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Thoreau: Spring and All

September 16, 2016

In the chapter “Spring,” Thoreau’s triumphant yet simple line, so far as I read it, is this one: “Walden was dead and is alive again.”

This is “Walden” as metaphor, Walden as pond and book, the symbolic Walden of “earth’s eye,” potentially anthropomorphized. Walden as a person coming back to life, as we often say we do, coming out of the darkness of winter. The symbolic and metaphorical language of awakening that is basic to the poetry of spring–and clearly important to the agenda of this book.

In this regard, to consider one example from the poetry of spring, we might hear in William Carlos Williams’s famous poem “Spring and All” an echo back to Thoreau’s chapter and the pleasure it takes in waking from the dead.

Spring and All
by William Carlos Williams
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind.  Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.  All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens:  clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them:  rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

But this is not just metaphor.

To enter Spring is to awaken from the dead of Winter. Williams, it seems to me, reminds us that the symbolic nature of Spring is not merely metaphor–but is also a material reality of life and living. And so the sentence “Walden was dead and is alive again” is symbolic, but not only in the metaphorical sense. Thoreau is thinking very materially, scientifically, ecologically, as well as poetically, about the dynamics of Spring: rooting down and waking up. In other words, Thoreau, like Williams, is thinking about, and writing with, the metonymy of Spring. The chain of associations between the living matter of Spring (all the stuff going on in the thawing sand bank for Thoreau, the rooting down for Williams) and the human life doing the observing (and writing) are figurative but no less material. Walden is matter for symbol, and for poetry, but only because it is living matter–and thus can’t be reduced to symbol for poetry. Both writers focus attention on the Spring that is not merely metaphor, dead leaves in a book, but living poetry–as Thoreau puts it. And in that sense, the environmental vision is to use the metonymy of Spring and all its gritty, material associations–the kind of stuff we might find more readily in a scientific work–to express the poetry of nature. “There is nothing inorganic,” Thoreau writes: Nature is “living poetry like the leaves of a tree.” Spring–the written and the natural phenomenon–is a hybrid product.

To my way of thinking, even though Thoreau uses a simile here (a type of metaphor), the argument is that such poetry (or pattern, to recall Berry) is entirely organic, natural. The metaphor emerges from nature, like leaves from a tree.  This is to say that the metaphor emerges originally as metonymy, as a symbolic representation or figure materially connected to what it represents. And Thoreau wants us to remember that and return to it. Walden, we remember each Spring, is not just dead metaphor but is alive, under our feet as well as over our heads.

To the extent that metonymic language tends toward the realistic and to be of relevance to nonfiction prose, particularly nonfiction interested in the art of observation, we will continue to see metonymy as we work our way into American environmental writing. My point in focusing our attention on this–and I recognize it is complicated–is to emphasize and borrow from Thoreau’s own argument: that the ways writers represent nature and try to express it, adequately and otherwise, does not mean that they are doing so only or exclusively as poets/artists or exclusively as scientists/naturalists. As we see in the sand thawing passage in “Spring,” the writer himself (his brains, his bowels) are part of the hybrid production he would portray. This is even there in what may be Thoreau’s pun at the end, in reference to Thaw as a type of Thor. Thoreau’s name was pronounced, in the local vernacular, as Thaw-reau, not as we mostly do, Tha-reau.

In “Spring” Thoreau invokes epitome, which we can think of as a literary-ecological analogy: a piece or part of a larger system (or book) that represents it. The day is an epitome of the year, Thoreau suggests. Here is the etymology of epitome. Here, then, is a hypothesis: Thoreau’s encounter of the day in Spring, the thawing of the sand in the cut of the railroad bank, is then an epitome of the year; and this encounter in this chapter is an epitome of the book (which is also presented to us as an epitome of the year; and that year as an epitome of a life). How, then, does Spring–and these encounters with the sand, and later with the decaying horse–epitomize Thoreau’s project?

Several years ago, while teaching this course and rereading Walden, I began to pursue a particular project of interest to me (and so I hypothesized, of interest to Thoreau and his text). I sought a better grasp of how the rhetorical figure of metonymy mattered in Thoreau’s thinking and writing. Along the way, this project took me into a close reading of Thoreau’s wild “sand foliage” passage in the chapter “Spring,” and deeper into his poetic-scientific interest in language and etymology. I published an essay out of that project in the journal Criticism, “Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of Metonymy.” [you can read it, if you like; will need to be signed in to the College’s network.]


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