Summary: Spring

With the coming of April, the ice begins to melt from Walden Pond, creating a thunderous roar in which Thoreau delights. Thoreau mentions an old man he knows—whose wisdom, Thoreau says, he could not rival if he lived to be as old as Methuselah—who was struck with terror by the crash of the melting ice despite his long experience with the ways of nature. Thoreau describes it as a kind of universal meltdown, heralding total change. The sand moves with the flowing rivulets of water. Buds and leaves appear. Wild geese fly overhead, trumpeting through the heavens. Thoreau feels that old grudges should be abandoned and old sins forgiven in this time of renewed life. Inspired by the arrival of good weather, Thoreau takes to fishing again. He admires a graceful, solitary hawk circling overhead. He senses the throb of universal life and spiritual upheaval, and meditates that death in such an atmosphere can have no sting. His mission completed, Thoreau leaves Walden Pond on September 6, 1847.

Summary: Conclusion

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.

See Important Quotes Explained, p. 5.

Thoreau notes that doctors often recommend a change of scenery for the sick, but he slyly mocks this view, saying that the “universe is wider than our views of it.” He argues that it is perhaps a change of soul, rather than a change of landscape, that is needed. Thoreau remarks that his reasons for leaving Walden Pond are as good as his reasons for going: he has other lives to live, and has changes to experience. He says that anyone confidently attempting to live “in the direction of his dreams” will meet with uncommon success, and calls this dream life the real destination that matters, not going off “to count the cats in Zanzibar.” He laments the downgraded sensibility and cheapened lives of contemporary Americans, wondering why his countrymen are in such a desperate hurry to succeed.

Thoreau urges us to sell our fancy clothes and keep our thoughts, get rid of our civilized shells and find our truer selves. Life near the bone, he says, “is sweetest.” Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only, and “[m]oney is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” He reflects on the dinner parties taking place in the city, the amusing anecdotes about California and Texas, and compares it all to a swamp where one must seek the rock bottom by oneself. Thoreau reflects that we humans do not know where we are and that we are asleep half the time. This puny existence leads him to describe himself as “me the human insect,” and to meditate on the “greater Benefactor and Intelligence” that stands over him.

Thoreau concludes by acknowledging that the average “John or Jonathon” reading his words will not understand them, but that this does not matter. A new day is dawning, and the sun “is a morning star” heralding a new life to come.

Analysis: Spring

The biblical references slipped into Thoreau’s nature writing throughout the work become more marked in the final chapters of Walden. The Old Testament figure of Methuselah is mentioned, and there are clear evocations of the creation story of Genesis in Thoreau’s comparison of man to clay: “What is man but a mass of thawing clay?” God the creator is mentioned several times in “Spring,” as when he is described as having patented a leaf, or when Thoreau depicts the green world as the laboratory of “the Artist who made the world and me.” More pagan, but equally powerful as myth, is Thoreau’s similar reference to spring as being “like the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos and the realization of the Golden Age.” This description alludes to the ancient Greek notion that the gods brought order to the cosmos, thereby creating the analogue of Christian paradise—the Golden Age.

Here again, every human in springtime seems to become Adam or Eve before the Fall, full of infinite potential. These theological references give a deep symbolic meaning, though always subtle and understated, to the revitalization of nature that occurs in this chapter. It is more than a change in the climate. The coming of spring brings not just warmer weather to Walden Pond, but also an allegorical renewal of life, a spiritual rebirth. The long, detailed description of the melting ice, transformed from stasis to movement and fluidity, suggests the freedom promised by the living water of Christian baptism. This thaw marks the end of the story, just as Thoreau chooses to make spring the end of his own work, rather than, as might be expected, the beginning. By ending his account in the spring, Thoreau points us toward the open future and the unlived potential of our own lives.

Also occupying a final position in Christian Scripture is the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations, the last book of the Bible, which also promises a transformed future for our own lives. There are strong apocalyptic images in Thoreau’s “Spring.” The roar of the shaken earth on Judgment Day is echoed in the strange and wild sound of the breaking ice heard by the old man described by Thoreau. That the old man, who Thoreau says knows all of nature’s operations, has never encountered this sound before gives us the feeling that this wild roar is more supernatural and heavenly.

Similarly, the great heavenly armies of the Apocalypse are hinted at by the wild geese called “into rank” by “their commander,” flying overhead with a thunderous flapping. The wild honk of the head goose evokes the angel’s trumpet blare that, according to the Bible, will herald the onset of Judgment Day. The earth, as Thoreau describes it, is transfigured into a higher form of existence, and life becomes celestial. Thoreau has a vision of gold and jewels reminiscent of the divine riches described in Revelations, no less valuable in actually being the fish he has caught. This wealth is not earthly but rather seems heaven-sent, as it is in the Apocalypse. In all these images of majesty and heaven, Thoreau blends nature writing and religious writing, creating his own religion of a new life to come, an imminent springtime for the individual soul.

Thoreau’s relationship with us becomes more intense, even passionate, in these final chapters. The easygoing description and anecdotal storytelling of earlier chapters gives way here to a more urgent tone, almost at times sermonizing. There are far more direct commands than ever before: Thoreau tells us to “[s]ell your clothes and keep your thoughts,” and “[s]ay what you have to say, not what you ought.” These are not religious injunctions, but still there is a feeling that Thoreau is in the pulpit and we are in the church pew, receiving his words as moral instruction. But his stern orders to “you” do not imply superiority in his own position, as if he is talking down to us. Generally he includes himself in his own dictates, referring to “us” and thereby including himself. This rhetoric is different from ordering us to obey the truth: it implies that he is subject to the same higher laws that we are, and susceptible to the same temptations and risks.

It is a morally righteous tone, but it is also egalitarian, resonating with a conviction that we are all humans together. This hint of American equality is heard in his command to accept poverty or riches without concern: “Love your life, poor as it is.” The rich may not love their lives any better than the poor: all are equal. At times there is even a direct echo of American rhetoric in Thoreau’s words, as when he says, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” echoing the American revolutionary slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death.” In these intense and intimate addresses to us that emerge at the end of the work, replacing the meandering rhythms of the first chapter, we sense the urgency of Thoreau’s final message to us. The work he has written is meant to mobilize us to start working to live our lives differently.