Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 9 : The Ponds | Summary



In the previous chapter, Thoreau mostly talks about Concord; in this one, he wants to talk about places he prizes more. He especially treasures a hillside where huckleberries and blueberries grow, noting the "vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them."

Remote though his cabin may be, it's not always lonely enough for Thoreau. On such occasions, he takes to his boat. Sometimes he fishes; sometimes he plays his flute to the fishes, who seem to him to appreciate the sound. Night fishing is especially thrilling, when Thoreau's fishing line brings him into contact with "nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below."

From describing his interaction with the pond, Thoreau moves to a detailed portrait of Walden Pond: its depth and dimension, its varying colors, its water's remarkable transparency. He introduces the reader to the huge variety of creatures who make their home in or near the pond. The pond is "a gem of the first water which Concord wears in her coronet," and Thoreau is grieved that woodchoppers have decimated the forest that once surrounded it and "the Irish have built their sties by it."


This chapter is a poem written by a surveyor. By now, readers know enough to expect the kinds of contrasts he will offer: nature versus civilization, purity versus muck, spirituality versus pragmatism, Thoreau versus Irish immigrants. An editor might suggest that Thoreau cut a couple of passages: the extended reports on the pond's various depths and temperatures come to mind. Yet these passages reveal the depth of Thoreau's scientific mind and the literal depth of the uncharted pond.

Thoreau's love for Walden Pond illuminates every paragraph. His masterful descriptions reveal the pond as his spiritual home. Except perhaps for Herman Melville, no other author in American literature makes water his subject or comes up with such lovely visual descriptions. (Nor one who "invert[s] his head" to see what the pond's surface looks like upside down—"a thread of finest gossamer.")

Thoreau seems particularly interested in the pond's transparency, "like molten glass cooled but not congealed." How fortunate that a writer so concerned with purity happened to end up on one of the clearest lakes in that part of Massachusetts! Of course, its wonderful transparency means that Walden Pond is wonderfully pure as well, literally and metaphorically. The beauty of the pond provides various means for Thoreau to support the principles of Transcendentalism.

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