Thoreau's "Walking" Major Themes


The Pursuit and Comprehension of the Wild

Thoreau prepared the essay "Walking" for publication during his final months. It forms part of a cluster of natural history writings that he worked on late in his life. (Among the others, "Autumnal Tints" and "Wild Apples" were, like "Walking," published in Atlantic Monthly in 1862, after Thoreau's death.) "Walking" represents a final statement of Thoreau's understanding of nature. It contains ideas expressed in his earlier writings, presented imperatively. Its tone is visionary. Although the essay resulted from the union of two lectures prepared in 1851, it is difficult not to think of it as a deathbed communication, an ultimate, emphatic reiteration and extension of themes developed throughout Thoreau's writings, a final exhortation to the reader to be alert to nature.

Thoreau makes clear in the first sentence of "Walking" that nature in its most intense form — "absolute freedom and wildness" — is his subject. Throughout the essay, he exalts unconfined wildness in both nature and man, and rejects the forces (the past, society, and the materialistic values of the present) that inhibit the full experience of nature and that limit thought and expression. The heightened, unrestrained, frequently impassioned rhetoric of the piece stylistically reinforces Thoreau's message.

In defining all that he means by wildness, or "the Wild," Thoreau develops the metaphor of "the West." The west, the direction in which he prefers to walk, evokes the American frontier and the vast, unexplored, wild landscape beyond it, and at the same time suggests the uncharted, boundless, as yet unrealized possibility of man. His discussion of the west reveals the powerful fascination that westward expansion held for Thoreau.

Although territorial acquisition as supported by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny had, in the spread of slavery, consequences Thoreau found unacceptable, the symbolic west in "Walking" possesses a mythological significance. The west represents health, vigor, new ventures with unknown outcomes, and the future. The west is full of promise:

. . . I saw that [the west] was a Rhine stream of a different kind; that the foundations of castles were yet to be laid, and the famous bridges were yet to be thrown over the river; and I felt that this was the heroic age itself, though we know it not. . . .

Thoreau prophesies an American mythology based on the potential of the west. In contrast, the east, where lies the Old World, represents the history, art, and literature of the past.

In "Walking" as elsewhere in his writings, Thoreau explores the idea of a fit expression of wildness, an expression not achieved by English literature nor by any poetry yet written. He writes:

I walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in. You name it America, but it is not America. . . . There is a truer account of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen.

In Atlantis and the Hesperides, the ancients had their own "Great West, enveloped in mystery and poetry," which can be recaptured each time we look "into the sunset sky." Thoreau refers to Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a she-wolf and went on to achieve greatness through the founding of Rome. He finds in this ancient Roman legend an elemental recognition of man's connection to the strength-giving wild. The story contains a truth that transcends what we narrowly think of as reality: "The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable." Mythology is a form unbounded by the limitations of fact and common sense. It exists independent of time and place in its relevance as a universal statement.

Walking as presented in the essay is man's attempt to seek and to understand the wild, to confront it directly, on its own terms, outside of ordinary life and of what we think we know to be reality. It is a deliberate journey away from the business of life, as is the river trip described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Thoreau's removal to the pond in Walden. The metaphor of the walker as a crusader to the Holy Land elevates walking to a spiritual quest. Thoreau reinforces the metaphor by placing the devil himself in opposition to the freedom and wildness that the walker craves. The "Prince of Darkness" is the surveyor who places the stakes that keep the walker away from the landscape. The "Evil One" cries "Whoa!" to the wildness of mankind. In "Walking," Thoreau more starkly depicts the polarization of nature and civilization as a struggle between the forces of good and evil than he does in A Week or Walden.

Proper walking, or sauntering, requires that the walker leave everything behind and submit fully to the experience of the walk, forgetting the town and avoiding the narrowly constricted path afforded by the well-defined road. The walker naturally chooses a route outwardly symbolic of "the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world," into the wild. In thus heading both outward and inward into the wild, we ensure not only our own health and well-being, but the very preservation of the world as well. We ignore our need to acknowledge and explore the real and metaphorical wild at peril to ourselves as individuals and as a civilization.

Thoreau examines our openness to the wild while walking by contrasting the "wildest dreams of wild men" with the common sense that prevails in society, "Useful Knowledge" with "Useful Ignorance" or "Beautiful Knowledge." The walker surrenders himself to the experience of nature and thus gains an inspired insight unobtainable through the facts and skills accumulated through traditional learning. He seeks an elusive kind of knowledge, one that is not easy to obtain and that is granted unpredictably. Thoreau admits that his own comprehension of the meaning of nature is imperfect, and that man's ability to perceive the universal laws behind nature may not be fully equal to the task. He writes that knowledge is the "lighting up of the mist by the sun," and that "with respect to knowledge, we are all children of the mist." Only by recognizing, accepting, and celebrating the wild reality in nature and beyond the veneer of civilized life will we see through the mist. This process will be unsettling. The primitive within man is deep and savage in some respects. Walking requires a willingness to embrace "a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure, — as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw." The best that we can do is to remain alert to evidence of this possibly unfathomable knowledge. Thoreau writes: "My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence." As in A Week and Walden, he repeatedly deals with the subjects of perception and perspective, with the heightened, unbounded consciousness necessary for the intuition of universal law — perhaps the most important theme of "Walking."

In many ways, "Walking" seems both a distillation of and an expansion upon Walden. Because Thoreau was preparing the lectures that he combined to form "Walking" simultaneously with Walden, it is natural that there is a particular correspondence between the two. The major themes of Walden are the major themes of "Walking," presented more urgently and dramatically in the essay than in the book. The end of "Walking" is especially reminiscent of Walden. As he does in Walden, Thoreau uses the image of the rooster as the crowing, bragging "expression of the health and soundness of Nature," rousing men to wakefulness and perception, to "a pure morning joy." Moreover, Thoreau concludes both Walden and "Walking" with the imagery of the powerful, inspiring light of alert understanding. But the light at the end of "Walking" is presented in far greater detail and far more lyrically than that of dawn and the sun as a morning star at the conclusion of Walden. He writes in "Walking" of the "glory and splendor" of a particular November sunset:

We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.

Indeed, the relationship of theme and image between "Walking" and Walden suggests one important reason for Thoreau's powerful continuing appeal, beyond the relevance of his message to our own time. Although his major ideas are presented in different ways and with varying degrees of emphasis throughout his work, his writings possess a satisfying aesthetic coherence.