"A Sylvan Appearance":

Woodplay in The Maine Words

By Randall Conrad

Thoreau Reader:  Home - The Maine Woods

Our woods are sylvan, and their inhabitants woodmen and rustics, — that is, selvaggia, and the inhabitants are salvages. A civilized man, using the word in the ordinary sense, with his ideas and associations, must at length pine there, like a cultivated plant, which clasps its fibres about a crude and undissolved mass of peat. - "Chesuncook"(1)

The three essay-chapters that make up Thoreau's second posthumous publication, The Maine Woods, are wondrously pun-profuse. As always, the puns and other wordplay that Thoreau installs in his verbal landscape become so many rabbit-holes for us to fall through. Or (to push the reference) every play on words is a looking-glass portal, reflecting novel and even contradictory dimensions.
[2]     The second chapter, "Chesuncook," first published in 1858 and originating in a trip taken in September 1853, is often considered the most sustained of the three. At once clear-sighted and evocative, "Chesuncook" explores a recurring contrast in The Maine Woods — that between "the wild" and the "partially cultivated country" (like Walden Woods). Culminating with a sensitive portrayal of a cruel and wasteful moose-hunt, "Chesuncook" is an extended expression of Thoreau's mature concern that wilderness, although it is a sacred place, is exposed to destruction by modern civilization.

[3]     In the concluding pages of "Chesuncook," Thoreau recapitulates the difference he sees between Maine's wilderness and "our smooth, but still varied landscape," to which he returns in Concord. But before we reach his concluding plea for forest conservation, we stumble into a small thicket of wordplay, namely the two sentences given above.

[4]     Thoreau has arranged this string of synonyms, cognates and translations rather like a little hall of mirrors, by whose light every conceit, and virtually each word, reflects multiple nuances of Thoreau's overall distinction between the wilderness and the tamed forest, and ultimately between the "savage" and the "civilized" man.(2)

[5]     Consider the key word, "sylvan" — what is it doing here? Literally speaking, all woods are sylvan, so Thoreau's assertion is merely redundant from the standpoint of denotation.

[6]     True, the word evokes John Evelyn's Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber (1664, 1679), a major literary influence in "Chesuncook." (As Robert D. Richardson observes, "much of what we think of as Thoreau's conservation ethic either derives from or is closely paralled by Evelyn's seventeenth-century interest in the same problem."(3)

[7]     Clearly, though, Thoreau is invoking some connotation of "sylvan" that will characterize "our" familiar woods only, but not the wilderness. What then does "sylvan" summon up, beyond its literal meanings?

[8]     Something amusing, evidently. If we turn to this essay's first use of "sylvan" one page earlier, Thoreau evokes a comical image, imagining the earth stripped of all forest, even the very shrubs (so that "we shall be reduced to gnaw the very crust of the earth for nutriment"): "At this rate, we shall all be obliged to let our beards grow at least, if only to hide the nakedness of the land and make a sylvan appearance" (p. 154).

[9]     This ironic conceit, in turn, reflects an earlier image of the denuded earth (p. 151). The wilderness, as Thoreau states there, had a "wild, damp, and shaggy look" before men cultivated it almost out of existence. Visualized in this context, Thoreau's sylvan men with their full-grown beards will mimic (and parody) the wild, damp, and shaggy look of wilderness past. Insofar as Thoreau's bearded men are prone while gnawing the earth's crust, they even resemble the vanished numbers of "fallen and decaying trees" wearing a "thick coat of moss," which Thoreau says formerly lay upon the forest floor, part of the cycle of succession.(4)

[10]     Returning to connotations of "sylvan" in the passage we are considering, there is plentiful evidence that this adjective, first recorded in Elizabethan literature, was suffering from an advanced case of overfamiliarity in Thoreau's time. When Thoreau uses "sylvan" in The Maine Woods, I believe he is helping this worn-out word advance to its terminal stage, self-parody.

[11]     Following the heyday of English pastoral poetry, "sylvan" had become a convenient cliché for poets and writers, the instant evocation of a Forest of Arden peopled by shepherds, nymphs, sprites, and "Sylvanus" himself, a Roman forest god (and by extension, any forest-dwelling fellow).

[12]     In Thoreau's time, both "Sylvanus" and "sylvan" were enjoying a revival thanks partly to certain romanticizing Transcendentalists. Think of Bronson Alcott's design for the summerhouse he and Thoreau built for Emerson in 1847: "Alcott fancied a 'sylvan' style, curving the rafters in a 'mystic serpentine,' much to the distaste of both Thoreau and the town."(5)

[13]     More annoying still, the "sylvan" sobriquet had begun to appear in certain advertisements for new lectures by the author of a work in progress about Life in the Woods. Again the chief perpetrator was Alcott, who was forever calling Thoreau a modern Sylvanus.(6) When Alcott arranged and advertised a Thoreau lecture on March 22, 1852,(7) it was plainly he and not the lecturer who titled it "Sylvan Life." And didn't Thoreau exclaim to his journal, three weeks after his lecture: "Alcott wished me to name my book Sylvania!"

[14]     In this same journal entry, in fact, Thoreau nicely illustrates his objection to the sort of pastoral pretension that indulges in words like "sylvan" when he comments on the transience of epithetical writing:

Channing calls our walks along the river […] riparial excursions. It is a pleasing epithet, but I mistrust such, even as good as this, in which the mere name is so agreeable, as if it would ring hollow ere long; and rather the thing should make the true name poetic at last. Alcott wished me to name my book Sylvania! But he and C. are two men in these respects. We make a good many prairial excursions.(8)
Time has confirmed Thoreau. Walden, a "true name," has taken on a deep poetic resonance in modern English. Would we be as tempted to read a Sylvania?

[15]     In "Chesuncook" then, Thoreau's use of "sylvan" is almost certainly sardonic. Our tamed woods we call by this worn-out pastoral adjective that grates on Thoreau's ears - this affectation of those who would rather romanticize the woods than repair to them for spiritual renewal.

[16]     To continue our exegesis. Who dwells in our woods? "Woodmen and rustics," says Thoreau - the latter denoting country folk while also connoting "crude, coarse, or simple" people. As to the word "woodman," it has evolved over the centuries from the supernatural to the civilized, appropriately to its use here. To the Elizabethans, it could still have meant "a wild man of the woods, a faun or satyr" as well as a hunter, forester, or forest-dweller. By Thoreau's time, the "wild" meaning was obsolete and "woodman" most commonly denoted that harbinger of material civilization, the woodcutter.(9)

[17]     Now Thoreau launches a parallel clause (" — that is, [our woods are] selvaggia, and the inhabitants are salvages…") that translates his proposition into other sylvan-derived words. Quite out of the blue, he introduces (as a synonym for "sylvan") the Italian adjective selvaggia, "wild" (from selva, wood; the French cognate is sauvage).(10)

[18]     Why this unexpected excursion into the Romance languages? For one thing, it introduces (if you read Italian, at least) a lexicon in which Latin word-roots are more clearly discernible - a revealing language which has not lost all its "wild" character.(11) Specifically, it enables Thoreau to put aside his tongue-in-cheek treatment of "sylvan" long enough to recapture the word's original idea — "wild" — before reversing it with the very next pun.

[19]     "And the inhabitants are salvages." This is a cardinal pun. Thoreau intends his antique spelling to bring us closer to the word's root meaning, of course — yet he knows that "salvages" (especially when seen in print, not pronounced) is bound to draw us away from the forest and out to sea. The inhabitants are not exactly savages, woods-people, any more. Nowadays they are mere items of salvage.

[20]     If such are the inhabitants of our woods (as distinct from wilderness-men), they must be the very opposite of savages. They might just be the "civilized men" of Thoreau's following sentence, rescued from the shipwreck that is civilization, and redeemable (if at all) by a sojourn in the forest.(12)

[21]     We proceed to Thoreau's second sentence, more obviously pun-driven than the first: "A civilized man, using the word in the ordinary sense, with his ideas and associations, must at length pine there, like a cultivated plant, which clasps its fibres about a crude and undissolved mass of peat."

[22]     Some "ordinary senses" of "civilized" include: "socially developed," "humane, ethical, and reasonable," and "refined in taste, cultured" — foundations for the upcoming simile, "like a cultivated plant." Civilized man is no longer a pine, a mighty evergreen in the fullness of life (13), but is doomed to pine (waste away in mourning) in our tamed woods, deprived of nature's rich soil and drawing less and less sustenance from a poor clump of peat.(14)

[23]     As transcendentalists nevertheless, we must infer that man need not pine, but shall rather be pine (be restored to life and immortality; become the "woodman" in the obsolete-archetypal sense, the supernatural wild man) if we can only discover an extraordinary sense of the word "civilized" — divorced from the worn-out "ideas and associations" to which we cling - our familiar peat.

[24]     Who shall give to "civilized" this renewed, extraordinary sense? It must be an individual out of the ordinary, someone who is neither cultivated plant nor yet pine, having roots that can divine "some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness" (p. 146).

[25]     In short, it must be the Poet in the sacred role (and obsolete sense) of Woodman.(15) The true poet's hardiness belies his aspect as a "fragile" flower "like the orchises, commonly described as too delicate for cultivation, which derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat" (p. 156). Our poets are not derivative versifiers who fancy themselves Sylvani, but truly "spirits of a yet more liberal culture" than that of the cultivated potted-plant-man. To these spirits, "no simplicity is barren" — not the simplicity of mere peat, for example, and not the simplicity of Life in the Woods.

[26]     We have considered an intricate poetic construct. All told, it serves chiefly to concentrate - to reiterate in words dense with rich images - the message already expressed at the climax of the moose-hunt many pages earlier:

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine, ...who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. …It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still. (pp. 121-22.)
[27]     Precisely, the poet's calling and special skill consist in engineering unexpected corridors of verbal mirrors, such as these which have enlightened us, deep in the recesses of Thoreau's wilderness. When viewed (or heard) from the right standpoint, Thoreau's mirrors will place a given expression beside itself, releasing it to echo across the forests and return to our ear reversed, distorted, perhaps transcending antonymities in some new synthesis. If you read Thoreau's two sentences aloud you may hear, scrambled within "sylvan," an echo of that Thoreauvian watchword, "civil."(16)

1. Thoreau, The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer, Princeton NJ: Princeton U P, 1972, 155. - back

2. "Savage," a word Thoreau employs variously in the other chapters of The Maine Woods, appears in "Chesuncook" only in the passage under consideration here. It requires levels of explication beyond the scope of the present exercise, raising as it does the important issue of Anglo-American savagism. The pioneering studies of Thoreau and Indians by Robert Sayre and Philip Gura in 1977 have launched a continuing dialogue, to which recent participants have contributed views from multicultural and Native standpoints. See, notably: Tom Lynch, "The 'Domestic Air' of Wilderness: Henry Thoreau and Joe Polis in the Maine Woods," Weber Studies, 14:3, Fall 1997 - back

3. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley: U Cal P, 1987, 304. - back

4. The pivotal pun that enables Thoreau's jest involves "crust" (of bread), implicit in the earth's "crust" - either its topsoil or, geologically speaking, the entire solid outer layer of the planet. See note 12. - back

5. Walter Harding and Milton Meltzer, A Thoreau Profile, NY: Crowell, 1962, 55. Also see W. Barksdale Maynard, "Thoreau's House at Walden," Art Bulletin, 81:2, June 1999, esp. 312-20. - back

6. "A sylvan man accomplished in the virtues of an aboriginal civility, and quite superior to the urbanities of cities, Thoreau is himself a wood, and its inhabitants. […] and were an Indian to flower forth, and reveal the secrets hidden in the wilds of his cranium, it would not be more surprising than the speech of this Sylvanus." January 22, 1851. (Journals of Bronson Alcott, Odell Shepard, ed., Boston: Little, Brown, 1938, 238). Years after Thoreau's death, Alcott would write that his friend "united these qualities of sylvan and human." (Concord Days, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1872, 11). - back

7. Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, Dover, 1982, 287. - back

8. Thoreau, Journal, April 15, 1852. (III, 418. Special thanks to Tom Blanding for locating this entry.) - back

9. The definitions I offer for "rustics," "woodman," and "civilized" are culled from the Oxford English Dictionary, 7th ed. (1982).

In contrast to the woods / wilderness distinction in "Chesuncook," the younger Thoreau who visited Katahdin seems to have sometimes conceived the wilderness itself as sylvan - a more conventional version of pastoral, perhaps. Certainly Thoreau populates the Maine woods of "Ktaadn" with woodmen, rustics, and sylvani - nor are they Indians or "salvages." In a manuscript of 1846, Thoreau describes his woodsman guide, Tom Fowler, as "a young and ingenuous waterman with that indolent but mild and mellow expression of those who had had much intercourse with rude nature - the noble frankness of a forest child." [Journal, Walden, April 17, 1846, Berg Collection, NYPL, quoted in Leonard Neufeldt, "The Making of Alek Therien," Concord Saunterer, XII (1977) #2, 14.] Insofar as an unspoken sexual attraction motivates these pastoral tropes [Walter Harding, "Thoreau's Sexuality," Journal of Homosexuality, 21 #3 (1991), 32], the "forest children" along Thoreau's path are more than guides - some are conductors of a powerful current. They channel the lifelong sublimation [Harding, 30] by which Thoreau transforms eros into his overarching love of Nature. - back

10. Thoreau gives selvaggio a feminine-singular ending, no doubt modifying the unstated subject "woods" (selva). Robert F. Sayre seems to misinterpret this Italian adjective as if it were a plural noun (Thoreau and the American Indians, Princeton: Princeton U P, 1977, 8), but it does not skew Sayre's interpretation of this passage. - back

11. Cf. Journal, Feb. 23, 1853 (IV, 494): "I think myself in a wilder country, and a little nearer to primitive times, when I read in old books which spell the word savages with an l (salvages) like John Smith's 'General Historie of Virginia, etc.,' reminding me of the derivation of the word from sylva. There is some of the wild wood and its bristling branches still left in their language. The savages they describe are really salvages, men of the woods."

Ichiro Iida cites this passage in pondering Thoreau's etymologically driven conceptualization of "savage" ("Thoreau and the Indian: Savagism and Wilderness vs. Civilization," Studies in Henry David Thoreau, Kobe: Thoreau Society of Japan, 1999, 81-82.) - back

12. As the above journal entry (note 8) suggests, the third letter in 17th-century "salvages," meaning savages, was usually silent. In print, this etymological vestige blurs the difference between this "salvages" and its homograph, "salvages" meaning rescued properties.

In a contemporary variant, the l is pronounced (and the stress laid on the final syllable) in "The Dry Salvages," the Massachusetts place-name that T. S. Eliot chose for the title of his "Third Quartet" (Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1952, 130).

Eliot presumed that this cluster of rocks off Cape Ann got its name as les trois sauvages, so that these Salvages are savages - creatures of the wild. The unique pronunciation ("to rhyme with assuages") differentiates this French-derived "salvages" from its homograph.

Thoreau, of course, passed by Cape Ann on his steamboat trips to Maine (cf. p. 85). Anticipating Eliot in the field, Thoreau on his third visit queried a Cape Ann carpenter about Salvages as a place name: "he and all the inhabitants of the Cape always called it 'Selvaygias.'" The distinctive regional pronunciation is substantially that which Eliot later found; however, Thoreau's carpenter supposed that "Salvages" referred to shipwrecks (rather than savages). (Journal, June 19, 1857. IX, 445). - back

13. And bearing seeds of everlasting life: "It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still" (p. 122). - back

14. Thoreau's image mirrors his earlier picture of humanity "reduced to gnaw the very crust of the earth for nutriment." Now the very crust has vanished, so that we must eat peat. (The soil in peat bogs is highly acidic and low in nutrients.) - back

15. A forest-dweller but not a woodcutter, the poet-woodman knows the right use of wood. Does he not bear a resemblance to our poet of Life in the Woods, whose advice to writers concludes with, "Learn to split wood, at least." (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Princeton NJ: Princeton U P, 1980, 105.) - back

16. Thoreau's Orphic companion heard the same echo when he pronounced Thoreau "a sylvan man accomplished in the virtues of an aboriginal civility" (my emphases; cf. note 6). - back

Randall Conrad
is an independent scholar in Lexington, Mass., and Director of the nonprofit
Thoreau Project at Calliope, Inc. He has contributed essays and reviews to the Concord Saunterer, Thoreau Society Bulletin and other journals. - back

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