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’?