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Thoreau and Richard C. Trench:
Conjectures on the Pickerel Passage of Walden - Web Page 5

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By Gordon V. Boudreau (1974) - conclusion

Another dimension of Thoreau's pondering over his "tropical" fish is conveyed by F. B. Sanborn in the Bibliophile Edition of Walden, who comments that the cancelled passage shows Thoreau's "quaint scholarly fancy," and then explains that the "allusion ... is to the books prepared by the Jesuits for the use of the Dauphin of France, grandson of Louis XIV. -- Delphinus serenissimus. These were styled 'Delphin editions.'"[17] The numerous "Delphin editions" in Thoreau's own library must have been visual reminders of the tradition from which the eldest son of the king derived.[18] When Thoreau struck from the F version of his manuscript "fresh water dolphins dauphins eldest sons of Walden," he had strayed mythically and geographically from the crystallized nuclei of Walden Pond and its pickerel, with a consequent fixation on books, delphin editions, rather than the book of nature, which speaks directly, "without metaphor" (Walden, p. 111).

At this point in his manuscript deliberations, however, it was only a small leap from delphin editions and dauphins to the political kingdom of Dauphiné, a figuration of his "small Waldens in the animal kingdom." The Waldensian sect, which at the time of the Reformation was confined to the "high valleys of Piedmont and the adjacent French Dauphiné and Provence," had been given topical importance through the Edict of Emancipation issued by Charles Albert of Sardinia on February 17, 1848. By this edict, the Waldenses were given full civil liberties.[19] Thus for Thoreau the pickerel conjoins with the pond, Walden, through a varied middle term -- dolphin, dauphin, delphin, Dauphiné -- wholly lacking in both the Journal entry and in the final text of Walden.

Trench was among the many who would later puzzle over the considerable philological mystery about the name of that European sect: "were the 'Waldenses' called from one Peter Waldo, to whom the 'Poor Men of Lyons,' as they were at first called, owed their origin? or is Waldenses for Vallenses, the men of the Alpine valleys, the Dalesman?" he wrote in an 1860 edition of the Study.[20] And in the final edition of the Study published during Trench's lifetime, the English philologist considered an extension of possible meanings for "Waldenses, or Wallenses ... declared by Roman controversialists to be justly so called, as dwelling 'in valle densâ,' in the thick valley of darkness and ignorance." Yet both sides in the controversy posed etymological conjectures, another seeing "the Waldensian valleys ... seven in number ... the first [being] Luserna, or Valley of Light."[21]

Why did the topaz give over so completely to the pearl in Thoreau's fabulations? Perhaps, like the dolphin, because of its associations with an Old World's culture, it was a common observation that topaz received its name from "the island in the Red Sea" called "Topaza, Topazos, and Topazion .... Pliny says ... it received its name because the island was surrounded by fog so often it was difficult to find. Mariners ... had to GUESS" its whereabouts.[22] Moreover, in the popular mind topaz is yellow in color, "topaz yellow," sometimes described as "saffron-yellow," while the waters of Walden are nearly colorless when held to the light. In "The Ponds" Thoreau had already alluded to "Saffron-Walden" (p. 183), the English town whose economic vitality was sustained by the yellow dye derived from the saffron crocus which grew so abundantly around it.[23]

In a late edition of his Study, Trench wrote: "'Margarita,' or pearl, belongs to the earliest group of Latin words adopted into English. The word, however, told nothing about itself to those who adopted it. But the pearl might be poetically contemplated as a sea-stone; and so our fathers presently transformed 'Margarita' into 'mere-grot,' which means nothing less."[24] Such meanings were hardly alien to Thoreau, whose Concord neighbor and sometimes boating companion Nathaniel Hawthorne mused in his notebook in 1842, "Pearl - the English of Margaret - a pretty name for a girl in a story," and then elaborated his own pearl parable in a romance published four years earlier than Walden.[25] But it was Thoreau's own shaping philological imagination that enabled him to "read" Walden Pond and put it to tropical use as an inland sea-stone or mere-grot, a gem of the first water whose animalized nuclei, its fabulous fish, became a fable-maker's pearl of great price.

In the opening paragraphs of "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," Thoreau faces a threat to his pearl of great price. Having defined his peculiar trade in "Economy" as one with a celestial empire, a "speculation" upon spiritual rather than material goods, Thoreau's brief possession of the Hollowell Farm threatens his poetic and spiritual freedom to be "monarch of all I survey," including his right to survey and make "tropical" use of Walden Pond. Thoreau's turnabout may be likened to that of the merchant in the parable of Matthew 13:45-46: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."

Surely Richard C. Trench, in a sentence or two, helped bait the hook that enabled Thoreau to catch the fabulous fish that is Walden, "God's drop," a tropical pearl of great price whose catch belongs not only to the author, but to whatever reader fishes with the hook of hooks in an attempt to catch the bottom of Walden, or even to catch the flicker of the tail of its fish of fish, its Waldenses, swimming at the hidden depths of a pond that some still conjecture is bottomless.

Gordon V. Boudreau
LeMoyne College


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17. (Boston, 1909), II, 194, n., quoted by Philip Van Doren Stern, ed., The Annotated Walden (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1970), p. 407. Back to text

18. See "Appendix A, Library of Henry D. Thoreau," in F. B. Sanborn, The Life of Henry David Thoreau (Boston, 1917), pp. 506-508. Sanborn lists twenty-nine works under "Philology," p. 511. Back to text

19. John T. McNeil, "Waldenses," Encyclopedia Americana (1971); "Dauphin," "Dauphiné," and "Waldenses," Encyclopaedia Britannica (1970). Rev. J. A. Wylie, History of the Waldenses (London: Cassell, [1880]), p. 210: "In the Revolution of 1848 .... the Waldensian Church became the door by which freedom of conscience entered Italy." Back to text

20. The 21st American edition, from the 9th English edition enlarged and revised (New York: Middleton, 1860), p. 166. Back to text

21. The 19th ed. rev. (London: Keagan, Paul, Trench, 1886), pp. 36, 236. Wylie, p. 6. Back to text

22. Mary L. T. Brown, Gems for the Taking (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 123. Back to text

23. William F. Foshag, "Gems and Gem Minerals," Part II of Minerals from Earth and Sky, Smithsonian Scientific Series, Vol. III (New York: 1929), p. 236; P. N. Scherman, Gems and Their Occult Power (Kanpur, India: Scherman, 1969), p. 132. Eugene H. Walker, 'The History Back of the Name Walden," Concord Saunterer, Supplement No. 2 (June 1972). Some topazes, "when colorless," are known in Brazil as "Pingos d'aqua (drops of water)," Oliver Cummings Farrington, Gems and Gem Minerals (Chicago: Munford, 1903), p. 120. Back to text

24. 29th ed., revised by A. L. Mayhew (New York: Macmillan, 1914), p. 65. The passage is attributed to Trench rather than Mayhew. Back to text

25. The American Notebooks (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1932), p. 100. The affinity of Hawthorne's Pearl for the sea is especially pronounced in Chapter 15 of The Scarlet Letter. Back to text


Copyright ESQ. Reprinted by permission.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010