Emerson Epigraphs in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Michael S. Martin

Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) is as sprawling and dense as any American nature journal from the mid-19th-century. The book, based upon a two-week canoe trip that Thoreau took with his recently-deceased brother John, is interspersed with dozens of textual allusions; most notably, Thoreau uses his own, original poetry incorporated throughout the book and poetic epigraphs from other authors at the beginning of each chapter. Of particular interest to Emerson scholars is his choice of two Emerson poems, “Musketaquid” and “Woodnotes” as epigraphs to two chapters, “Concord River” and “Thursday,” respectively. Thoreau’s epigraphs are from a wide range of poets and writers, including Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott”; the Robin Hood Ballads; and a William Ellery Channing’s poem, “Boat Song.” Most of the epigraph poems are centered around rivers and bodies of water, a fitting choice for Thoreau’s recounting of his own canoeing excursion.

Meredith McGill writes that, for most of the poems in A Week, “Thoreau copied [from] books from Emerson’s library, from Emerson’s commonplace book itself, and from a trip that Emerson funded to the Harvard Library in 1841” (359). Presumably, Thoreau encountered these two Emerson poems from perusing them in Emerson’s library. Thoreau had obviously read widely in Emerson’s poetic oeuvre in choosing these two works for inclusion. Thoreau chose Emerson’s poems “Musketaquid” and “Woodnotes” for the opening chapter and the penultimate one, and he incorporates Emerson more than any other poet for his epigraphs. I’m interested in the context for such a chapter framing, both in terms of the individual scenes that the epigraphs set-up and their thematic continuity with the chapter and book as a whole. For the opening “Concord River” chapter, Thoreau most likely chose “Musketaquid” for two reasons: because the term both originates from a local, Native American tribe and was the initial name for the river, and because Henry and John had named their canoe by the same designation.

Thoreau’s “Concord River” opening section is his shortest chapter and acts as a sort of preface to the seven-day entries that follow. “Musketaquid” is excerpted with six lines taken from the second stanza of the poem (26-31). The section of the poem that Thoreau chooses is in regards to farmers taking the place of Native Americans (“supplanters of the tribe” 31) upon adjacent meadowland along the Concord River. Yet the “Indian rivulet” is a place of historical memory for Emerson, and the river “winds” its way “at will” through the now-farmed landscape (27-28). Thoreau’s first lines of the chapter further Emerson’s emphasis on history, as he recounts that the “Musketaquid, or Grass-Ground River, [is] probably as old as the Nile or Euphrates,” but “did not begin to have a place in civilized history” until English settlers populated the land in 1635 (7). At the same time that Thoreau attempts to provide a pre-European history to the river, he also elides that history by contending the River was discovered by “civilized” Europeans in the 17th-century (7).

Six chapters later, Thoreau prefaces his “Thursday” chapter with a series of lines from Emerson’s “Thanatopsis”-esque “Woodnotes” poem. He excerpts four lines from the third stanza (III: 2-6), skips several lines (III: 7-20) and then adds two more lines from the same stanza (III: 21-22), and finally ends with the last four lines from this stanza (III: 33-34). The opening two lines portray a male speaker stepping into Maine forests: “He trod the unplanted forest-floor, whereon/The all-seeing sun for ages hath not shone,” (III: 2-3). The main theme of the poem is roaming, in unlimited freedom, as the male protagonist finds his place among the “lumberers,” then eventually becomes a forest hermit (III: 1); the final stanza centers on the eternal natural world where the woodsman finds his home. Thoreau’s chapter “Thursday” begins, though, on a somewhat disparate note, with reference to Henry and his brother awaking to “the ominous sounds of rain drops on [their] cotton roof,” that is, their tent (241). A few sentences later, Thoreau is startled by the sudden appearance of “a flock of sheep” that came “rushing” from a neighboring pasturage. Unlike with Thoreau’s invoking of “Musketaquid” in “Concord River,” his use of “Woodnotes” does not provide a direct, immediate commentary on the opening action within the “Thursday” chapter.

Though Thoreau never directly comments on his chapter epigraphs after supplying them, his invoking of Emerson in “Concord River” is directly related to the chapter; that is, the same narrative thread regarding the history of that waterway is established through the chapter. Thoreau’s use of “Woodnotes,” however, is less direct in its correlation to the immediate events in “Thursday.” In Emerson’s poem, the ‘open-road traveler’ who ventures beneath the endless “azure dome” of blue skies isn’t on any waterway. Thoreau’s chapter begins, as mentioned, with a morning rainstorm and continues with a water-theme at multiple junctures. Part of any assertion on why Thoreau chose these particular epigraphs is a speculative exercise. An editor of a recent edition of A Week (1998), H. Daniel Peck, contends that the overall book is influenced by Emerson’s philosophy on “self reliance, anti-institutionalism, the symbolic significance of nature in human development, [and] the role of the great individual in history” (x). My sense is that, for these two epigraphs, Thoreau includes these two poems for a variety of reasons – the close relationship between the two Transcendental writers, Emerson’s use of Native American history in “Musketaquid,” and the theme of unlimited freedom in nature in “Woodnotes” that also informs Thoreau’s project overall.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Musketaquid.” Reprinted in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. 7

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Woodnotes.” Reprinted in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. 241.

McGill, Meredith L. “Common Places: Poetry, Illocality, and Temporal Dislocation in Thoreau’s ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.’” American Literary History, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 357–374. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4496986. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020.

Peck, H. Daniel. “Introduction” to A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. New York, Penguin, 1998 (1849). vii-xxi.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. New York, Penguin, 1998 (1849).