The following essay was written by Sarah Boss. It was originally published by the Wheaton Pub and also posted here at The Augustine Collective. This essay was also presented on 4/1/2016 at MCLLM (Midwestern Conference on Literature, Language, and Media) hosted by the English graduate department at NIU. Panel: “Fire, Nature, and Solitude: Transatlantic Romantic Trends.” EdwardsStudies.com thanks Sarah Boss for contributing this piece, and is grateful that she is following in her father’s footsteps in Edwards scholarship!
Herman Melville remarks in Moby-Dick, “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” Whether “everyone” knows this is not certain, but two other stalwarts of American thought surely did. Jonathan Edwards and Henry David Thoreau both give water serious meditation—Thoreau perhaps more famously in Walden, while Edwards’s meditations on water appear throughout his work, but especially in his journal Images of Divine Things. Although these two men operate within contrasting schemata—Edwards extending the Puritan tradition of emblems and typology into the realm of nature, and Thoreau adhering to the transcendentalist veneration of nature—they meditate on the exact same image of water. In the chapter of Walden, “The Ponds,” and in Image no. 117 of Images of Divine Things, Thoreau and Edwards both reflect on the image of a pond which is so clear and still that it reflects the sky in its surface. A close reading of Edwards and Thoreau’s accounts of still water reveals a striking similarity in these two writers’ techne. They create parallel discourses on water, as they assert the water’s significance, describe the water vividly, then finally imagine a descent into the water. However, despite these similarities, they arrive at contrasting conclusions. For Edwards, such a lake is “death” and “darkness itself,” but for Thoreau, Walden is “remarkable” for its “purity.” Ultimately, their contrasting conclusions reveal irreconcilable differences in methodology, resulting in two distinct modes of typology.
Edwards begins Image no. 117 with an explicit statement of his typology. Traditionally, typology is the reading and understanding of Old Testament “types” in light of their New Testament “antitypes” or fulfillment, but Edwards extends his reading beyond Scripture to include nature. In this image, he frames his typological reading as a poignant thesis. He writes, “The water, as I have observed elsewhere, is a type of sin or the corruption of man, and of the state of misery that is the consequence of it.” By asserting that water “is a type of” sin and corruption, Edwards accomplishes two things: First, he announces that he will interpret a universal image of a body of water, rather than one specific lake or pond, thus universalizing his forthcoming interpretation. Second, he establishes a strong sense of typology by using a being verb rather than simile or metaphorical language, thus clearly equating the “type” with his reading of it. Edwards’s strong, direct language and the placement of a clear thesis at the beginning of his entry strengthen his typological interpretation. Edwards moves to demonstrate his thesis through a description of the water’s “flattering appearance.” He writes, “How smooth and harmless does the water oftentimes appear, and as if it had paradise and heaven in its bosom. Thus when we stand on the banks of a lake or river, how flattering and pleasing does it oftentimes appear, as though under were pleasant and delightful groves and bowers, or even heaven itself in its clearness …” Here Edwards uses vivid imagery of heaven reflected on a lake’s surface to illustrate the comparison between such water and deceptive sin. His use of “we” invites the reader to join him in a communal memory and empathize with his rendering of the image, drawing her to the water’s beatific appearance. The clarity of Edwards’s thesis, combined with his succinct but vivid imagery, creates a firm foundation for his interpretation.
Thoreau’s thesis is more nuanced. He begins his first account of Walden Pond, “The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.” Here Thoreau may seem almost self-deprecating, but buried in this unassuming start is a quiet thesis, which he will aim to demonstrate through his description of the pond. By stating that Walden is humble and without grandeur, then claiming that it is nevertheless “remarkable,” Thoreau elevates Walden above other landscapes or bodies of water that may seem more grand. He differs from Edwards in that he does not propose to address a universal image of water, but rather one specific body and its special attributes. The characteristic that merits such elevation is Walden’s “purity.” Thoreau will spend the body of this description of Walden discussing its color. He describes Walden’s color as being “blue at one time and green at another,” and recalls, “I have discerned a matchless and indescribable blue light, such as watered or changeable silks and sword blades suggest, more cerulean than the sky itself.” Such is the purity and beauty of Walden that all other ponds are merely “yellowish” and “but muddy by comparison.” The contrast between Walden’s purity and other ponds’ muddiness lends Walden a special quality, as if it possessed some inherent goodness. Furthermore, like Edwards, Thoreau notes the reflection of the sky on the water’s surface. He writes of Walden: “Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both,” and he notes again times when “the surface of the waves may reflect the sky.” Noting Walden’s purity enables Thoreau to argue that it “partakes” of both heaven and earth, essentially acting as a mediator between the two—physically, but also symbolically. Moreover, by claiming that Walden’s color is “more cerulean than the sky itself,” Thoreau elevates the water above heaven. Giving Walden this heavenly quality suggests a symbolic essence of the water and prompts the reader to consider the double meaning of “purity”—physically, in terms of color, but also metaphysically, through ontological value.
Although Edwards and Thoreau have thus differed slightly in form, with Thoreau creating a more nuanced thesis, the real deviation comes after their parallel descent into the water. Edwards, after describing the “paradise and heaven” depicted on the water’s surface, sharply reasserts his thesis: “But indeed, it is all a cheat.” He subsequently envisions a scenario in which he and the reader are successfully tempted to enter into the water: “If we should descend into it, instead of finding pleasant, delightful groves and a garden of pleasure, and heaven in its clearness, we should meet with nothing but death, a land of darkness, or darkness itself.” In Edwards’s account of a descent into the water, he emphasizes the “cheat” of the image and the stark contrast between appearance and reality. The “garden of pleasure,” with its Edenic connotations, is exposed as “a land of darkness.” Edwards’s tone and use of the hypothetical “if” demarcate this passage as an urgent warning, rather than mere naturalistic description. Whoever descends into the water, in Edwards’s account, undergoes a sort of transformation; however, in this transformation the water does not purify but kills.
Thoreau’s account, though containing a parallel descent into the water, could not be more different from Edwards’s. Expanding on his thesis of Walden’s purity, Thoreau writes, “This water is of such crystalline purity that the body of the bather appears of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural, which, as the limbs are magnified and distorted withal, produces a monstrous effect, making fit studies for a Michael Angelo.” The purity and unearthliness that appeared in the water are shown to be true by a descent into it. Thoreau’s bather is also transformed—not by death but by apotheosis—as she becomes immortalized as a living work of art. At the end of this passage on Walden, Thoreau finally asserts his typological reading of the pond, as water that is not only pure in its appearance but which also purifies those who experience it. Such a transformation, in which the bather transcends her own humanity, reveals the duality of meaning in Thoreau’s “purity.” The pure appearance of Walden—unlike any other water—transfigures whoever is willing to embrace it. So, too, does an intellectual embrace of Walden—seeing it for its true “remarkable” self—enable a purification and transcendence of the mind.
Ultimately, Edwards and Thoreau were able to arrive at these contrasting interpretations because of their differing methodologies. In composing these accounts, they drew from different sources and operated out of clashing ideological frameworks. Edwards’s source for his typology was vast, as he cited Scripture to confirm his interpretations of nature. In Image no. 156 Edwards writes,
The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: [first] by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.
In this entry, Edwards clearly presents Scripture as the foundational interpretative tool through which nature should be read. In Image no. 117 in particular, Edwards connects his reading of lakes back to Scripture. He concludes the entry with a footnote: “Prov. 5:3-6,” which is a reference to a “forbidden woman” whose appearance is pleasing and flattering—like Edwards’s lake—but whose “feet go down to death.” Although his naturalistic observations and typological logic are sound in themselves, Edwards presents Scripture as his final evidence. Although these verses do not mention water, they use metaphor to demonstrate the same type of sin, corruption, and consequent misery as Edwards’s thesis, thus communicating the same absolute truth. Additionally, Image of Divine Things displays an extensive consideration of water, as Edwards examines water in its vicissitudes and uses biblical references to interpret it. These include: Image no. 15, flowing rivers are the effusions of the Spirit; Image no. 27, the stormy sea is the wrath of God; Image no. 77, the confluence of rivers flowing in various directions into the ocean is divine providence; Image no. 155, spring streams that rise then dry up again represent hypocrites; and so on. This wide consideration of water allows Edwards to make an informed, nuanced interpretation of a specific type of water, supported both by biblical sources and comparison with other naturalistic observations.
By contrast, although Thoreau cites writers, philosophers, and scientists throughout Walden, he does not explicitly draw on extratextual sources when developing his account of the pond. Instead, he relies on his own empirical observations and poetic insight. He, too, is painstaking in his interpretation, as he seems to describe Walden exhaustively, even through seasonal changes. Yet he narrows his observations to focus on one specific pond—he can cannot come to a universal conclusion about ponds or lakes nor does he attempt to. He notes himself that his interpretation of Walden would be lost on anyone who has not been there. Moreover, in a tone of righteous indignation, Thoreau concludes “The Ponds”: “Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth.” This spirited conclusion reaffirms Thoreau’s own elevation of earth over heaven and his emphasis on a nature-centric typology, revealing the heart of difference between Edwards and himself. Edwards’s typology is a conduit for looking outward and obtaining knowledge about the God who exists above the natural world, while Thoreau’s typology flows from an inward sight, like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, by which one is able to see the god within.
Yet despite various similarities and differences in their typology, Edwards and Thoreau both acknowledge the spiritual significance of nature and its intentional symbolism. In Image no. 57, Edwards writes,
‘Tis very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of his in his works instructing those that behold them, and pointing forth and showing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to himself and his spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God, to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to himself.
For Edwards, a typological truth embedded in nature is in accord with God’s own methods of instruction. To extend typology from the Book of Scripture to the Book of Nature only enhances God’s communication with humankind. Likewise, although Thoreau does not adhere to orthodox Christianity and traditional typology, he also posits an intentional, truth-laden symbolism inherent in nature. Concerning Walden, he writes, “I am thinking that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol.” This language of intentional symbolism—being “made for” a symbol—communicates a natural typology similar to Edwards’s. Ultimately, Edwards and Thoreau’s differing typologies of lakes both point to the universal symbolism of nature and its epiphanic, not just aesthetic, value.