“When other birds are still the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernatural love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions…Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond…that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and – bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.
I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it was the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being, – some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs…a certain gurgling melodiousness, – I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it, – expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings.” – Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds”
In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” implying that there is nothing inherent in nature which gives rise to delight or sorrow in man, but rather that man projects his beliefs and emotions onto nature. Following that line of thought, one must consider what colors the spirit of Henry David Thoreau wore that the report of his stay at Walden Pond is permeated with morbid imagery and an intense solitude that borders insanity. In his endeavor to achieve utter self-reliance and “live deliberately” (Walden 65), Thoreau attempted to suppress his persistent feelings of despair by devoting his thoughts to loftier ambitions – a form of thinking which allows one to be “beside oneself in a sane sense” (94), suggesting that his normal state of mind was perhaps not sane. However, the continuous thread of dark, perverse imagery and the steady undertone of pessimism throughout his writing suggest that his willful isolation heightened his loneliness and bound him tighter to his physical senses rather than aiding him in achieving transcendence from those facets of his life. Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond illuminates an important limitation of transcendental idealism – the inability to transcend one’s perception – and explores what that entails for someone who is tormented by the nature of his thoughts.
In the chapter named “Sounds”, Thoreau provides a lengthy description of the sounds of screeching owls in a manner that creates a rather ominous and dark atmosphere. He begins by stating, “When other birds are still the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu,” (87) therefore immediately framing his portrayal of their sounds by the breaking of silence with a primordial lamentation. His usage of the word “strain” can be interpreted in several ways: first, as indicating a musical quality to the song of the owls; second, as playing on the definition of strain as tension; and third, a combination of both readings, as the owls bearing a sense of tension forsaken by the other birds and expressing it through a song of sorrow and death. Thoreau’s conflation between lamentation and music is evident in his musing of their song as “a most solemn graveyard ditty” (87), “wailing hymns,” and “threnodies” (89) – all indicating a kinship between the owls’ song with music and funerals. Furthermore, Thoreau explicitly refers to their “wailing” as the “dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung” (87), indicating a certain degree of pleasure he derives from listening to their grievous melody.
Notably, as a writer and a poet, Thoreau asserts that the owls’ song is unlike the “blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets” (87), suggesting that the sounds he is listening to cannot be accurately embodied in words – a rather curious statement for someone who is writing about that very sound. It appears to be a moment of realization and transcendence, during which he trades his identity as a poet for the identity of the “suicide lover” – a role which he assigned to the owls, “the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernatural love” (87) – and can be seen in his statement, “I was also serenaded by a hooting owl.” The romance Thoreau imagines between himself and the owls is one informed by mortality, regret, and grief. He imagines them as “fallen souls that once in human shape…did the deeds of darkness,” thus elevating them by establishing them as human souls trapped in owl bodies due to their sins. He continues in that vein of thought and provides an interpretation of their song: “Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond…that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity” (88).
One can consider the act of listening to the sounds of the owls and writing about it as a way in which Thoreau participates in their song. At one point, he admits to having tried to imitate their song – “I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it” – despite deeming it expressive of a mind that has decayed, “the gelatinous mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought” (88). Perhaps his most disturbing interpretation of the owls’ song is that of its semblance to the “dying moans of a human being, – some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs” (88), soon after his confession that he was serenaded by it.
When taken as a whole, Thoreau’s depiction of the owls’ song appears to be founded on contradictions that challenge the purpose of his experiment. In the essay “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau writes that his goal for living in seclusion was to “see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” (65) hoping to gain a secret knowledge only nature could provide him, one that is simple and forever invigorating, unlike his “deeply pessimistic” disposition (Bridgman x). He soon after criticizes man’s obsession with details and provides a simple solution: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” However, there is no sense of simplicity in his morbid depiction and analysis of the owls. Instead, there is an undeniable tone of negativity that informs Thoreau’s experiences at Walden and effectively prevents him from living by his rule of simplicity. His portrayal of the screeching owls is but one example of the “severe tensions [that] necessarily existed between his temperament and his acquired idealism” (x). It is primarily this disparity between his pessimistic disposition and his idealism that contribute to moments of melancholic and morbid imagery where one would expect the opposite.
Bridgman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Print.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings. Edited by William Rossi. Third Edition. W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.
Cover Photo: http://www.polygon.com/2014/3/19/5523502/walden-the-game-usc