Henry David Thoreau’s early essay “A Winter Walk” is often grouped with “A Walk to Wachusett” and the posthumously published “Walking,” inviting readings that focus primarily on the act of walking. Yet for all of Thoreau’s kinetic imagery and sauntering persona, the peripatetic philosophy of “A Winter Walk” has as much to say about the act of listening. Just as one moves through the physical world, the physical world moves through us as sound. Thoreau appreciates this. His winter soundscape exists in an array of textures and apparent physical properties. These audible qualities are crucial for bridging an experiential gap between the speaker and reader, and, perhaps, the epistemological gap between one’s idea of self and physical nature. The perception of music in the natural world thus becomes, for Thoreau, a way of knowing the world. In this way, “A Winter Walk” explores the meaning of sound and how it shapes our experience with a synthesis of sounds and silence, creating a symphony of sense.
Thoreau’s relationship with sound has long been a subject of scholarly interest. “Sound and silence were Thoreau's grand analogy,” according to Sherman Paul. “Silence was a celestial sea of eternity, the general, spiritual and immutable; sound was the particular and momentary bubble on its surface.”1 As a musician and flautist, Thoreau could register keys, notes, musical phrases, and the overall symphonic sound of a piece, though Concord Sonata composer Charles Ives believed “Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony.’”2 Other critics have also furthered our understanding of Thoreau’s musical sensibilities, such as Kenneth W. Rhoads who argues that Thoreau’s journals show a way of life that was inspired by music.3 And according to Jeff Todd Titon, Thoreau’s form is like a “pastoral symphony,” containing “the music of the whole of the environment, humans included, with which he vibrated sympathetically.”4
This essay proposes a reading of “A Winter Walk” that explores its orchestral, or multi-layered arrangement of sound and silence in a musical structure consisting of parallel opposites or reversals.5 This musical circularity creates an elliptical contrariness by an extravagant attention to the musicality of both sound and silence in the natural world. Such musicality is located in, for example, the sounds of a woodchopper against the silence of snow. Thoreau’s description of sounds comprises different viscosities and a variety of tints, illuminating the sensual beauty of winter. By attuning to these sonic aspects of Thoreau's writing, one can understand how the natural flow of sounds in the essay stimulate auditory senses which complement (or counter) visual aspects more often emphasized over other sensory experience.
Thoreau’s words and imagery create a concomitant musical experience for his readers, full of crests and troughs, crescendos and decrescendos. The essay begins, “The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night.”6 This “murmur” and “sigh” operate at a pianissimo, or the softest mode of sound. This introductory hum creates serenity, because it provides a gentle, emotive overture. The next symphonic phrase is a creaking noise (“wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge,” 55). “The floor creaks under our feet,” creating a small crescendo. Thoreau establishes the first crest of the piece by initiating small, yet penetrating noises. The sounds created by human contact with his domestic environment evoke a slow yet appeasing response to the feeling of home. A sharp decrescendo appears when the door opens and snow begins to infiltrate the room. Snow is an indicator of silence in this text because it represents personal harmonious tranquility: “Silently we unlatch the door, letting the drift fall in, and step abroad to face the cutting air” (56) upon which are carried the sounds of the winter world. The development of this musical phrasing (murmuring, creaking, and silence) is visually demonstrated on the first crest in this piece, which will be replicated later.
Next comes a wave of domesticating sounds: “The crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs, the chopping of wood, the lowing of kine.” This leaping crescendo, a mezzo-piano which Thoreau hears from a distance, is “Infernal”—“not for any melancholy they suggest, but their twilight bustle is too solemn and mysterious for earth.” Sound is altogether otherworldly in Thoreau’s Orphic imagination. The silence, in contrast with the abrupt sounds, shows an internal balance interrupted by dissonance. This crescendo builds with the next sound as Thoreau vividly depicts the previously mentioned sounds in physical terms: “We hear the sound of wood-chopping at the farmers’ doors, far over the frozen earth, the baying of the house-dog, and the distant clarion of the cock, --- though the thin and frosty air conveys only the finer particles of sound to our ears, with short and sweet vibrations, as the waves subside soonest on the purest and lightest liquids, in which gross substances sink to the bottom” (57). As the musicality increases in harmony, the crescendo widens and another graphable crest begins to form. At the same time, Thoreau draws attention to the physical nature of sound. He also introduces a synthesis that finds sweetness in sound. He goes on to describe the atmosphere, saying, “the ordinary rural sounds are melodious, and the jingling of the ice on the trees is sweet and liquid.” The divergence of Thoreau’s senses of sound mirrors the divergence of sounds in the essay’s symphonic form.
The essay progresses, and Thoreau uses an abrupt decline in noise to create an effect of slow tranquility as the sounds wane. “As the day advances the heat of the sun is reflected by the hillsides, and we hear a faint but sweet music, where flows the rill released from its fetters” (63). The fading returns the reader back to the pianissimo baseline which develops the second trough of the text. Thoreau repeats a creaking sound to create a small crest similar to the first: “already falling fast and thick without, or disputed whether the last sound was the screech of an owl, or the creak of a bough, or imagination only” (64). The repetition resembles a type of chorus in which the creaking serves as the muted, low-key melody. Then there is silence again. This quiet peak in sound is a subtle note that makes every noise, even the smallest disturbance in the silence, significant. The importance of minimal sound is a recurring notion in Thoreau’s work. In Walden, for example, he says, “There comes to me a melody which the air has strained, which has conversed with every leaf and needle of the woods.”7 Each part of nature (faint music, the owl screeching) has become instrumental in creating a harmonious melody.
To draw the essay to a smooth, quiet close, “A Winter Walk” begins to decline in sound. “And now we descend again” (66), while Thoreau makes a steep crescendo when he hears the “distant booming of ice” (67). This booming of the ice is associated with a nostalgic, familial comfort. The “strange domestic sound,” is described as, “thrilling as the voice of one’s distant and noble kindred” (68). Ice is given a harsh, hard, loud texture that creates a contrast between the soft, quiet, stillness of snow. In this way, the sound creates a peak similar to that of the cymbals8 before the last poem in the essay introduces a new silence, a soft chickadee sound, and silence again (“seal of silence,” “the chickadee lisp a faint note,” “out on the silent pond”). This slow, yet final decrescendo returns the reader to a calmness and serenity that plateaus in a peaceful silence. After having “wandered through the arches of the wood” (67) and the frozen surface of a “meandering river” (69) in a mythic journey through a frozen underworld, Thoreau brings us back again to the confines of the “farmer’s hearth” (75). Ultimately, this literary excursion circles back to where it began—both symbolically and epistemologically in the domestic space of a more sheltered human experience.
Thoreau’s symphonic form, progressing as it does through an excursion narrative interpolated with verse and reflections, taking one in and out of the imagined space of a physical walk, suggests an alternative way of knowing. Scriptures, Thoreau says, are inadequate for a “New England winter night.” They cannot speak to the truth of our own individual conversations with nature. What can is an “unseen” nature that requires one to be a “worshipper” of it (72), or at least more mindful in our experience. Sound is an indelible part of that. “Unpremeditated music,” Thoreau writes, “is the true gage which measures the current of our thoughts—the very undertow of our life’s stream.”9 “A Winter Walk” takes measure of that music and yields to an intuitive, transcendental knowing which speaks to the beauty of the inner life.10
Jesseca Stout is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Tyler, where she majored in English. She plays alto saxophone.
1. Sherman Paul, “The Wise Silence: Sound as the Agency of Correspondence in Thoreau,” New England Quarterly 22, no. 4 (Dec. 1949): 513.
2. Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata and Other Writings, ed. Howard Boatwright (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), 51.
3. Kenneth W. Rhoads, “Thoreau: The Ear and the Music,” American Literature 46, no. 3 (1974): 313-28.
4. Jeff Todd Titon, “Thoreau’s Ear,” Sound Studies 1, no.1 (2016): 5.
5. Thoreau creates similar patterns of reversal elsewhere. In Walden, for example, Thoreau uses the chiasmus as a rhetorical device. See Richard Kopley, “Chiasmus in Walden.” New England Quarterly: A Historical Review Of New England Life And Letters 77, no. 1: 115-121.
6. Henry David Thoreau, “A Winter Walk,” Excursions, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007): 55; hereafter cited parenthetically.
7. Thoreau, Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971): 92.
8. The punning association between “symbols” and “cymbals” demarcates the boundary between literature and music.
9. Thoreau, Journal, Vol. 1: 1837-1844, ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, William L. Howarth, Robert Sattelmeyer, and Thomas Blanding (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981): 321.
10. The author wishes to thank Ann Beebe for her generous support and Mark Gallagher for his assistance in revising this essay.