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Thoreau Over the Deep

  • Eric Wilson

Abstract

On New Year’s Day, 1851, Thoreau as usual set out on his afternoon walk, exhilarated by another warm day, the third in a row, surrounded, though the sky was sunless, by a luminous mist. He made his way to a deep cut in the bank around Waiden Pond, his former habitat. There he beheld thawing clay, the frozen earth melting under the plastic power of midwinter spring: earth returning to first water. Metamorphosing his head to hands and feet, Thoreau dug below the surface of the sliding mud to unearth its subterranean significance:

These things suggest—that there is motion in the earth as well as on the surface; it lives & grows. It is warmed & influenced by the sun—just as my blood by my thoughts. I seem to see some of the life that is in the spring bud & blossom more intimately nearer its fountain head—the fancy sketches & designs of the artist. It is more simple & primitive growth. As if for ages sand and clay might have thus flowed into the forms of foliage—before plants were produced to clothe the earth. The earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass. It is a body—has a spirit—is organic—and fluid to the influence of its spirit—and to whatever particle of that spirit is in me. She is not dead but sleepeth. It is more cheering than the fertility & luxuriance of vineyards—this fundamental fertility near to the principle of growth. To be sure it is somewhat foecal and stercoral—. So the poet’s creative moment is when the frost is coming out in the spring. (J 4:230)

Keywords

Centripetal Force French Historian Plastic Power Voiceless Spirant Transcendentalist Philosophy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Drawing from Thoreau’s journal (J 1:121, 140–1, 156n, 180), Robert D. Richardson Jr., details Thoreau’s reading of Cudworth, Gerando, and Fenelon during the spring, summer, and fall of 1840 in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), 78, 81. See also Robert Sattelmeyer, Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), 28–9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Indeed, Cudworth has nothing good to say of Thales and his Milesian followers but condemns them as atheistic materialists (Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, vol. 1 [New York and London: Garland, 1978], 113–31). In Gerando, however, Thoreau found an appreciative, detailed discussion of the life and thought of Thales. See Joseph de Gerando, Histoire Comparee des Systemes de Philosophie, Consideres Relativement aux Principes des Conaissances Humaines, vol. 1 (Paris: Alexis Eymery, 1822), 334–49.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Francois Fenelon, Abrege de la Vie des Anciens Philosophes, Oeuvres Completes, vol. 7 (Geneve: Slatkine Reprints, 1971), 6–7, and Gerando, 339–44. These historians render the reports of Aristotle in Metaphysics (983b 7) and De Anima (405a 19; 411a 7). See The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. and intro. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941). I have used the translations of Aristotle by Philip Wheelwright, trans. and ed., The Presocratics (New York: Odyssey Press, 1966), 46–7. For a lucid discussion of Thales’s philosophy, see John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Meridian, 1957), 40–50.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    For a good introduction to “transcendental anatomy,” see Philip H. Rehbok, “Transcendental Anatomy” in Romanticism and the Sciences, eds. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), 144–60. Also see Philip H. Rehbok, The Philosophical Naturalists: Themes in Early Nineteenth-Century British Biology (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 15–55. For discussions of Thoreau’s relationship to this tradition, see Laura Dassow Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1995); Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1995); James Mcintosh, Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance Toward Nature (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974); Sattelmeyer, 26–7; Richardson, 29–30.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Goethe, Italian Journey, trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (New York: Penguin, 1970), 366.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    For accounts of Thoreau’s relationship to Agassiz, see Walls, Seeing New Worlds, 113–5, and Walls, “Textbooks and Texts from the Brooks: Inventing Scientific Authority in America,” American Quarterly 49:1 (March 1997), 1–25; Richardson, 365–8; and Sattelmeyer, 83–5. Walls explains that Thoreau began to move away from the abstract, natural theology of Agassiz, as well as away from the holistic tendencies of Romantic biology around 1850, and began to move toward, with the help of the work of Alexander von Humboldt, a more detailed view of the specifics of nature, ultimately sharing Charles Darwin’s emphasis on diversity over unity (Seeing 114–30). Thoreau, I should add, also knew of Oken, about whom he learned in 1848 from J. B. Stallo’s General Principles of the Philosophy of Nature with an Outline of Some of Its Recent Developments among the Germans, Embracing the Philosophical Systems of Schelling and Hegel and Oken’s System of Nature (Boston: Crosby and Nichols, 1848). See Sattelmeyer, 46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 14.
    Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of a journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, abr. and trans. Jason Wilson (New York: Penguin, 1995).Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical System of the Universe, vol. 1, trans. E. C. Otte (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997), 24, 359, 24.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Humboldt, Views of Nature; or Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomenon of Creation (New York: AMS, 1970), 342.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hints Toward the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, gen. ed. Kathleen Coburn, vol. 11 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press 1969-), 510, 518–9.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, comm. Harold Bloom (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 565–6.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    Walls, Seeing New Worlds, 84–93. See also Joel Porte’s excellent discussion of the relationship between Emerson and Thoreau in Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalism in Conflict (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1966).Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    Thoreau, “Walking,” Excursions and Poems: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 245.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    For interesting discussions of Thoreau’s attraction to water, see Nina Baym’s “From Metaphysics to Metaphor: The Image of Water in Emerson and Thoreau,” Studies in Romanticism S:4 (1966), 231–234; and Joel Porte’s “Henry Thoreau and the Reverend Poluphoisbois Thalassa,” The Chief Glory of Every People: Essays on Classic American Writers, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press), 191–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 25.
    Cliff Toliver notes this pun in his article “The Re-creation of Contemplation: Walton’s Angler and Thoreau’s Week,” ESQ 38:4 (1992), 293–313.Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    For an excellent discussion of Thoreau’s theory of natural writing, primarily in relation to his journal, see Sharon Cameron, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    As William Howarth writes in The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as Writer (New York: Viking, 1982), “The narrative line is by no means clear in A Week; often the digressions obscure the trip entirely” (52). However, Sherman Paul claims in The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1958) that while “the expression and organization” of A Week “have been severely criticized,” the style of the book is nonetheless “natural and organic” (197).Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Thoreau, Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, ed. Bradley P. Dean, fore. Gary Paul Nabhan, intro. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1993).Google Scholar

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© Eric Wilson 2000

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  • Eric Wilson

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