Walden Themes Lesson Plan
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Theme Revealed Through Imagery in “The Ponds”:
This lesson plan focuses on Thoreau’s use of imagery in the chapter “The Ponds” in Walden. Students will identify examples of imagery and figurative language in passages from the text and will interpret the ideas they express. In studying Thoreau’s imagery, often created through figurative language, students will be better able to identify and explain themes of transcendentalism in “The Ponds.”
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to
- explain the principles and attitudes of transcendentalism as a philosophical movement in 19th-century American thought;
- define and explain imagery as a literary device;
- locate examples of imagery in the text and identify their types;
- explain how imagery in the text is created through figurative language, including simile and metaphor;
- interpret ideas communicated through imagery and explain how they illustrate themes of transcendentalism.
Skills: close reading, interpreting figurative language, drawing inferences from the text
Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.4, SL.9-10.1
In an 1837 address at Harvard University, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared that the United States had too long imitated the ideas and outlook of the old world. The time had come for American poets and intellectuals to speak and act more like themselves and less like Europeans.
Emerson’s speech, now called “The American Scholar,” forcefully argued that authentic American expression would appear when writers turned away from the past for inspiration and looked instead at the wonder and beauty of the natural world around them.
With his 1850 book Walden, Emerson’s protégé Henry David Thoreau appears to take on Emerson’s challenge wholeheartedly. It is a detailed exploration of Emerson’s idea that the United States would find its own cultural and literary identity and escape the burden of European influence through an intimate and unfiltered study of nature. The book chronicles the two years Thoreau spent living in a simple one-room cabin next to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. At Walden Pond, Thoreau endeavored to remove from his life all but the bare essentials, foregoing luxuries, eating mostly vegetables, and generally pinching pennies. Free to spend most of his hours observing and contemplating the natural world, he found he was rewarded with deep self-knowledge and spiritual riches that could not be found in books or the religions of the past.
In Walden, Thoreau uses elaborate imagery to show how he immersed himself in the seasons, sounds, moods, and colors of Walden Pond. At times he explains the spiritual lessons he takes from his observations, but much of the time he leaves it to readers to glean deeper truths in his detailed natural imagery. The imagery in “The Ponds,” one section of the book, is rich in the optical effects and mysterious sounds of the pond, revealing Thoreau’s love of the reflections, echoes, shifting colors, and delicate surface patterns that transport him to spiritual realms and invite mystical interpretations. While drifting in his boat on a still day, for instance, the glassy surface of the pond reflecting the sky and clouds, he experiences a disorienting and elating sensation of floating in the sky.
Such is the power of nature, Thoreau suggests—to transform our reality, once we learn to truly see and hear its splendor. Through imagery and figurative language in the text, Thoreau communicates other principles of transcendentalism as well, making Walden both a comprehensive study of the philosophy and an examination of Thoreau’s personal experiences.
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