Many of the major themes found in Walden can be found in some smaller
form in the “Spring” chapter. They can also be found in Whitman’s Song of
Myself: Leaves of Grass. Taking the passage from the middle of the
“Spring” chapter, we can analyze many of the things Thoreau is saying.
In this passage Thoreau is constructing a very complex metaphor for
the transcendent quality of life as he sees it in leaves. He sees the
structure of the leaf as the basic structure of all of Nature. He
carefully describes the path the melting mud and sand take through the snow
and ice on the banks of Walden Pond. These he compares to the rivers
network of tributaries and deltas and the flow of molten lava from volcanic
eruptions. He also says that in them we can see how the blood vessels are
formed reaching into every finger and bone and vital organ of the body,
flowing more quickly as the sun warms the mud, cutting channels and
arteries through the melting ice to bring the nutrients from decomposed
leaves and other matter. In the structure as well as the function of all
these things we can see the veins of a leaf, branching out to every tip of
the leaf bringing nutrients. He also compares the visible structure of the
leaf to many parts of the human body thus connecting us to nature. He says
that the human hand is the same as the spreading lobes of a palm tree, and
the ear is like lichen. He also sees the lips, the cheeks, the brows, and
our vital organs. He says that they all flow out to become these parts
like the mud flows out of the ice on the bank. He also compares the
physical shape of the leaf to the wings of birds and the grubs of the
earth. Through all of these comparisons Thoreau crosses the lines between
many aspects of the physical world via the leaf.
The big connection Thoreau sees between the melting of the bank and
the leaves is the pattern the mud makes on the icy bank, which he describes
as foliage. This impresses him greatly. He sees this as the outward
expression of all of the inner workings of the earth. He also sees this as
his window into the studio of the Creator. He watches all this “foliage”
springing up over the course of an hour and in that he watches God at work
on a fresh canvas. This however is literal as well as figurative.
Literally, this mud breaking through the ice is going to be the soil that
the new growth of Spring takes root in. This brings everything full circle
for him. The muddy foliage he sees at the beginning of the thaw is a
precursor to the real foliage of Spring. This makes all the comparisons
between the muddy bank and the rest of the world hints of the connection
between all the small parts and the greater whole, which culminates in the
physical creation of the leaf. He says that the leaf was God’s one and
only blueprint for the rest of creation, and once we discover that, there
is nothing new to discover.
Whitman would agree with Thoreau that the tiniest piece of creation
can encompass the whole. Instead of leaves of trees though, Whitman makes
his metaphor from leaves of grass. He connects the whole world through the
grass by pointing out that the same green grass grows everywhere,
regardless of who is living on it. He calls it the “uncut hair of graves”
(110) as well as “the produced babe of the vegetation” (105). This
combination very much echoes Thoreau’s muddy foliage metaphor. If the
grass is the uncut hair of graves it is the new growth that springs up from
the same ground that houses the dead, thereby connecting the old to the
new. For Whitman, death is a new beginning. The same grass that covers
over death, he refers to directly as a child, indicating the freshness of
nature and completing the cycle just like Thoreau’s Spring.
Whitman also calls the grass “the handkerchief of the Lord” (102).
This is God’s signature for his creation. Here we see God in the same role
Thoreau has for him, as an artist carefully sculpting his creation, and
here proudly signing it with the grass so that everyone will see it. This
is reminiscent of Thoreau both in the picture it paints of God, and in its
taking such a tiny, common piece of creation and giving it such importance.
Whitman implies it is God’s signature; Thoreau calls it his only patent.
Either way it is God’s claim to the earth, and through it his claim to all
of his creation living on the earth.
Despite all these similarities, there seems to be an underlying
difference in the extent to which all of Nature and creation is summarized
in these writer’s respective leaves. Thoreau sees the leaf as the basic
blueprint for all of creation and life. For him everything stems from the
leaf, it is the starting point. For Whitman the grass is more of the grid
work used to lay out the blueprint of creation. Both are very important,
but have slightly different rolls. Whitman’s grass is not the culmination
of creation, which directly connects all the pieces by acting as a model,
but rather a common thread linking all the different pieces together. I
don’t think Whitman’s creation has one culminating piece that encompasses
the whole by being the starting point for everything and having a definite
piece of every part of the whole, unless it is Whitman himself.
Thoreau seems to think that even our language is connected to the
leaves. In addition to all the puns he makes using leafy vocabulary, he
finds ways to relate the letters themselves to the leaf. He talks a lot
about the lobes of the leaf and compares them to the lobes of the letter b,
either single lobed as in b, or double lobed as in B. These are symbolic
as are the compressed f and v in “leaf” and “leaves” respectively, in which
he sees a flat or dry leaf. He takes this even farther comparing the
English word “lobe” to “globe” using the Greek and Latin, thus encompassing
the many languages and cultures of the globe through the lobe of the leaf.
Through this Thoreau has the very nature of our language written in the
He makes a pun on leaves of trees and leaves of paper, or
hieroglyphics, which carries a great deal of meaning. By making this pun,
he is implying that just as the Creator has all of his creation written on
the leaves of His trees, Thoreau has all of his creation (i.e. his books,
especially Walden) written on leaves of paper. In other words, Walden is
not just some rambling from his years in the woods, to be taken lightly,
but something that connects Thoreau to God himself. He takes this pun and
also talks about the hieroglyphics in connection to God’s patent on the
leaf. Again he is saying that God’s one patent, the leaf, carries his
blueprint for the rest of the world, that all of the workings of our planet
stem from the leaf.
Whitman makes the same pun on leaves of paper, and his leaves of
grass, although he does not carry it as far as the letters themselves. He
does call the grass a hieroglyph, and on it he finds his idea that the same
grass grows everywhere, encompassing the whole globe. This is that same
idea as Thoreau’s “lobe” to “globe” covering the whole world and all of its
languages through the leaf. Titling his books Leaves of Grass uses the
same obvious pun about all of life being written on the leaves of grass
just like Whitman writes on leaves of paper. This carries with it the same
effect as Thoreau’s pun, connecting Whitman to the entire world through his
book, just like the grass connects the whole world.
Thoreau and Whitman both see all of life being interwoven and
connected.The smallest part is as important as the largest part, and if
any of it were missing we would not have the whole. Neither of them was
afraid to contradict themselves because they saw very clearly their
connections to a very complicated Nature. They both were influenced by the
Transcendentalists views of science, Nature, and God. Whitman’s view of
Nature was much broader than Thoreau’s however. For Thoreau, science,
Nature, and God all have roots in every aspect of our world but they seem
to go above and beyond all the parts of our world. For Whitman, science is
a door to be opened, but it is just a way in to another part of the whole,
and he sees himself as an equal to God, and all the gods that ever were.
We are all a part of Nature, but we are what makes Nature so big, it is not
what it is in and of itself. Thoreau saw Nature as something bigger than
ourselves that we should find and connect to because it is our point of
connection to God and the rest of the world. Whitman saw us as already
connected to God and the rest of the world, just by being and what we
should search for are all the threads connecting us so that we become
something above and beyond God and Nature and science.