Henry David Thoreau
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Thoreau and Richard C. Trench:
Conjectures on the Pickerel Passage of Walden - Page Two

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By Gordon V. Boudreau (1974) - continued

The January 16 borrowing is from Trench's statement that "'Rivals,' in the primary sense of the word, are those who dwell on the banks of the same stream…. those occupants of the opposite banks" (Study, pp. 216-217). To this speculation, Thoreau found a local habitation and a name in writing:

Trench says that "'rivals,' in the primary sense of the word, are those who dwell on the banks of the same stream" or "on opposite banks," but as he says, in many words, since the use of water-rights is a fruitful source of contention between such neighbors, the word has acquired this secondary sense. My friends are my rivals on the Concord, in the primitive sense of the word. There is no strife between us respecting the use the stream. The Concord offers many privileges, but none to quarrel about. It a peaceful, not a brawling, stream. It has not made rivals out of neighbors that lived on its banks, but friends. My friends are my rivals; we dwell on opposite banks of the stream, but that stream is the Concord, which flows without a ripple a murmur, without a rapid or a brawl, and offers no petty privileges to quarrel about (J, IV, 467-468).

Without access to the radical meaning of "rivals," Thoreau, four years earlier, had toyed with similar local meanings in the opening sentence of his first published book by writing of how the Concord River was given its name "from the first plantation on its banks which appears to have been commenced in a spirit of peace and harmony…. it will be Concord River only while men lead peaceable lives on its banks."[8] Surely he found in Trench a compatible spirit!

On January 27, Thoreau mentions Trench by name for the last time in his Journal:

Trench says a wild man is a willed man. Well, then, a man of will who does what he wills or wishes, a man of hope and of the future tense, for not only the obstinate is willed, but far more the constant and persevering. The obstinate man, properly speaking, is one who will not. The perseverance of the saints is positive willedness, not a mere passive willingness. The fates are wild, for they will; and the Almighty is wild above all, as fate is.

What are our fields but felds or felled woods. They bear a more recent name than the woods, suggesting that previously the earth was covered with woods. Always the new country a field is a clearing (J, IV, 482-483).

Here Thoreau's considerable translation of Trench's bare philological fact already to the culmination of his reflections on "wild" that he expresses most fully in "Walking" and "Wild Apples."[9]

But aside from the acknowledged references to Trench in his Journal wherein Thoreau's creative imagination is evident, there is a single "borrowing" which figures in the genetic process of the famous pickerel passage in "The Pond in Winter." In his Journal entry for January 25, 1853, which is in the midst of his other Trench references, Thoreau writes: "They [the pickerel of Walden] are true topazes, inasmuch as you can only conjecture what place they came from" (J, IV, 476). The source of this passage derives most surely from Trench's statement: "What curious legends belong to the explanation of the 'sardonic laugh;' to the 'topaz' so called, as some said, because men were only able to conjecture (topasein) the place whence it was brought, and to innumerable other of the words employed by us still." (Study, p. 105).

In a careful reading of the whole of the published Journal - some two million words - I have found only one other instance of Thoreau's use of "topaz," in a description of the hoar frost of January 1838, where the jewel imagery is almost surely of Biblical derivation: "There were the opal and sapphire and emerald and jasper and beryl and topaz and ruby" (J, 1, 26). Neither is "conjecture," with its variants, particularly popular in Thoreau's vocabulary, for it occurs but eight times in the Journal.[10] Only in the above passage for January 25, 1853, do the two terms occur together, as they do in the passage from Trench that I take to be its source. In the pickerel Passage in "The Pond in Winter," which derives from the January 25 entry, neither term occurs; both have been dropped in the genetic process. In fact, there is no instance of "topaz" in Walden, and "conjecture" (with its variants) occurs but three times, none in "The Pond in Winter."[11] One might therefore suppose the Trench borrowing to be without significance, and yet it figured significantly in the sometimes convoluted movements Thoreau took towards a final simplicity of expression and compression of richness.


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8. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Boston: Houghton, 1906), p. 3. The Journal reveals Thoreau seeking to confirm Trench's philology: "Bailey I find, has it: 'Rival (Rivalis L. q. d. qui juxta eundem rivum pascit)'." [Nathan Bailey (d. 1742) was the obscure lexicographer whose "An Universal Etymological English Dictionary appeared in 1721.] Thoreau, however, put in the last word: "My friends my rivals are" (J, IV, 468). Back to text

9. Cf. Study, p. 203: " 'Wild' is the participle past of 'to will'; a 'wild' horse is a 'willed' or self-willed horse, one that has never been tamed or taught to submit its will to the will of another, and so with a man." And, pp. 218-219: "'field' meaning properly a clearing where the trees have been 'felled,' or cut down, as in all our early English writers it is spelt without the i, 'feld' and not 'field,' even as you will find in them that 'wood' and 'feld' are continually set over, and contrasted with, one another." In the "Ktaadn" chapter of The Maine Woods, first published in Sartain's Union Magazine in 1848, Thoreau toys with "wild" in his variation upon the twelfth stanza of Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" -- the italics are his:

Perchance in this wild spot there will be laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

Ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 18. Puzzlement over "wild" and "field" was common to the philologist. In John Horne Tooke, The Diversions of Purley, new ed. revised and corrected by Richard Taylor, 2 vols. (London, 1829), II, 44, there is a discussion of the radical meaning of "wild" as "Willed, Will'd (or self-willed)" and of "Field" as "merely the past participle Felled, Fell'd, of the verb To Fell ... and is so universally written Feld by all our old authors, that I should be ashamed to produce you many instances. Field-land is opposed to Wood-land; and means -- Land where the trees have been Felled." Tooke's Diversions is mentioned prominently in the "Introduction" to the first edition of Trench's Study, wherein there is a discussion of the etymology of both words (pp. 122, 133). According to Kenneth Cameron, Transcendentalists and Minerva (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1958), II, 360, Thoreau read Tooke with care in 1837 and mentioned him in a Harvard theme that year. Moreover, Thoreau twice refers to Tooke in his Journal (I, 398; XIV, 311). Back to text

10. Once each in J, I, 377; II, 109; III, 83, 264; IV, 476; V, 182; VI, 17; XIII, 186. Back to text

11. In Walden, pp. 21, 100, 182. "Conjecture," or a variant, occurs but twice in A Week, pp. 81 and 343. "Topaz" appears in neither work. Back to text

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