Thoreau begins with a vivid array of plant descriptions, moves to standing under a rainbow, then to an afternoon fishing—all offered with a sense of sublime mythos. Suddenly a rainstorm requires refuge in an immigrant family’s hut. Another rainbow appears and a seemingly divinely-sourced message, closing with a return to fishing, this time with the Irishman.
It’s a curious and somewhat troubling chapter. Thoreau’s observations about the Irish family are mildly derogatory and judgmental, “But alas! the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” There’s an alternating tone of what we might call the swamp/bog/judgment with the rainbow/genius/epiphany. I’m going to suggest following these alternating tones as a way through the chapter.
Consider the integration of elevated and low in the opening paragraph. His beloved pine groves are “like temples…fit to stand before Valhalla.” The swamp offers “round tables of the swamp gods,” toadstools, and “nameless other wild forbidden fruits….” So the trees, fit for gods, and the lush swamp, full of potential danger, are all together “shrines I visited both summer and winter.”
He moves on to rainbows and halos, but apparently only for natives, and maybe for someone in romantic captivity, the Italian Cellini imprisoned on suspicion of stealing gems from a papal tiara. Really. Then to “one of those afternoons which seem indefinitely long before one.” By now, we are lulled in the myth-making.
Thoreau manages to keep this going as he moves into finding refuge with the struggling Irish family, who did indeed exist. Again, we have a rather grimy window into mid-nineteenth century life. Why does he choose to include this account in the myth-making narrative of Walden?
The Irishman earns his living ‘bogging”—working to drain the meadows, a parallel to the swamp, which Thoreau finds beautiful. After leaving the family, he receives instructions from his “Good Genius” that read like a personal download of Biblical commandments. These unfold like a counterpoint to the material and possibly spiritual poverty he just witnessed.
Consider this passage in the next chapter,
I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.
So we include the swamp, weeds, woodchucks, and poor bogging neighbors because they too belong in the myth. How his neighbors live provides a Not This to Thoreau’s search for life’s essentials. It’s all still inspiration.
Harding, Walter. Walden, an Annotated Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1995.
Van Doren Stern, Philip. The Annotated Walden. New York: Bramhall House. 1970.