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A Monstrous Metaphor Fished from Walden Pond

If Walden, the pond, as Thoreau tells us (“The Ponds” chapter), sports some, but not many, fish, “…pickerel…perch and pouts…breams, and a couple of eels. Nevertheless, this pond is not very fertile in fish” (174), Walden, the book, is well stocked with metaphorical fish; some, when pulled to the surface, monstrous tropes: “A lake…is earth’s eye…The fluviatile [of a river] trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows” (176). Thus we see the earth as a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster, the eye stretched into an imperfect circle, trees for lashes and eyebrows, hills for forehead. And the eye, at a certain time of the day, the sun, another eye, gazing into its waters, contains fluid a kind of “molten glass cooled but not congealed” (177). The picture we see here is not the standard product of the bucolic water-colorist; more like a Salvador Dali painting.

The face of the earth is dotted with these Cyclopes, but these eyes are protected against blindness, as Thoreau explains in yet another figurative device, the riddle, which he uses to sieve his pond. What is a mirror which no stone can crack? He gives us the answer: “[The lake] is a mirror which no stone can crack” (178).

Yet we’ve already been introduced to the lake as a mouth, so now we’ve to add a mouth to our Cyclops’s eye: “By this fluctuation the pond asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows. It licks its chaps from time to time” (172). What a face!

The metaphorical mouth surrounds the eye-trope, the eye sits in the mouth, and the eye is sometimes blue, but often, in places, “of a yellowish tint,” or again, “vivid green…verdure…Such is the color of its iris.” (167). And at the bottom of this eye, “logs…like huge water snakes in motion” (188).

Thoreau finishes “The Ponds” chapter with a metaphorical flourish: “Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her” (188). No doubt.


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

A Sixth Way of Looking at Walden: Deliberately Seeking Simplicity

Walter Harding suggested “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” Bill McKibben, in his introduction to the Beacon Press edition of Walden, cites two “practical questions…: How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). Reading Walden as a way of asking these questions for ourselves, McKibben suggests, is another way of looking at Walden.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” (85), Thoreau said, in the Walden chapter titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” What does he mean by deliberately, and why wasn’t he able to live deliberately in town? “When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other” (6). Yet how deliberate can the decision be if, as Thoreau continues, “…they honestly think there is no choice left” (6). We might add a third question to McKibben’s reading questions: What are my choices?

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau proposes, “and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails” (91). He seems to be suggesting that to live deliberately means to live free from non-essential distractions, from man-made dissipations. Perhaps this is reason enough for talking about what we are reading, for reading aloud, with others: “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written” (96), for while deliberately means intentionally, purposefully, meaningfully, existentially, deliberate also means to think, to consult others, to consider one’s options. One may live as simply as one chooses, Thoreau seems to say, but it takes, apparently, deliberation.


It is told in sounds in Thoreau’s Walden

“It is told in sounds,” Joyce says, “in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom…and anythongue athall” (Finnegans Wake, 117).

“– Is it so exaltated, eximious, extraoldanddairy and excelssiorising?
– Amengst menlike trees walking or trees like angels weeping nobirdy aviar soar anywing to eagle it!” (Finnegans Wake, 505).

Here Joyce takes a common, neutral cliché, defrocked by virtue of its clichéd repetition (nobody ever saw anything to equal it), and gives it wings so it can take off again, renewed, refreshed. “Poetry is the foundation of writing,” Beckett says. “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical” (Exagmination, 11).

Just so, Thoreau, a monk amongst trees, delights in the poetry found in sounds and tries to locate the sounds in human language, and we see him building the foundation for his own writing. An example of this is found in the “Sounds” chapter of Walden.

Thoreau has heard a hooting owl, to him a “melancholy sound,” and tries to imitate the owl’s sound: “I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it.” And in the passage, he repeats the gl letters so that the reader, if reading for sounds, must hear his meaning: “gurgling melodiousness…,” “gelatinous mildewy stage….” “It reminded me of ghouls…howlings” (118), this last, the gl inverted. And we thus find Thoreau a polyglot at work, in at least two languages, the language of nature and the language of the human, and the combination of the two might be what Joyce meant, repeating Thoreau’s gl, by “polygluttural,” the mouth flooded with the sounds of nature.


Epizeuxis, epizeuxis, epizeuxis! in Thoreau’s Walden

Writing is repetition. Listen to the keyboard. Each key produces its own, unique sound, repeating, the sounds given emphasis by the relative strength and position of the fingers, but we recognize the collective effort as someone typing. Suddenly, the sounds grow faint, decrescendo. Perhaps the typist has reached the required length. Then, suddenly, suddenly, like a cat in flight, the ideas spring like birds from the grass, then scatter, some alighting on wires, others landing on roofs, others lost within thick trees, trees, trees.

Typing sounds. But that’s not writing you say, but typewriting, echoing Capote’s criticism of Kerouac’s On the Road, the first draft produced on a single roll of paper fed through his typewriter: no yoke.

And repetition is instruction, to repeat, to teach or learn, often with little relief, as we are made to recite or duplicate. But in the distance we hear the stammerer, needlessly repeating, though stammer he must, to get it out, battology, swinging away in the batting cage, practice, repetition, swing, swing, swing. If the ball is claim, the bat grounds, flight is assumption. Going, going, gone! And a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, said Gertrude Stein, and we can imagine her writing teacher’s penciled comment on little Gert’s paper: “wordiness.” Yes, but, well, isn’t that what she’s getting paid for?

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” rants Thoreau in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden (86), an example of epizeuxis, (ep i zeux’ is), a figure of repetition, a word repeated in succession for emphasis. Yet two sentences down, Thoreau seems to realize a mistake, or maybe he’s just tired himself out, and he says, “Simplify, simplify,” twice only, without the exclamation. But he’s followed his own advice, having simplified his epizeuxis, for now, diminishing the repetition by one. But, at the same time, a contradiction appears, for he’s up to five.

Thoreau repeats the word simplicity ten times throughout Walden, the word simple, twenty-five times, but the imperative, simplify, the argument of proposal, he repeats only twice, but in the figure of repetition, epizeuxis, which is to say, he says it simply once.


Reading Directions for Thoreau’s Walden

Walter Harding was the secretary of the Thoreau Society when he wrote the short article for The Massachusetts Review titled “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” The article opens with a narrative description of the types of people who read Thoreau and attended the Society meetings, and these were, in short, anyone and everyone, folks from all walks of life. And why was this diverse group of individuals interested in Thoreau? Harding says, “It is very rarely that two give the same reason. They are interested in his natural history, his politics, his economics, his prose style, his anarchism, his theology, and so on…Walden is read, not for just one reason, but for many” (149). Harding then describes his five types of readings of Walden, variations that might explain the diversity of its readers, and that serve as a useful introduction to Walden as argument.

The first of Harding’s five readings of Walden is as a nature book: “To most people, I suppose, Walden is a nature book. Certainly back at the time of its appearance it was almost universally considered to be a book about natural history, and some of Thoreau’s contemporaries were annoyed that he allowed anything but nature to have a part in the book” (149-150). Publishers over the years have capitalized on this reading, for most editions show some drawing or picture of the pond or environs, suggesting a bucolic topic. The 2004 Beacon Press edition I’m reading now is covered with a black and white photo titled, “Fallen leaves through the Corner Spring Woods” (October 15, 1899). There’s no hint in the photo of a cabin, of what it might take to build one, or why.

The second of Harding’s five readings suggests that some folks read Walden for its value of self-dependent optimism. Says Harding, “A second appeal of Walden is as a do-it-yourself guide to the simple life. I think it highly significant that the first real surge of interest in Thoreau in the twentieth century came during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties when large masses of people, indeed almost all of us, were required willy-nilly by the press of circumstances to adopt the simple life. We had no choice in the matter, but Thoreau was one of the very few authors who not only made this simple life bearable, he even made it appealing” (151). This economic season of Walden, and reason to read it, may again be upon us.

Harding’s third reading might appeal to today’s fans of sarcasm, for nothing so deflates and simplifies as humor. Harding says, “A third facet of Walden is its satirical criticism of modern life and living. Strangely enough this is one side of Thoreau that is sometimes misunderstood by the reader. Some take everything Thoreau says literally and seriously, ignoring the fact that the book’s epigraph reads: ‘I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up’” (154-155) [Harding refers to this passage as “the book’s epigraph”; it’s found on page 79 of the Beacon Press edition, in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter]. But Thoreau’s humor is evident from the beginning of his text: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body [sic] else whom I knew so well” (2). We may know folks who talk of no one else but others, as if they don’t know themselves at all, or as if they themselves present the poorest topic they know, or as if there exists no topic other than people, no ideas or things.

Harding’s fourth reading comes equipped with a seemingly highfalutin word that upon examination might be found to aptly describe Thoreau’s style: “A fourth approach to Walden is the belletristic. From a purely technical standpoint, Walden is good writing and is worth examining as such” (156). This reading suggests textual analysis, and focuses on structure and style, unity, on the how of what is said. Harding points out that the central unifying trope of Walden is the year, the seasons (157), which leads to a reading of the whole as “the symbol of rebirth and renewal” (160). But with this aesthetic reading, the reader focuses on devices such as the order of the chapters, paragraphing, sentence structure, and diction, and figures of speech (without which Walden would be only a couple of pages long, if that).

This is the reading I find most interesting, the rhetorical analysis, for which Walden provides plenty of fuel. Harding says that he “once took a list of more than fifty different types of figures of speech [within Walden] – allusions, metaphors, rhetorical questions, alliteration, analogy, puns, epanorthosis, parables, similes, meiosis, anti-strophe, oxymoron, epizeuxis, anaphora, litotes, anti-thesis, portmanteau words, metonomy, contrast, personification, epistrophe, synecdoche, irony, apostrophe, hyperbole, and so on, and with no difficulty at all found excellent examples of each one in Walden. There is hardly a trick of the trade that Thoreau does not make use of” (158-159).

Harding’s final reading, if we’ve any spirit left after that last passage, is as a spiritual book.

And there are other readings of Walden, perhaps as many as there are readers. Here is a reference to Harding’s article, which can be found using the JSTOR electronic database, accessible via library:

Five Ways of Looking at Walden
Walter Harding
The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 149-162
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Stable URL:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].


Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

We might be tempted, reading Walden, and wanting, for some reason, something more, answers, perhaps, though we might not yet know the questions, to split the difference (and the infinitive) and to quickly Google “Thoreau.” (I just did, and got 22 million results in about half a second.) Eventually, we might stumble across Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, a good find, and one that carries the imprimatur of scholarly law. Harding’s book contains a map of Thoreau’s Concord. And, if we want to map the many obscure references in Walden, we might be interested in Harding’s Walden: An Annotated Edition, though there are so many annotations we are reminded of a crowded day in the South Bay, when one could not see the waves between the Manhattan and Hermosa Piers, there were so many surfers in the water. Sauntering further along the streams of academic searches, we might discover John Roman’s excellent “Mapping Thoreau’s World: An Artist’s Journal on Making an Illustrated Map of Historic Concord” (The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies, N.S. Vol. 15 [2007]: 123-184).

All good stuff, except for one problem: as we set sail on The Google Titanic, we seem to have put the actual Walden aside, the original text, and haven’t read, or reread, a single page. Besides, wouldn’t Thoreau be the first to say that if it’s maps we want, we would do well to make our own, and make it of our own neighborhood, that we might better come to know where we live, and what we live for?

Still, parts of Walden might perplex us for lack of specific knowledge of how things were in Thoreau’s time: his attitude toward the poor toward the end of “Economy,” for example, might perplex us, toward being poor (if he could be considered poor, by any definition), or of fear of becoming poor. We might want to know something of almshouses and poorhouses of Thoreau’s time, of what became of citizens with mental health problems, of the growth of towns, of economic recessions and recoveries, of farm labor, of immigration and how immigration provided for cheap labor and the exploitation of recent Irish immigrants to build the railroad through Thoreau’s countryside (Thoreau, in Walden, appears to have several objections to the railroad). These questions would provide us with useful pursuits that might lead to new reading perspectives.

But still, the questions of what we think of the poor, of being poor (if we might be considered poor by any definition), or fear of becoming poor, if we harbor such a fear, might suggest our own rendering, writing, of our economy, in such rhetorical terms as Thoreau opened the door for us. And as for maps, we would do well to make our own, our own reading map of Walden, complete with distances, landmarks, signposts, and other markings and drawings, and footnotes, so that our reader, if we can imagine such a one, might better know our reading perspective and what we found, having lived for some significant time, in Walden.


Unpacking the Aphorism to Pull Out the Pith

Thoreau valued simplicity and wisdom, yet his writing style is not simple, and the reader must unpack the aphorism to pull out the pith. Anecdote becomes parable, reminding us of Alice and the Duchess: “Tut, tut, child! Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” Thoreau’s claims, statements he knows will invite disagreement, are supported with metaphors, which lead to ambiguous explanations. Often, he strings together claims with reasons that at first glance seem not to follow. What unifies his paragraphs is not always clear, and his wit is often housed in satire. Here’s a short example that illustrates, the paragraph quoted in whole:

“All that I could say, then, with respect to farming on a large scale, (I have always cultivated a garden,) was, that I had my seeds ready. Many think that seeds improve with age. I have no doubt that time discriminates between the good and the bad; and when at last I shall plant, I shall be less likely to be disappointed. But I would say to my fellows, once for all, As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail” (78).

James Thurber once drew a cartoon of a man walking up to his house after work, the lines of the rear of the house rising up over the roof to reveal a caricature of his wife hiding behind his house, a part of the house, awaiting his arrival, as if to startle him. We’re not sure if he’s ready for the surprise or not. The cartoon might present an unflattering view of marriage, combining the mortgage of the structure with the mortgage of one’s freedom (one marries a house, furnished with a spouse), but it might help explain Thoreau’s view of owning the farm: it’s like having a bed in the county jail because one can’t escape it. “Most men,” Thoreau writes, “appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have” (32).

Thoreau is rightfully proud that he builds his own house on Walden Pond, but he’s most proud that its proportions are in sync with his four necessaries. Nothing is exaggerated: the house enjoys no wrap around porch, no great room, no dining room separate from living room, no two car garage; it’s a one-room house. The house affords no hyperbole. Yet, like the complexity of his prose, erecting the house wasn’t a simple job, and he had help, in the form of tools borrowed, and, “At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from necessity, I set up the frame of my house” (41). Note the stubborn insistence on independence: he could have done it all himself; he welcomed the help to be neighborly. He begins to live in his house on July 4th, Independence Day, more irony, yet he has proven that “the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually” (45). And, of equal benefit, he won’t “forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter” (42). Thoreau again foreshadows Buckminster Fuller, who showed that specialization leads to extinction: “Where is this division of labor to end?” Thoreau asks, “and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself” (42).

Now that he’s built his house, and owns it unencumbered, his necessaries squared away, he’s free to enjoy his stay in the woods.


On Thoreau On Clothing

Thoreau worked a number of jobs around town, some voluntarily, though he had hoped for some recompense, and hoped too for something to be that would both pay and be a good fit. At times, he seems almost to have thought someone should have paid him for simply sitting or walking about observing and thinking; in this, he anticipates a Buckminster Fuller argument, that if 1,000 people were paid to take time off and think, one of them would come up with an idea that would pay for all the others. Both Thoreau and Fuller were optimists. But Thoreau seems happiest when his work is its own reward, and he neither spends nor collects in the bargain. Thoreau worked, he tells us, still in “Economy,” as a reporter, and comments, “…as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward”; a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms” (for damage, presumably); a “surveyor,” though its not clear his use of the word matches our own; and a waterer of the town’s trees (15-16). When he finally realized his voluntary pursuits were not going to lead to a permanent, paid position, he lit out for the woods.

His narrative of “Economy” then jumps into a discussion of another of his “necessaries,” clothing, and we come to one of my all-time favorite Thoreau aphorisms: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (21). Yet many jobs require a uniform, as do many schools. I attended school for twelve years before I was allowed to dress myself in whatever I wanted, at which point I chose blue jeans and tee shirts, letting my hair grow out as part of the deal, but soon I then went into the Army, where I found my schooling had prepared me for a dress requisite, not to mention the haircut. Still, even in uniform, since, according to Thoreau, people are judged according to how they dress, a great many anxieties arise from our clothing habits, and we dress to impress others rather than to accommodate the basic need of the necessary.

Thoreau navigates his way forward using metaphors for his oars: “Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, liked that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives” (21). Clothing is a kind of shelter, perhaps a shelter from the storm of opinion. And we might consider how long it takes for the oars of opinion to start rowing together in the same direction, for when we finally arrive at something called “business casual,” we might recall Thoreau’s comment that “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new” (23). Thoreau might have winced at Jeeves dressing Wooster.

An Economy of One’s Own

In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).

He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).

Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).

But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty