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Thoreau and Richard C. Trench:
Conjectures on the Pickerel Passage of Walden

by Gordon V. Boudreau
ESQ, Volume 20, 2nd Quarter 1974, 117-124
© ESQ. Reprinted by permission of the editor.
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"Ah, the pickerel of Walden! . . . They, of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses." - Thoreau, Walden (1854)

"Doubtless it is interesting to preside at the birth of a saying which has lived on and held its ground in the world." -Trench, On the Lessons in Proverbs (1853)[1]

Three times in his Journal during a two week span in January 1853, Henry David Thoreau was moved to quote from and comment upon a little book by Richard Chenevix Trench titled On the Study of Words.[2] Nowhere else in his Journal and never in his other published works does he refer to Trench by name, though in his unpublished "Fact Book" he recorded from Trench's Study some thirty words with their derivations.[3] Does Thoreau's brief Journal notice of Trench deserve no more than the footnote attention it has received? Or should students be alerted by William Ellery Channing's suggestion that "in much that Mr. Thoreau wrote, there was a philological side, -this needs to be thoughtfully considered," and look more carefully at the possible impact of the English philologist upon Thoreau?[4] A careful examination of Thoreau's brief encounter with Trench's work in the winter of 1853, as revealed in the Journal, together with clues in the genesis of Walden point to Trench's Study as a factor in the formulation of Thoreau's famous pickerel passage in "The Pond in Winter." And while this appears to be the only visible mark of Trench upon Thoreau's works, it is nonetheless significant in prying ajar, however narrowly and briefly, the door usually drawn shut upon the workings of our greatest authors. Because of its speculative character, I offer this discussion as that of Thoreau's "friend [who] will be bold to conjecture; he will guess bravely at the significance of my words."[5]

The three borrowings from Trench acknowledged in Thoreau's Journal - in the entries for January 15, 16,.and 27, 1853 - are from a second edition (1852) of On the Study of Words (a shorter first edition appeared in late 1851). Interestingly, the Study was in some measure inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The Poet," for in the first edition Trench refers to "a popular author of our own day [who] has somewhere characterized language as 'fossil poetry'"; moreover, the "Introductory Lecture" and Chapters Two and Three - "On the Morality of Words" and "On the History of Words" - carry forward Emerson's captivating phrase.[6]

Thoreau's creative imagination is already evident in his elaboration upon Trench in the first Journal borrowing. Trench writes: "Take three or four of these words, 'transport,' 'rapture,' 'ravishment,' 'ecstasy' - 'transport,' that which carries us, as rapture,' or 'ravishment,' that which snatches us, out of and above ourselves; and 'ecstasy' is very nearly the same, only drawn from the Greek."[7] Thoreau responds: "True words are those, as Trench says, - transport, rapture, ravishment, ecstasy. These are the words I want. This is the effect of music. I am rapt away by it, out of myself. These are truly poetical words. I am inspired, elevated, expanded." And with a deft wit he punningly concludes, "I am on the mount" (J, IV, 466-467).


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For its support in completing this project, I am grateful to the LeMoyne College Research Committee. I also am indebted to Dr. Taisto Niemi and Mrs. Esther Cheng of the LeMoyne College Library for their generous assistance.

1. The edition of Walden cited here and subsequently is that edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), p. 284. Richard Chenevix Trench (New York: Redfield, 1853), p. 32. Back to text

2. Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886), born in Dublin and educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge, was one of the famous "Apostles." After taking part in the ill-fated expedition of General Torrijos and the Spanish Exiles, he returned to England, married, and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1835. He served for many years as Archbishop of Dublin. His popular (nineteen editions in his own lifetime) On the Study of Words, which originally appeared in 1851, was the first of five philological works that he wrote in mid-career. On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries (1857), originally given at a meeting of the London Philological Society, outlined the proposal that eventually resulted in the publication of the Oxford New English Dictionary. Trench's numerous publications are in divinity, history, literature, and poetry. For his contributions in philology see Hans Aarsleff, "English Philology to 1860," Language in England, 1780-1860 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 211-263; "Historical Introduction," Oxford English Dictionary, I (Oxford, 1933), vii a; Simeon Potter, "English Language, III. Historical Background. 6. The 19th and 20th Centuries," Encyclopaedia Britannica (1970). The only biography of Trench is J. Bromley, The Man of Ten Talents: A Portrait of Richard Chenevix Trench, 1807-86: Philologist, Poet, Theologian, Archbishop (London: S. P. C. K., 1959), which includes a bibliography. Letters and Memorials [by Miss M. M. F. Trench], 2 vols. (London: Kegan, 1888), provides helpful biographical material. In addition to these sources, I have made use of the Trench entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (1937-38). Back to text

3. Kenneth Cameron, ed., Thoreau's Fact Book in the Harry Elkins Widener Collection the Harvard College Library: Annotated and Indexed (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1966), 1, 143-144. Arthur Christy, "A Thoreau Fact-Book," Colophon, Part XVI (March 1934), n. pag., first published the list, though omitting "miscreant." Back to text

4. Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist, new ed., enlarged and edited by F. B. Sanborn (Boston: Goodspeed, 1902), p. 77, n. John Aldrich Christie, Thoreau as World Traveller (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), p. 117, and Sherman Paul , The Shores of America (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1958), p. 412, are among the few notices, brief as they are, of Thoreau's reading Trench. Back to text

5. References to the Journal of Henry David Thoreau are to The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 20 vols. (Boston: Houghton, 1906), VII-XX, but I have adopted the alternate numbering of these volumes, I-XIV. The reference here is to III, 83. Subsequent references to the Journal will appear in parentheses in the text with J preceding volume and page numbers. Back to text

6. According to Cameron, p. 10, and Christy, n. pag., Thoreau used the 1852 edition (New York: Redfield), from the revised and enlarged 2nd London edition. A comparison of Thoreau's Journal quotations with both editions makes it clear that Thoreau used the second edition. See in the first edition (London: Parker, 1851), pp. 4, 5, 10. A late edition of the Study (New York: Armstrong, 1881), p. 118, removes any doubts: "Emerson has somewhere characterized language as fossil poetry." Back to text

7. Study (New York: Redfield, 1852), p. 19. Back to text

Pickerel Picture Credit:
Edward C. Migdalski & George S. Fichter, The Fresh and Salt Water Fishes of the World. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Page 130. Title of Illustration: Chain pickerel (Esox niger). Artist: Norman Weaver.
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