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Walden | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


As touched on in Walden, Chapters 4 and 5 ("Sounds" and "Solitude") how does Thoreau believe people benefit from communion with nature and time alone to meditate?

Thoreau believes that in communing with nature, people sharpen their perceptions and learn to understand "the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard." In other words, Thoreau believes that nature speaks simple, universal truth, without the filters with which society censors communication. Thoreau confides, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. ... I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." For Thoreau, solitary meditation provides distinct benefits: "Some of [his] pleasantest hours were during the long rain-storms ... which confined [him] to the house ... when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves." Although Walden is only a mile or two from Concord, Thoreau finds the location's isolation and solitude are benefits, with "... unfenced nature reaching up to [his] very [window] sills. A young forest growing up under [his] meadows ... and no path to the civilized world." He says that "there can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still."

In Walden, Chapter 5 ("Solitude") why does a rainstorm remind Thoreau of "the beautiful daughter of Toscar"?

The lines "Mourning untimely consumes the sad;/Few are their days in the land of the living,/Beautiful daughter of Toscar" are from a saga called The Poems of Ossian. This saga was allegedly translated and edited by the 18th-century Scottish poet James Macpherson, who claimed to have collected poems that had been handed down by oral tradition. ("Ossian" is supposed to be the narrator of the poems.) The cycle of poems was immensely popular throughout Europe, though suspicions arose from the beginning about the saga's legitimacy. Although it's likely that Macpherson wrote the poems himself, their literary quality was good enough that many critics forgave him for the fraud. We do not know whether Thoreau was aware of the fraud when he quoted these lines. In any case, they work well in this context. Thoreau uses them to underscore his point that few people live life fully; most are too busy grieving the past or wishing their circumstances had been different.

What does Thoreau mean when he mentions "the blue devils" and "the blue angels" in Walden, Chapter 5 ("Solitude")?

The "blue devils" is a late 18th-century expression meaning "dejection" or "melancholy" (modern culture has shortened it to "the blues"). The expression "blue angels" is coined by Thoreau to mean "happiness" or "tranquility." He's personifying Walden Pond by saying that although the pond is solitary, it is perfectly happy. Its "blue" is not the color of the blue devils but the azure blue of the sky. Walden Pond's changing colors are endlessly interesting to Thoreau. In Chapter 9, "The Ponds," he devotes two-and-a-half pages to discuss the ways in which the pond is sometimes green, sometimes blue, and sometimes a mixture of the two. Here, his linking the pond's azure color to "angels" suggests that he views Walden Pond as a heavenly place.

In Walden, Chapter 4 ("Sounds") what is the significance of the cockerel?

Thoreau has sometimes wanted to acquire a rooster just for the sound it makes. He loves the rooster's crow and wishes the bird could be naturalized so that "cock-a-doodle-do" would resound from the woods. That music would be better than "the clangor of the goose and the hooting of the owl." In addition to its wonderful call, Thoreau venerates the rooster as a sign of dawn, his favorite time of day. For Thoreau, every morning is a holy new beginning. If wild roosters all crowed at dawn, "it would put nations on the alert. Who would not be early to rise, and rise earlier and earlier every successive day of his life, till he became unspeakably healthy, wealthy, and wise?"

In Walden, Chapter 16 ("The Pond in Winter") what does Thoreau's scientific examination of the pond say about him, and how does this relate to the text?

Thoreau's scientific investigation of the pond shows him to be not only a naturalist but also an early environmental scientist. Thoreau's early environmental observations in Walden Woods are even relevant in today's climate change studies. Environmentalists have used his detailed journal notes about weather, plants, and migratory birds in a long-term study of how climate change may affect the wildlife in the region surrounding Walden. He begins to wonder about the depth of the pond and disdains the locals' false inference: "There have been many stories told about the bottom, or rather no bottom, of this pond, which certainly had no foundation for themselves." To gain quantitative measurements, Thoreau takes numerous depth soundings of Walden. He creates his own scientific tools, making his sounding line from "a cod-line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half." He measures the depth of the pond's deepest point to be just over 100 feet and uses his background as a surveyor—and the law of averages—to map the bed of the pond. With that task completed, he begins to think that his data about the pond's depth in relation to its length and breadth (width) could be applied to larger bodies of water. He develops scientific hypotheses regarding the shape of ponds and lakes, and goes on to test those hypotheses. When Thoreau completes his investigation of Walden, he decides that his examination might even have relevance to spiritual matters. Thoreau states, "What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics. It is the law of average[s]. Such a rule ... draws lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man's ... daily behaviors ... and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character." Thoreau's scientific investigation of the pond and the realization that his observations have a spiritual component relate to his reason for being at Walden—to learn all that nature and life have to teach him.

How did the Transcendentalist movement influence Thoreau's writing of Walden?

Transcendentalism was a philosophical and social movement that greatly influenced 19th-century American writers and philosophers, Thoreau among them. Transcendentalists believed that everything living possessed the spirit of the divine and that human beings had it within themselves to transcend the banalities of ordinary life. While most Transcendentalists were Christians, they were interested in Eastern philosophies as well as Western ones. They also believed that observing nature was one of the best ways to educate oneself; everything in nature held the spark of the divine. Transcendentalists were eager to create Heaven on Earth by carrying out their ideals, not just thinking about them. "If you have built castles in the air ... " Thoreau wrote in Walden, "that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

In Walden, Chapter 8 ("The Village") how does Thoreau build and sustain a nautical theme when describing his nighttime walk home, and what is its impact?

In the paragraph beginning "It was very pleasant, when I stayed late in town ..." Thoreau portrays himself as a boat heading into dangerous seas as he walks through darkness and occasional storms. Here are the images he uses to support this extended metaphor: Thoreau "launches" himself into the "dark," "tempestuous night." He "sets sail" from town and heads toward his "snug harbor" in the woods. He has "made all tight without"—made the ship watertight. Because he's still walking to the cabin, he probably means he's bundled up and prepared for his journey. His thoughts are a "merry crew." Only his "outer man" is "at the helm." Thoreau knows the walk well enough that he does not have to devote all his attention (his "crew") to the path. He has never been "cast away" by storms: he has never been turned into a castaway or been stranded. He has many pleasant thoughts "by the cabin fire." This is a play on words that speaks of both a ship's cabin and Thoreau's own cabin at Walden Pond. "As I sailed" is a refrain in the sea chantey "The Ballad of Captain Kidd." Kidd was a notorious British pirate who was executed in 1701. The impact of the nautical theme is to show how Thoreau has never been dismayed by darkness or bad weather. Through preparation and a positive attitude, he always manages to stay on course.

In Walden, Chapter 8 ("The Village") how does Thoreau show his antipathy to Concord?

Thoreau describes the town gossips in negative language, as "the coarsest mills" who grind up gossip and then empty it out. He also criticizes the layout of the town so that a visitor must be seen and criticized by everyone. Worst of all for him, however, is having to pay calls in town. He describes himself as making an irruption into friends' houses when he goes to the village. An irruption is a sudden invasion, not just an inconvenient visit. Perhaps Thoreau has to nerve himself to go into friends' homes; perhaps he dodges into convenient houses so as to avoid passing people he doesn't feel like greeting. In either case, he does not relax once he is inside.

Why was Thoreau furious to have his tax paid in Walden, Chapter 8 ("The Village")?

Thoreau had decided to stop paying his poll tax to protest the nation's involvement in slavery. Slavery was legal in 1846, and a majority of Americans still supported it; Thoreau did not. He was therefore strongly opposed to America's 1846 declaration of war on Mexico, which he saw as a Southern ploy to expand slavery into more territory. "I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle," Thoreau writes in "The Village." His jailer offered to pay the tax for him, but Thoreau refused. Therefore, he was furious the next day when he found that someone had paid the tax and he was free to go. His benefactor had deprived him of the opportunity to take a stand on a position he believed in strongly.

As mentioned in Walden, Chapter 11 what are the "Higher Laws," and how does Thoreau imply that he—and the reader—should practice them?

The "Higher Laws" are rules of conduct that Thoreau feels should guide a person's pursuit of purity and a spiritual life. These rules are often in conflict with the animal urges of nature. Although Thoreau still views nature as a teacher, he finds that he has "an instinct" toward both a "higher ... spiritual life" and a life influenced by nature, one that is "primitive ... savage." Thoreau thinks that he owes his "closest acquaintance with Nature" to the hunting and fishing he learned as a child. After a child's "introduction to the forest, and the [animalistic] part of himself," Thoreau is convinced he will leave the gun and fishing pole behind "if he has the seeds of a better [spiritual] life in him." With this thought in mind, Thoreau finds that although he still goes fishing he loses respect for himself each time he does so, particularly because he finds that fish don't nourish him any more than would a meal of bread and potatoes. Vegetarianism appeals to him, as he believes that people who want to make the most of their "higher or poetic faculties" are "inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind." Beyond that, he is sure that in their "gradual improvement," humans will eventually stop eating animals as surely as in the past they abandoned cannibalism. Overall, Thoreau cautions that "nature [people's animalistic side] is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome." It takes a strength of will, but Thoreau observes that "he is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established."

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