Thoreau's Plain Rhetoric

Fritz Brantley '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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Thoreau, as often noted, dips into figurative language only rarely. Typically, he uses a plainer rhetoric, an approach that resembles journalistic reportage, albeit one that puts words into the listener's mouth. Nonetheless, the moment in "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (text) where he diegetically as well as formally moves into figurative modes of experience offers new questions:

I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they cold get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.

Here, Thoreau personalizes a perhaps old sentiment -- the relativity of freedom -- and he makes a curious move of human experience into the realm of the metaphoric. He relates a personal experience, and extrapolates a figurative lesson, as well as a diegetic metaphor. Notably, the figure of the wall separates his peers (and ostensibly, his readers), from his newfound wisdom. A sage-y move, one that positions him as the master of experience, and as the keeper of a specific lens on humanity. If that's not enough, he takes a magical mystery tour through a Medieval village:

It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me..."


1. What does it mean when experience itself is questioned? Does Thoreau destabilize the position of the sage in this move?

2. But then again, he spends one night in prison, one that sounds like a night at the W. Is this convincing to the reader? Thoreau has experience to burn, yes, but this impromptu travel tour is obviously a key move, and one that the essay hinges on.

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Last modified 21 March 2005