Walden’s Epigraph

Walden’s Epigraph

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake his neighbors up.

Thoreau chooses to write an epigraph for his own book, not to use a quotation, although he goes on in Walden to quote other writers constantly, to seed his book with the words of others.  So why not choose a quotation to serve as the epigraph?  It was standard practice at the time, as it is now.  

Thoreau chooses his own words.  Now, of course, no one owns words as such: if anyone did, they would not serve their manifold purposes.  If your words are really yours, owned, then they are not available to me to be understood.  An owned word is incommunicable, unsharable.  Yours but inert.  Language is a mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians.  But these are the words Thoreau chooses, his long and elegant sentence.  Why these words and in this order?  

The first word of Walden is: ‘I’.  — Thoreau underwrites that choice in the opening paragraphs of Chapter one but here he simply makes the choice.  

Thoreau steps into view, in propria persona, first to resist a misunderstanding of the action he performed in writing Walden, and then to embrace — and subtilize — an understanding of it.

We will return to ‘I’.

After stepping into view, Thoreau, in effect, puts his hands up, stopping the reader, gesticulating.  “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection…” Why would Thoreau refuse this, expect his reader to expect such a proposal?  

I suspect the answer has to be that Thoreau writes ahead of his reader’s actual expectations and anticipates what the reader may take the book to be if read in the wrong way, the wrong posture, the wrong spirit.  If that’s correct, then Thoreau gives his reader the benefit of his own experience of Walden.  

Being the writer of Walden complicates Thoreau’s reading of the book, of course.  The writer relives the spontaneity that produced the ordered words:  unless the action of writing is completely forgotten, that action returns to the writer in reading: Thoreau cannot encounter his words for the first time as his reader can.  The words cannot speak to a passivity unaffected by the writerly activity that produced the words.  Still, admitting that is not to admit that Thoreau cannot make an educated guess about how his words will strike his reader, address his reader’s passivity.  

Thoreau anticipates that his reader will mistake Walden as an ode to dejection.

Why an ‘ode’ and why to ‘dejection’?      

7 responses

    • That’s not my sense of it. I take it rather to be Thoreau’s awareness that what he has to say and how he has to say it runs the risk of seeming to be an ode to dejection, and he is trying to cope with that risk. But more in an upcoming installment.

      • Zadie Smith teaches writing and she has noted that much of her work is to try and break the students of over explaining out of their anxieties about being understood.

      • No doubt that’s right; I encounter a version of it in my philosophy students. But I don’t think Thoreau anxious about having failed to be clear and then to be trying to remedy that by writing additional sentences (about which he might then be similarly anxious, the student problem). I think he understands the potential for misunderstanding written into the language as such (what can be understood can be misunderstood) and he knows that his writing will create a certain resistance in the reader, one likely to make the reader look for ways of reducing the claims on himself or herself Thoreau’s writing makes. Again, though, more coming…

      • yes good, reminds me of Kierkegaard on indirect communication and Wittgenstein’s related sort of mental-judo as ways to work almost from the inside out.

  1. Another unusual feature of this epigraph is that it is presented on the original 1854 title page as if it were a quotation from the main text (referring readers to page 92). So Thoreau appears to be quoting himself. Yet when readers first encounter the text he appears to be quoting (near the beginning of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”), it begins with an interesting qualification: “As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Now it looks as though Thoreau were quoting himself here, referring back to the epigraph (where these words first appeared, so were, in one sense, first used by Thoreau). So it appears to be a text that allows the book as a whole to get going, by supposing that the book were already out in front of it (so available to quote), while the place that the epigraph points to itself seems to depend on the text which is pointing to it. A kind of Emersonian circle?

    It’s interesting that dejection is identified as potentially the central topic of the book (what those who lead lives of quiet desperation might at times understandably feel) and that Thoreau contrasts two ways of responding to such a condition, both of which depart from a more straightforward manner of writing. If an ode is characterized by an elevated style or manner, bragging is also marked by excess, in this case excessive pride or boastfulness. Perhaps Thoreau is warning his readers that some of what they encounter in his book may upset their sense of decorum and may, if not read in the right way, also not appear to present the author in the best light. If readers are warned, however, that one reason for his bragging is that he hopes to wake his neighbors up, then perhaps they will resist the tendency to rush to judgment against him and give him a needed benefit of the doubt. So, he won’t wax poetically about dejection, and if he appears to be bragging about how he has (perhaps) overcome dejection in his own case, this may not be as distasteful as it may appear, since one reason he writes as he writes is to wake up those whose dejection may be due, at least in part, to their being in some sense asleep.

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