Summary and Analysis
The narrator begins this chapter by cautioning the reader against an over-reliance on literature as a means to transcendence. While it does offer an avenue to truth, literature is the expression of an author's experience of reality and should not be used as a substitute for reality itself. We should immediately experience the richness of life at first hand if we desire spiritual elevation; thus we see the great significance of the narrator's admission that "I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans."
The narrator is telling us that he directly experienced nature at the pond, and he felt ecstatic as he sat in the doorway of his hut, enjoying the beauty of a summer morning "while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house." He succinctly depicts his happy state thus: "I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune." He was unperturbed by the thought that his spiritually sleeping townsmen would, no doubt, criticize his situation as one of sheer idleness; they, however, did not know the delights that they were missing.
The narrator's reverence is interrupted by the rattle of railroad cars and a locomotive's shrill whistle. He attempts to retain his state of reverence by contemplating upon the railroad's value to man and the admirable sense of American enterprise and industry that it represents. But the longer he considers it, the more irritated he becomes, and his ecstasy departs. He realizes that the whistle announces the demise of the pastoral, agrarian way of life — the life he enjoys most — and the rise of industrial America, with its factories, sweatshops, crowded urban centers, and assembly lines. The easy, natural, poetic life, as typified by his idyllic life at Walden, is being displaced; he recognizes the railroad as a kind of enemy. The narrator declares that he will avoid it: "I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke, and steam, and hissing."
Once the train passes, the narrator's ecstasy returns. Listening to the bells of distant towns, to the lowing of cows in a pasture beyond the woods, and the songs of whippoorwills, his sense of wholeness and fulfillment grows as his day moves into evening. But, with the night, a new type of sound is heard, the "most solemn graveyard ditty" of owls. To the narrator, this is the "dark and tearful side of music." He interprets the owls' notes to reflect "the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have," but he is not depressed. He knows that nature's song of hope and rebirth, the jubilant cry of the cock at dawn, will surely follow the despondent notes of the owls. This gives support to his optimistic faith that all melancholy is short-lived and must eventually give way to hope and fulfillment when one lives close to nature.
While the chapter does deal with the ecstasy produced in the narrator by various sounds, the title has a broader significance. Thoreau is stressing the primary value of immediate, sensual experience; to live the transcendental life, one must not only read and think about life but experience it directly.
As the chapter opens, we find the narrator doing just that. He is awake to life and is "forever on the alert," "looking always at what is to be seen" in his surroundings. Thus he opens himself to the stimulation of nature. The result, by now, is predictable, and the reader should note the key metaphors of rebirth (summer morning, bath, sunrise, birds singing). The fact that he spiritually "grew in those seasons like corn in the night" is symbolized by an image of nature's spring rebirth: "The large buds, suddenly pushing out late in the spring from dry sticks which had seemed to be dead, developed themselves as by magic into graceful green and tender boughs." Like nature, he has come from a kind of spiritual death to life and now toward fulfillment.
The locomotive's interruption of the narrator's reverence is one of the most noteworthy incidents in Walden. It is very significant that it is an unnatural, mechanical sound that intrudes upon his reverence and jerks him back to the progressive, mechanical reality of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, the growth of trade, and the death of agrarian culture. It is interesting to observe the narrator's reaction to this intrusion. He is an individual who is striving for a natural, integrated self, an integrated vision of life, and before him are two clashing images, depicting two antithetical worlds: lush, sympathetic nature, and the cold, noisy, unnatural, inhuman machine. He has criticized his townsmen for living fractured lives and living in a world made up of opposing, irreconcilable parts, yet now the machine has clanged and whistled its way into his tranquil world of natural harmony; now he finds himself open to the same criticism of disintegration. Being one who is always "looking at what is to be seen," he cannot ignore these jarring images. So, he attempts to use the power within — that is, imagination — to transform the machine into a part of nature. If this works, he will again have a wholesome, integrated vision of reality, and then he may recapture his sense of spiritual wholeness. Therefore, he imaginatively applies natural imagery to the train: the rattling cars sound "like the beat of a partridge." Once again he uses a natural simile to make the train a part of the fabric of nature: "the whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard." Having thus engaged his poetic faculties to transform the unnatural into the natural, he continues along this line of thought, moving past the simple level of simile to the more complex level of myth. And his mythological treatment of the train provides him with a cause for optimism about man's condition: "When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort-like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils . . . it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it."
Since, for the transcendentalist, myths as well as nature reveal truths about man, the narrator "skims off" the spiritual significance of this train-creature he has imaginatively created. In this product of the industrial revolution, he is able to find a symbol of the Yankee virtues of perseverance and fortitude necessary for the man who would achieve transcendence. In the locomotive, man has "constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside." By advising his readers to "let that be the name of your engine," the narrator reveals that he admires the steadfastness and high purposefulness represented by the locomotive. The train is also a symbol for the world of commerce; and since commerce "is very natural in its methods, withal," the narrator derives truths for men from it. He finds represented in commerce the heroic, self-reliant spirit necessary for maintaining the transcendental quest: "What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery. It does not clasp its hands and pray to Jupiter." It also illustrates other qualities of the elevated man: "Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied."
All of this sounds fine, and it would seem that the narrator has succeeded in integrating the machine world into his world; it would seem that he could now resume his ecstasy at an even higher level because of his great imaginative triumph. But our narrator is not an idealistic fool. He prides himself on his hardheaded realism, and while he mythically and poetically views the railroad and the commercial world, his critical judgment is still operative. When he declares that "it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it." he simultaneously deflates his myth by piercing through the appearance, the "seems," of his poetic vision and complaining, "if all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!" Of course, the railroad and commerce, in general, are not serving noble ends. The railroad is serving commerce and commerce is serving itself; and despite the enterprise and bravery of the whole adventure, the railroad tracks lead back to the world of economic drudgery, to the world of the "sleepers." The locomotive has stimulated the production of more quantities for the consumer, but it has not substantially improved the spiritual quality of life. According to the narrator, the locomotive and the industrial revolution that spawned it have cheapened life. The industrialization of America has destroyed the old, agrarian way of life that the narrator prefers; it has abruptly displaced those who lived it.
As a carload of sheep rattle by, he sadly views "a car-load of drovers, too, in the midst, on a level with their droves now, their vocation gone, but still clinging to their useless sticks as their badge of office." They are the first victims of automation in its infancy. The narrator then suddenly realizes that he too is a potential victim. In moving to Walden and by farming, he adopted the pastoral way of life — of which the shepherd, or drover, is a traditional symbol. Seeing the drovers displaced by the railroad, he realizes that "so is your pastoral life whirled past and away." It is only when the train is gone that the narrator is able to resume his reverence. But it should be noted that this problem has not been solved.
The narrator concludes the chapter with a symbol of the degree to which nature has fulfilled him. Having passed the melancholy night, with its songs of sadness sung by owls, he finds his sense of spiritual vitality and hope unimpaired. We are symbolically informed of his continuing ecstasy when he describes "unfenced Nature reaching up to your very [window] sills." The wild, overflowing abundance of life in nature reflects — as it did in the beginning of this chapter — the narrator's spiritual vitality and "ripeness."