Summary and Analysis
Chapter 9 - The Ponds
Having returned to the woods and resumed his solitary, tranquil life, the narrator spent most of his time being continually "refreshed" by rambling about the surrounding countryside. He climbed Fair-Haven Hill and enjoyed the "ambrosial" flavors of ripe huckleberries and blueberries. Occasionally, after his hoeing was done for the day, he went fishing, sometimes with an elderly fisherman who also enjoyed the pond. On warm evenings, the narrator simply drifted about in his boat, playing his flute and observing the perch circling below him. Thus he spent his days and nights, enjoying a kind of idyllic contentment and ease.
The narrator turns next to the center of all of this happy activity, Walden Pond, and gives a minute description of it which comprises most of the chapter. Then he describes the other bodies of water in the Concord area: Flint's Pond, Goose Pond, White Pond, and Fair-Haven Bay.
"The Ponds" can best be described as a cluster of metaphors which is designed to illuminate Thoreau's concept of the ideal self, or soul. He focuses the reader's attention on the self of the narrator by presenting a situation which the reader should find familiar. It is a dialectical situation, meaning that the narrator's self confronts two apparently opposite aspects of life which must be brought together — that is, synthesized or integrated. The narrator has presented such a situation three times previously: in "Sounds," he had to overcome the conflict between the world of Nature and the world of the Machine, represented by the noisy train; in "The Bean-field," he brought together, and made one, the world of Nature and the world of Civilization; and in "Visitors," he introduced through the character of the woodchopper a conflict which also begins this chapter. It will be recalled that the woodchopper was admirable because of his naturalness, yet he was not ideal because he lacked spiritual awareness. The narrator wants both of these qualities in his life; his self, he believes, should be both natural and spiritual (supernatural). He wants to bring together these two apparently opposite worlds of nature and spirit within his self.
At the beginning of "The Ponds," the narrator metaphorically informs us that he has made this synthesis within his self. He tells us that while fishing at night he felt this integration take place: "It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes, as it were, with one hook." He has his "lines" connected to the worlds of Nature and Spirit; his self has integrated the two. And note the locale at which the two "lines" meet: Walden Pond — the metaphor for the narrator's now integrated, now fulfilled self. Later, in a bit of verse, the narrator again indicates this metaphorical identification between his perfected self and Walden Pond: "I am its stony shore / . . . And its deepest resort / Lies high in my thought." At another point, he reemphasizes the fact that his soul, partaking of Nature and Spirit, is signified by a pond that is "intermediate in its nature between the land and sky."
With this metaphorical relationship in mind, we may proceed to a profitable reading of the narrator's description of the pond. There are four main ways in which the narrator describes the pond, and thus metaphorically describes his perfected soul:
The purity of Walden Pond. There have been abundant metaphors of purification presented up to this point in Walden. Thus far we have seen the narrator abstaining from luxurious foods and ascetically choosing his meals. He avoids meat and other foods of a "non-spiritual" nature. Like the snake, he has purified himself by sloughing off his old life and the corrupting influences of society. His attempt at purifying his spirit has also been repeatedly emphasized by the number of times he bathes. Hence it is not surprising that the pond is "so remarkable for its depth and purity." Repeatedly, he makes this point: "it is a clear and deep green well"; "this water is of such crystalline purity"; "the water is so transparent"; "the bottom is pure sand" "it is pure at all times"; and "all the fishes which inhabit this pond are much cleaner, handsomer, and firmer fleshed than those in the river and most other ponds, as the water is purer.
Its divine nature. Previously we have discussed how nature is the medium through which the divine expresses itself to man. We have also discussed the view of man's self being divine once spiritual elevation is accomplished. Accordingly, we see the pond metaphor expressing the idea of divinity in two ways: as the medium of divine expression and as the metaphor which expresses the divinity of the narrator's self. We find that the pond has "obtained a patent of heaven to be the only Walden Pond in the world and distiller of celestial dews." It is "sky water," "God's Drop," and being sacred, by definition, it is not profane: "I doubt if it is ever profaned by the wing of a gull, like Fair-Haven." While thinking about his visits to Walden during his youth, the narrator concludes that it has never changed its divine character: "The same thought is welling up to its surface that was then; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, in whom there was no guile! He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord." The narrator thus explains through the pond metaphor that his self is the expression of the divine mind and that his highest thoughts are divine in nature, "deepened and clarified" by the mind of God.
A metaphor for inspiration. The term "inspiration" literally denotes the flow of spirit into an individual's soul, the result being a heightened intellectual and emotional state. With this in mind, we may comprehend the description of the pond as his inspired self. He significantly declares that "a field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above." Inspiration has been traditionally described with the figure of an overflowing spring, and several times in this chapter the narrator focuses on "where a spring welled up from the bottom." To further emphasize the inspirational character of Walden, the narrator frequently reiterates that "Walden has no visible inlet or outlet"; as the narrator well knows, no one can objectively describe the exact way in which one receives inspiration. But the narrator does, through the pond metaphor, depict how inspiration comes and goes in himself. We have frequently seen the narrator in intense states of inspiration. But his ecstasy has not been constant; it varies from time to time. Thus, over and over, the narrator refers to the inconstant level of the pond's depth: "it had commenced to rise and fall"; "the pond rises and falls"; and "this rise and fall of Walden."
The eye-spiritual vision metaphor. Early in his description of the pond, while discussing the color of Walden's water, the narrator states: "It may be simply the result of the prevailing blue mixed with the yellow of the sand. Such is the colour of its iris." With the term "iris," he introduces the metaphor of the eye. The eye metaphor is later developed more fully when the narrator declares: "It is the earth's eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature." And the narrator does look into it. Repeatedly, we find him "looking directly down into our waters from a boat." The choice of the words "our waters" is appropriate, for here we have the narrator metaphorically turning inward and viewing his self. Note that this self that the narrator looks into is portrayed as an eye which looks toward heaven. What Thoreau is depicting is the conscious mind (one kind of "eye" or vision) looking into the deepest self, the unconscious, the self that intuitively knows, or sees," God (it is the other kind of "eye"; non-rational, spiritual vision). Thus the narrator indicates his awareness of a faculty for spiritual vision within himself; he is claiming that within himself is an ability to perceive the divine. And it is interesting to note that the narrator, who is peering into the "pond," is within the range of vision of this metaphorical "eye"; the eye that perceives the divine perceives him. Here is still another example of the divine nature of the narrator's self.
There are many other angles from which the pond is metaphorically viewed as the narrator's self. It expresses rejuvenation: "it is perennially young." It reveals the narrator's typical emotional state: "the constant welling-up of its fountain, the gentle pulsing of its life, the heaving of its breast." It represents pre-Adamic innocence: "Perhaps on that spring morning when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, Walden Pond was already in existence" and perhaps it "had not heard of the fall," thus remaining uncorrupted by "original sin." When we listen to the narrator describe the profound depths of Walden, we may recall that he spoke earlier of man's nature as being of an infinite extent. Thus, through these several metaphors, we are told more about the narrator's self.
One of the most interesting aspects of "The Ponds" is the way in which the seasonal metaphor is woven into its metaphoric fabric. We have spoken previously of the correlation between the seasons of the year and the "spiritual seasons" of the narrator. As "winter" approaches, the "pond" echoes the changing atmosphere: "It no longer reflected the bright tints of October, but the sombre November colours of the surrounding hills." Later, in the winter chapters of Walden, we will see this somberness reflected in the narrator's self. As the months move on, the pond will be covered with ice; an "icy shutter" will be drawn across its "broad skylight" and, likewise, the narrator's self will be "icy"; an "icy shutter" will be drawn across its "broad skylight" and, like the pond, it will be cut off from "the spirit that is in the air." Then the narrator's ecstasy will dwindle. But he will remain hopeful for he can be sure of a "thaw" in the spring. And the pond will exemplify the basis for believing that his spiritual life will not die: "A bright green weed is brought up on anchors even in midwinter." As natural life survives in Walden even during the winter, so the narrator's supernatural, spiritual life will survive through his "winter"; note that in Christian iconography the anchor is a symbol of hope, and green symbolizes not only hope but vitality. Walden Pond is, then, a symbol which reveals many facets of the narrator's self.
After describing Walden itself, the narrator turns to the other bodies of water in the area. As might be expected, none equals Walden. Flint's Pond is "comparatively shallow" (like the man who owns it) and is "not remarkably pure." Goose Pond is "of small extent." White Pond is a "gem of the woods . . . a lesser twin of Walden." About Fair-Haven Bay, there is nothing to be said. There is only one Walden — as a literal pond and as a symbol for the narrator's perfected self. This is fitting because there is only one perfected self that the narrator knows of — his self. As he told us in "Economy": "I should not talk so much about my-self if there were anybody else whom I knew as well." That nearly the entirety of "The Ponds" is devoted to a description of the metaphor for his self confirms this point.