10/19/03Many of the major themes found in Walden can be found in some smallerform in the “Spring” chapter. They can also be found in Whitman’s Song ofMyself: 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 forthe transcendent quality of life as he sees it in leaves. He sees thestructure of the leaf as the basic structure of all of Nature. Hecarefully describes the path the melting mud and sand take through the snowand ice on the banks of Walden Pond. These he compares to the riversnetwork of tributaries and deltas and the flow of molten lava from volcaniceruptions. He also says that in them we can see how the blood vessels areformed reaching into every finger and bone and vital organ of the body,flowing more quickly as the sun warms the mud, cutting channels andarteries through the melting ice to bring the nutrients from decomposedleaves and other matter. In the structure as well as the function of allthese things we can see the veins of a leaf, branching out to every tip ofthe leaf bringing nutrients.
He also compares the visible structure of theleaf to many parts of the human body thus connecting us to nature. He saysthat the human hand is the same as the spreading lobes of a palm tree, andthe ear is like lichen. He also sees the lips, the cheeks, the brows, andour vital organs.
He says that they all flow out to become these partslike the mud flows out of the ice on the bank. He also compares thephysical shape of the leaf to the wings of birds and the grubs of theearth. Through all of these comparisons Thoreau crosses the lines betweenmany aspects of the physical world via the leaf.The big connection Thoreau sees between the melting of the bank andthe leaves is the pattern the mud makes on the icy bank, which he describesas foliage. This impresses him greatly. He sees this as the outwardexpression of all of the inner workings of the earth. He also sees this ashis 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 workon a fresh canvas. This however is literal as well as figurative.Literally, this mud breaking through the ice is going to be the soil thatthe new growth of Spring takes root in. This brings everything full circlefor him. The muddy foliage he sees at the beginning of the thaw is aprecursor to the real foliage of Spring.
This makes all the comparisonsbetween the muddy bank and the rest of the world hints of the connectionbetween all the small parts and the greater whole, which culminates in thephysical creation of the leaf. He says that the leaf was God’s one andonly blueprint for the rest of creation, and once we discover that, thereis nothing new to discover.Whitman would agree with Thoreau that the tiniest piece of creationcan encompass the whole. Instead of leaves of trees though, Whitman makeshis metaphor from leaves of grass.
He connects the whole world through thegrass 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). Thiscombination very much echoes Thoreau’s muddy foliage metaphor. If thegrass is the uncut hair of graves it is the new growth that springs up fromthe same ground that houses the dead, thereby connecting the old to thenew. For Whitman, death is a new beginning. The same grass that coversover death, he refers to directly as a child, indicating the freshness ofnature 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 roleThoreau has for him, as an artist carefully sculpting his creation, andhere proudly signing it with the grass so that everyone will see it. Thisis reminiscent of Thoreau both in the picture it paints of God, and in itstaking 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 allof his creation living on the earth.Despite all these similarities, there seems to be an underlyingdifference in the extent to which all of Nature and creation is summarizedin these writer’s respective leaves. Thoreau sees the leaf as the basicblueprint for all of creation and life.
For him everything stems from theleaf, it is the starting point. For Whitman the grass is more of the gridwork used to lay out the blueprint of creation. Both are very important,but have slightly different rolls. Whitman’s grass is not the culminationof creation, which directly connects all the pieces by acting as a model,but rather a common thread linking all the different pieces together. Idon’t think Whitman’s creation has one culminating piece that encompassesthe whole by being the starting point for everything and having a definitepiece of every part of the whole, unless it is Whitman himself.Thoreau seems to think that even our language is connected to theleaves. In addition to all the puns he makes using leafy vocabulary, hefinds ways to relate the letters themselves to the leaf. He talks a lotabout 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 symbolicas are the compressed f and v in “leaf” and “leaves” respectively, in whichhe sees a flat or dry leaf. He takes this even farther comparing theEnglish word “lobe” to “globe” using the Greek and Latin, thus encompassingthe 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 theleaves.He makes a pun on leaves of trees and leaves of paper, orhieroglyphics, 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 onthe 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 isnot 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 andalso talks about the hieroglyphics in connection to God’s patent on theleaf. Again he is saying that God’s one patent, the leaf, carries hisblueprint for the rest of the world, that all of the workings of our planetstem from the leaf.Whitman makes the same pun on leaves of paper, and his leaves ofgrass, although he does not carry it as far as the letters themselves. Hedoes call the grass a hieroglyph, and on it he finds his idea that the samegrass grows everywhere, encompassing the whole globe. This is that sameidea as Thoreau’s “lobe” to “globe” covering the whole world and all of itslanguages through the leaf.
Titling his books Leaves of Grass uses thesame obvious pun about all of life being written on the leaves of grassjust like Whitman writes on leaves of paper. This carries with it the sameeffect as Thoreau’s pun, connecting Whitman to the entire world through hisbook, just like the grass connects the whole world.Thoreau and Whitman both see all of life being interwoven andconnected.The smallest part is as important as the largest part, and ifany of it were missing we would not have the whole. Neither of them wasafraid to contradict themselves because they saw very clearly theirconnections to a very complicated Nature.
They both were influenced by theTranscendentalists views of science, Nature, and God. Whitman’s view ofNature was much broader than Thoreau’s however. For Thoreau, science,Nature, and God all have roots in every aspect of our world but they seemto go above and beyond all the parts of our world.
For Whitman, science isa 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 notwhat it is in and of itself. Thoreau saw Nature as something bigger thanourselves that we should find and connect to because it is our point ofconnection to God and the rest of the world. Whitman saw us as alreadyconnected to God and the rest of the world, just by being and what weshould search for are all the threads connecting us so that we becomesomething above and beyond God and Nature and science.