07 October 2014

Bull Frogs

There is a wonderful passage in Walden in the chapter “Sounds.” It is late in the evening and Thoreau hears the sounds that come to him as he sits in his cabin¾though I suspect he sits for the most part out of doors in his single chair reserved for solitude. Devoting at least half of the chapter to the thoughts inspired by the sound of the railroad¾of it he says, “it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it”¾he comes eventually to the natural sounds about his abode in the woods. It is a lovely and beautifully noisy chapter.
And one sound that Thoreau hears is “trump of bull-frogs.” And he likens these creatures and their sounds to “the study spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake . . .  who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.” On the one hand, I suspect Thoreau refers here to the senior magistrates of the town whose function has become mere ceremony and that serves little purpose, but whose position tenures them to meaningless and empty existences. Their liquor is not sweet enough to cause the past to disappear even for a short time, and they drink embittered in the memory of their unfulfilled lives. “The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once scorned water, and passed round the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straitway comes over the water from some distance cove the same password repeated, where the next in seniority and girth has gulped down to his mark . . .”  Thoreau’s is a rather amusing portrayal of a bunch of overweight bureaucrats that reminds me not a little of James Joyce’s portrayal in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” of minor town bureaucrats gathered on election day discussing politics, awaiting  their pay-offs and sharing the ample supply of liquor.
But to me the description offers some insight into Thoreau’s capacity for humor, a trait not often associated with the Concord hermit. His portrait of the drunken fest bespeaks a certain amusement in the conduct of the participants. Thoreau in this passage appears far from humorless. And of course, to describe so carefully and amusedly the drunken scene might suggest that at some time Thoreau might himself  have engaged in an excess of spirits in the company of society and belched forth his own belched tr-r-r-oonk.  

I am discovering a more nuanced Thoreau in this reading of Walden.


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