Sounds in Relation to Time

Thoreau’s chapter entitled “Sounds” begins on a seemingly different topic entirely.  He begins more on the concept of sounds related to the passage of time.  Indeed, it took him a few solid paragraphs before sounds were addressed directly.  Thoreau addresses the importance of sounds hard on the heels of having used it as a lesser form of communication in his previous chapter “Reading” when he notes the difference between orators and writers:  “…as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds” (73).  Because this distinction is made in the preceding chapter to “Sounds”, it is important to understand immediately that Thoreau doesn’t consider human speech a “sound” at all.  He refers to all sounds as “published, but little written” (78).  Thoreau seems to take in every sound, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant it is, and give it some kind of a back-story.  He compares some night creature’s songs with the wails of spirits that wish they had never been born (88), and then diagnoses sounds coming from a passing train, imagining that an entire valley and pasture is being displaced.  He goes so far as to imagine what the hunting dogs are doing, having had a scent of animals long gone on trains to another city, having to either go back to their kennels in shame or join with foxes and wolves in hunting something new.

From these comparisons and analogies, one could hypothesize that Thoreau is addressing at least two major concepts.  Time is addressed within the first few pages in relation to sounds. He says that the hours he spent sitting on his front porch were hours not “subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance” (79).  He does this instead of doing some of his regular work, and communicates that he was bettered so much for having spent a good deal of his time just sitting on his front steps.  Thoreau seems to be making the statement that communion with nature is more important than the everyday activities we engage in as a society.  This would put all workers to the question of whether or not they are actually bettering themselves by toiling every day, or if they would be better off enriching their bodies and spirits with nourishment from the woods.

Thoreau’s other major point is that all sounds have meaning behind them.  In going through different noises he is acknowledging each as a method of communication, regardless of the intentions of the speaker.  He looks at sounds as “published”, and therefore up for whatever didactic interpretation the listener may assign.  I do think that this notion spreads to Thoreau’s broader point of how one applies knowledge obtained through books or nature: there is not always a set meaning to a given sound or set of words, it is all up for interpretation, regardless of how the creator truly meant for the sound to mean.

One major question I had was whether or not Thoreau approved of the train in any way.  Most of what is written seems to speak very negatively of the train.  Its whistle is too loud and the noise travels too far, as well as displacing trees and animals from their natural habitats.  But he indicates in one spot that people could tell time based on the train’s whistle, as well as talking about it in “mythology”, calling it a flaming horse.  While he seems to not care much about the train and its existence, as indicated by his little poem on page 86, it also seems as though he accepts it as an inevitable invention and mode of transportation in a changing world, just as ancient nations also advanced out of their mythological roots into newer societies.

One thought on “Sounds in Relation to Time

  1. Framing the significance of sounds as a matter of interpretation is an insightful point–useful in our discussion. In that sense, I think you can also apply to the train, another matter of interpretation for the reader, but also for Thoreau, who is mythologizing the train in the process of interpreting it.

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