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

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By Gordon V. Boudreau (1974) - continued

Aside from slight changes in syntax and such minor additions as the "Ah" at the beginning of the passage, there are some significant changes wrought by Thoreau in his conversion of the Journal to the Walden version. There is, for example, a deletion of "gems" and "topazes" (with a consequent loss of "conjecture"), together with the addition of "crystals." The net effect of these changes in jewel imagery lessens the suggestion of the exotic - Biblical and Near Eastern - thereby concentrating upon the native beauty of Walden Pond and its pickerel. Moreover, "pearls," which occurs late in the journal passage, has been moved forward, and "golden and emerald" moved backward, giving a more concentrated and climactic effect to Thoreau's handling of gem imagery. Finally, there is a dynamic quality in "this great gold and emerald fish swims" not present in the Journal version's "a fabulous fish . . . handsome as flowers and gems, golden and emerald."

All of these changes focus upon the punning symbolic center of the Walden version: "they [Walden pickerel] have ... yet rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were the pearls, the animalized nuclei or crystals of the Walden water. They, of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses." Thoreau has here concentrated the gem imagery of the original upon the pearl rather than the topaz, not only as symbol of the Walden pickerel, but of the Walden water itself, as "animalized nuclei." Pickerel and pond have been drawn towards, if not into, a transcendent identity in the crystals of the Walden water, all being "Waldenses."

At this point in the text the reader of Walden is frequently directed to a footnote explanation of "Waldenses" in a way that unfortunately short-circuits Thoreau's considerable wordplay by calling attention to his pun on the Christian sect, Waldenses, that arose under Peter Waldo in the south of France in 1170 and later joined the Reformation movement in the sixteenth century.[12] Not only is the historical reference too limiting, but it distracts from the symbolizing nature of Thoreau's wordplay for which there are clues in the genetic process.

To begin, consider Thoreau's dropping the statement that the Walden pickerel are "something tropical," which appeared in the Journal passage. The referent that immediately comes to mind for "tropical" is, perhaps, "of the Torrid Zone." At one stage Thoreau did, in fact, try to wrench his New England pond pickerel into such a "tropical" fish: Ronald Clapper notes in the F version of the Walden manuscript (1853-54) that following "fabulous fishes," Thoreau inserted, then cancelled the phrase "fresh water dolphins."[13] Now if the dolphin is not strictly a "tropical" fish in the first sense of that word, it was immensely tropical in a way analogous to that of the crop Thoreau cultivated in his bean field, raised "for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day" (p. 162).

Because of the rich "tropical" value - metaphorical, mythical - of the dolphin in an Old World culture to which Thoreau was drawn, it must have been painful for him to strike out the phrase. He was almost surely aware that Apollo had assumed the name, perhaps the form, of the dolphin in order to win over to his worship the priests (Delphinios, i.e., dolphin-like) at the temple of Delphi. The tropical value of the dolphin in our culture is tapped in Milton's "Lycidas," to which Thoreau was so powerfully attracted, by the haunting lines: "Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:/ And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth" (II. 163-164).[14] Closer to his natural experience is Thoreau's homing instinct to the tropical dolphin in a Journal passage nearly a year before his first encounter with Trench: "The sight of the sucker floating on the meadow at this season affects me singularly, as if it were a fabulous or mythological fish, realizing my idea of a fish. It reminds me of pictures of dolphins or of Proteus. I see it for what it is, -- not an actual terrene fish, but the fair symbol of a divine idea, the design of an artist" (J, III, 437). And Thoreau did insinuate a single dolphin passage in Walden, tropically, in "Baker Farm," where the "very abutment of a rainbow's arch" that he stood in "was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin."[15]

A penciled interlining in the F version of the Walden manuscript shows that Thoreau, having resisted the impulse to make the Walden pickerel a "fresh water dolphin," was following through on its other tropical possibilities, the hint for which was supplied by the cancelled "dolphin." Following the sentence that eventually terminated with "Waldenses," Thoreau wrote: "dauphins eldest sons of Walden, for whose behalf this whole world is but a dauphin edition to study" (Clapper, pp. 753-754). The pun Thoreau here entertained is an example of what Trench, following Emerson's notion, believed to be the "fossil poetry" of words, for "Dauphin," the tide given to the eldest son of the King of France from the period 1349 to 1830, derives from "Old French dalphin, dalfin, DOLPHIN. This title (originally borne by the lords of Viennois, France, whose coat of arms bore three dolphins) was adopted by the French crown princess as a condition when the Viennois province Dauphiné was ceded to the crown."[16]


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12. Walter Harding, The Variorum Walden and the Variorum Civil Disobedience (New York: Washington Square, 1968), p. 312, n.; Larzer Ziff, Walden, A Writer's Edition (New York: Holt, 1961), pp. 271-272. Back to text

13. "The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text," Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. of California at Los Angeles, 1967, p. 753. Back to text

14. For a pertinent recent discussion, see Kathleen M. Swaim, "Lycidas and the Dolphins of Apollo," JEGP, 72 (1973), 340-349. Back to text

15. See p. 202. Anticipations of Thoreau's "tropical" pickerel, with its imagery of precious stones and associations with the dolphin (in the genetic process) occur in A Week, pp. 27-29, in the description of the red "chivin" or "cousin trout" as a "bright cupreous dolphin," the "Shiner" as "a gold or silver bit that passes current in the river," and the "pickerel" as "a jewel set in water." In the "Ktaadn" chapter of The Maine Woods, p. 80 (see also pp. 357-359), Thoreau describes a view of the lakes of Maine "with here and there a blue mountain, like amethyst jewels set around some jewel of the first water."Back to text

16. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (New York, 1969). Back to text

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010