not high: In other words, over against certain sorts of perceptual distortions on one hand and folkloric exaggerations on the other, things tend toward the mean.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But there is in the chapter a counter movement toward transcendence and extravagance, that plays on the mirroring, transposition, inversion, and reversal of identifications, ultimately to run at the end of the string of identifications to something beyond identity at the just unspoken edge of reference. It is something of a quandary where to situate oneself as a reader, with these diametrically opposed alternatives offered, and the likelihood is of course, as frequently it is with Thoreau, that we are best served simply by alternating rather than choosing up sides: Limitation or transcendence? Transcendence or limitation? Now one or the other occupies us, neither of them final, although the chapter, of course, ends in an apotheosis which is but the last of several attained in its telling.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I want to look at how Thoreau engineers a sort of verbal bridge between commonplace particulars and a sense of transcendence in depicting the incursion of two different groups of beings onto the pond in winter—each of them involved in a commerce of sorts, each of them involved in work, but each of them representing access to transcendence, and each of them in their essence as well as in our experience embodying a paradox that suggests resolution beyond the world of experience.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 First there is a little scene-setting, as Thoreau almost literally descends to his morning work: Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. After a cold and snowy night it needed a divining rod to find it. Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding fields, it closes its eye-lids and becomes dormant for three months or more. Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer, there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperature of its inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. (Walden 273-24) These inversions and reflections of interior and exterior, high and low, wild and domestic, natural and artificial, and the paradox of the interior of the somnolent pond being seen as place of quiet domestic activity of espied fishes, creates a context verbally and visually, for the narrator to position himself as a spectator to the arrival of the first of two groups who will open up and expose things “deeper in Nature” and beyond the penetration of the mere “naturalist”: Early in the morning, while all things are crisp with frost, men come with fishing reels and slender lunch, let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel and perch; wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. They sit and eat their luncheon in stout fear-naughts on the dry oak leaves on the shore, as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial. They never consulted with books, and know and can tell much less than they have done. The things they practise are said not yet to be known. Here is one fishing for pickerel with perch for bait. You look into his pail with wonder as into a summer pond, as if he kept summer locked up at home, or knew where she had retreated. How, pray, did he get these in mid-winter? O, he got worms out of rotten logs since the ground froze, and so he caught them. His life passes deeper in Nature that the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject of the naturalist. The latter raises the moss and bark gently with his knife in search of insects; the former lays open logs to their core with his axe, and moss and bark fly far and wide. He gets his living by barking trees. Such a man has some right to fish, and I love to see Nature carried out in him. The perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled. (274) The commonplace activity of ice-fishing leads to transcendent wonders, bringing life out of dead logs in winter, perch out of the pail transposed from summer, and pickerel from the pond by way of the perch. Compared to the naturalist, engaged in a specialized and what Thoreau casts as an artificial study, “who raises the moss and bark gently with his knife in search of insects,” these “wild men, who follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen,” “lay open the logs to their core…and moss and bark fly far and wide.” Metaphorically, the depth and violence of their penetration is connected to “wildness,” but what they “practice” is said “not yet to be known.” That is, it exists or is, but it is undiscovered and beyond what is currently signified. The unknown force, the physis, of the wild man’s action is “Nature carried out in him,” beyond our cognition. At the same time as they engage in all this violent rending, “by their goings and comings [they] stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped.” They turn up, “early in the morning,” on ponds that intersect the distant towns, interstices that make the towns distant from each other, and “stitch” them “together,” by their common activity and commerce. Both common and strange, the wild men and the pickerel stand in contrast to the utterly common fishmongers and dead cod hawked in the streets: Ah, the pickerel of Walden! When I see them lying on the ice, or in the well the fisherman cuts in the ice, making a little hole to admit the water, I am always surprised by their rare beauty, as if they were fabulous fishes, so foreign to the streets, foreign as Arabia to our Concord life. They possess a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty which separates them by a wide interval from the cadaverous cod and haddock whose fame is trumpeted in our streets. (275) That trade in the codfish was both lucrative, due to cod’s being susceptible to preservation and therefore useful in the Atlantic trade, and contemptible, due to its ugliness as well as to its abundance, had been famously announced by John Smith in his “Description of New England” in 1616 (“Description” 327). In contrast Thoreau remarks of the lowly common pickerel that he has “never chanced to see its kind in any market,” though “it would be the cynosure of all eyes there.” So the common pickerel of the New England pond becomes the North Star of the imagined market and “like a mortal translated before his time into the thin air of heaven.” And yet, of course, it is the sustenance of subsistence workers who “get their living barking trees.”

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 From the thin air of the apotheosis of the pickerel, we descend, again, to the literal and the mundane and Thoreau’s quest to search out of the bottom of Walden for thirteen paragraphs, with only one peak, in the middle, in the meditation on the mountain beginning “If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact…” That one excursion aside, it is not until we come to the conclusion of the chapter, which mirrors its opening, as the “prudent landlord” and then the merry “ice-cutters” and finally the incursion of the “Hyperborean horde” return us to Thoreau’s transcendental-izing of the pond.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The epic exploits of the horde are amplified by the long extended metaphor of winter and summer harvest in the first Hyperborean salvo of exposition, and then to the more literal version of the “hundred Irishmen,” the effect of the juxtaposition being as much as to say, on the aside, “See, look what I have done with my metaphor, and what I do now, more literally: once to emphasize by mock heroic metaphor the power of exaggeration, and then by contrast, again, its commonality, as the ice, for instance, is “divided into cakes by methods too well known to require description.” This modulation of voice, inviting the reader into confidence with the narrator—for surely we don’t need to ask to know—familiarizes what was just de-familiarized by the diction of the previous paragraph, highlighting the play of language.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The play of language implies the play of knowledge: Describing the pile of ice cakes covered with straw “thirty-five feet high on one side and six or seven rods square”—that is, close to one hundred feet square, as “like a blue fort or Valhalla” and “like a venerable moss-grown and hoary ruin, built of azure marble, the abode of Winter, that old man we see in the almanac,—his shanty, as if he has a design to estivate with us,” the narrator modulates between the mythical and commonplace, or what the reader would take as literal and metaphoric or symbolic or in any case of greater or higher meaning. The rapid shifting from familiar to strange, literal to metaphoric, and high to low diction enables the momentary withholding of signification followed by—at least in most cases—a delayed revelation of the referent which by repetition (see!) induces an assurance that the signifier will indeed have significance—for what is it “to estivate” but “to estivate”? to spend summer paradoxically as in winter reversed or inverted (hibernate)? If we are a little turned around by this word play, we seem to return to an equilibrium, eventually, if only to see the common though a lens of estrangement.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 These devices of verbal and somewhat esoteric comedy enable Thoreau as the narrator ultimately to reach even higher registers in the concluding paragraphs. His intention or purpose to demonstrate by analogy, if not by logic, is indicated by his repetition of the word “thus” at the head of each of these two concluding paragraphs: Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work like busy husbandmen, with teams and horses and apparently all the implements of farming, such a picture as we see on the first page of the almanac, and as often as I looked out I was reminded of the fable of the lark and the reapers, or the parable of the sower, and the like, and now they are all gone, and in thirty days more, probably, I shall look from the same window on the pure sea-green Walden water there, reflecting the clouds and the trees, and sending up its evaporations in solitude, and no traces will appear that a man has ever stood there. Perhaps I shall hear a solitary loon laugh as he dives and plumes, or shall see a lonely fisher in his boat, like a floating leaf, beholding his form reflected in the waves, where lately a hundred men securely labored. Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names. That the “ports” of which “Alexander only heard the names” remain unnamed, of course, is another instance where the suggestion of something beyond the immediately signified helps to assert the existence of something beyond the signified, like the day yet to dawn in the conclusion of the book Our “buckets,” meanwhile, “grate together in the same well” that like Walden, at least in the mytho-graphic era of 1846-47, refilled by Spring despite the harvest of the 10,000 tons of ice.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The literal, historical background of the story of the ice harvest, as we know, has its origin in the exploits of the “gentleman farmer,” as Thoreau calls him, Frederick Tudor, of Lynn, Massachusetts, when Lynn still had farms, and the particular event of the harvest in the Winter of 1847. And that story as well as Thoreau’s depiction of the harvest most recently came into popular view in the chapter “Profit” in Lauren Redniss’s illustrated science book, Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future. Having told the story of Tudor’s exploits, at least partly through the lens of passages from Thoreau’s Walden, Redniss quotes from what she purports to be a letter to Thoreau from Emerson in March of 1847, where Emerson writes: I am not without a prospect that my woodlot by Walden Pond will get an increased value soon; as Mr. Tudor has invaded us with a gang of Irishmen and taken away 10,000 tons of ice from the Pond in the last few weeks. If this continues, he will spoil my lot for the purposes which I chiefly value it, and I shall be glad to sell it. (Letters 383; quoted in Redniss 184) If the letter were addressed to Thoreau, the quotation would certainly be sharpened by answering to Thoreau’s own complex treatment of the subject directly to deflate it. But wouldn’t it be odd if Emerson had written to Thoreau about the lot while Thoreau himself was living on it and composing his chapter there? If you look for the letter among those Emerson wrote that Spring you will find that the letter is addressed not to Henry but to Emerson’s brother William, living on Staten Island, focusing on matters of business and publishing concerns. Despite the misidentification, however, the perspective offered by the letter contrasts that of Thoreau’s chapter. For Emerson, the use of the Pond for commerce lessons its value “for the purposes which I chiefly value it,” presumably as a place to escape and purchase solitude. Once commerce and the world of the street and market enter the picture, its luster diminishes. For Thoreau, living in solitude at the Pond, the incursion of imported laboring Irishmen or indigent fishermen about their commonplace business seems to have a different effect than the irritable breaking of solitary contemplation. It appears to open instead a space in which to imagine possibilities of conviviality as the wild men “stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped”(274) annealing their divisions and differences, on one hand, and, on the other, following the decantation of Walden water in the form of ice, along a chain of significance, to literal shore of the Ganges but also to that place of sublimity “in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial,” which is I think the other side of the effect of Thoreau’s use of allusion. His invocation of heroic comparisons is not straightforwardly ennobling, as one for instance would find in Sarah Orne Jewett’s use of a similar device, nor is it straightforwardly disparaging or demeaning. If our “modern world and its literature” may seem “puny and trivial,” these workers on the ice are, we have been told, different and not a part of what is commonly told—pointing to something “deeper in nature” and practicing “things…said not yet to be known.” If the action on the ice is comedic, it affirms by the double action of its irony that beyond the common measurements of our life, above or below, there is something uncommon, too, and greater than what we know.

Works Cited

  • 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 3, ed. Ralph L. Rusk. NY: Columbia UP, 1939.
  • Redniss, Lauren “How Weather Shapes Our Past, Present, and Future.” Interview with Leonard
  • Lopate, December 16, 2015. www.wnyc.org/story/how-weather-shapes-our-past-present-and-future.//
  • —. Thunder and Lightning: Weather, Past, Present, Future. Random
    House. NY: 2015.
  • Smith, John. “A Description of New England” [1616]. In The Complete Works of John Smith (158-1631).
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden [1854]. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.
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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/thursday-july-7-2/commonplace-commerce-and-transcendence-in-the-pond-in-winter/