Thoreau Annotations 

In 2002, North Point Press published my edition of The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau. The book differs from earlier editions of Thoreau in two ways: it is the first to put his essays in the actual order of their composition and the first to annotate all of them. 

The book’s annotations, as published, may be found here (28 page PDF).

The annotations have some maddening holes that I have been trying to fill ever since they were first published. In the summer of 2002, the Thoreau Society Bulletin presented a list of these “Thoreau Puzzlers,” and in the Winter 2004 issue a number of “Solutions” appeared, ones that I and other members of the Society had figured out. Over the years, more solutions have been added.

As a supplement to my Thoreau edition, what follows is a list of all the solved annotation puzzles. These are arranged as the book is arranged, by essay in order of composition. The page numbers refer to the 2002 North Point printing of The Essays, and the catchphrases indicate what passage is at issue.

For help solving these puzzles, I’m indebted to Brad Dead, Austin Meredith, Jeff Cramer, François Specq, Jan Hokes, Jeremy Schraffenberger, Robert Sattelmeyer (whose book, Thoreau’s Reading, has many buried treasures), and Google Book Search.

“A Winter Walk”

page 29: “the sea smokes“: Charles Louis Gieseché, “Greenland,” in The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, first American edition (Philadelphia: Joseph and Edward Parker, 1832), vol. X, p. 94, col. 1.

page 34: “sitting still at home is the heavenly way“: Simon Ockley, History of the Saracens, 2 vols. (London: Bernard Lintot, 1718), vol. 1, p. 34:

…There came some of the Hagis, or Pilgrims…, and asked Abu Musa, what he thought of going out? meaning, to assist Ali. To which he gravely answer’d, My Opinion to Day is different from what it was Yesterday. What you despised in Time past, hath drawn upon you what you see now. The going out, and sitting still at Home, are two Things. Sitting still at Home is the Heavenly Way. The going out, is the Way of the World. Therefore take your Choice.

The context is a question about helping Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, in battles against his enemies.

The final pages of the second volume of Ockley’s work contain a nineteen-page list of “Sentences” attributed to Ali. These are Islamic aphorisms, and several of them reappear in Thoreau as, for example, “The remembrance of youth is a sigh” which shows up in the Journal for Oct. 26, 1851. The second of Ali’s “sentences” reads “Contradict thyself, and thou shalt find rest,” indicating that the creed of contradiction did not begin in Concord. 

page 41: “the mansion of the northern bear“: Samuel Pordage, Mundorum Explicatio, or, The Explanation of an Hieroglyphical Figure…. (London: Printed by T.R. for Lodowick Lloyd, 1661), p. 271. (“Bear” is plural in the original: “the mansion of the Northern Bears.”)


page 69: he had planted letter: Louis Neptune had accompanied Major Joseph Treat and his party when they climbed the mountain in 1820. In his “Journal and Plans of Survey,” Treat recorded that on October 8, “we deposited a bottle of Rum, and a bottle containing the Constitution of Maine and a [blank space] by each of us on lead placed under a rock….” Sixteen years earlier, in the summer of 1804, Treat had climbed Ktaadn with Charles Turner’s survey party; they also deposited a bottle of rum and a lead plate inscribed with each man’s initials. See Joseph Treat, Wabanaki Homeland and the New State of Maine: The 1820 Journal and Plans of Survey of Joseph Treat, ed. Micah A. Pawling (Amherst: University of Mass. Press, 2007), p. 115. The odd syntax (“planted letter” rather than “letters”) may be Thoreau’s way of reproducing Neptune’s speech.

page 71: a sugar-man: sugar, or maple sugar, molded in the shape of a man.

page 71: skipping-jack: a jumping toy made from a chicken’s wishbone. 

page 110: “mirror broken into a thousand fragments”: John Kimball de Laski, “Dr. Young’s Botanical Expedition to Mount Katahdin,” Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, September 9, 1847, p. 2 (this being the third of five installments printed September 7-11, 1847).

The newspaper account is signed by “one of the party,” but Kirk Maasch, a geologist at the University of Maine, confirms that the author was John Kimball de Laski (1814-1874), a doctor with an interest in geology. De Laski later published three papers in the American Journal of Science, one of which refers to his 1847 ascent of the mountain. The Bangor newspaper account is reprinted, with many small changes and errors, in The Maine Naturalist, vol. VII, no. 2 (June 1927), pp. 38-62.

“Civil Disobedience”

page 132: to earn nine shillings for the State: According to John Broderick, the tax that Thoreau refused to pay was $1.50. Why then “nine shillings”? The Century Dictionary (published in 1889 and reprinted until 1911) has this to say about “shilling”: “At the time when the decimal system was adopted by the United States, the shilling … in the currency of New England and Virginia was equal to one sixth of a dollar…. Reckoning by the shilling is still not uncommon in some parts of the United States, especially in rural New England.” If a shilling is one sixth of a dollar, then nine shillings is $1.50.

page 143: “Because it was a part of the original compact”: From a speech given by Daniel Webster, March 23, 1848, on the War with Mexico. It is not clear what printing of this speech Thoreau saw; it may have been the one found in the New York Tribune of March 27, 1848, though the punctuation differs slightly.


page 153: “They planted groves”: John Evelyn, Sylva, or, A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions…. 3rd ed. (London: Printed for John Martyn, and Ja. Allestry, 1679), pp. 117-18.

page 166: the mallard: many dictionaries (including Samuel Johnson’s from 1755) define “mallard” as “the drake of the wild duck”; the word derives from the Old French for wild duck, malart .

page 168: partridge loves peas: a Wolof proverb as found in a list of “Negro Proverbs” published in The Philadelphia Monthly Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2 (November 1827), p. 91. A clipping of this page is to be found in Thoreau’s college commonplace book (Morgan M.A. 594). 

page 171: slumbered a fool’s allowance: reference to the old adage regarding needed hours of sleep: “Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.”

page 172: Chaldean Oracles: Isaac Preston Cory, Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Chaldaean, Egyptian, Tyrian, Carthaginian, Indian, Persian, and Other Writers: with an Introductory Dissertation and an Inquiry into the Philosophy and Trinity of the Ancients (London: William Pickering, 1832), p. 273.

Cory’s book contains “The Chaldaean Oracles of Zoroaster,” pp. 239-280, a collection of almost 200 fragments, mostly Greek. Number CLXVII has the Greek exactly as Thoreau reproduces it, but for an accent on one word. Cory’s translation reads: “You will not understand it, as when understanding some particular thing.” Thoreau rephrases this as: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing.” He may have altered the reading because the word “understanding” had a particular Lockian meaning to the transcendentalists (see pages xvii-xviii of the introduction to my edition of the essays).

“Succession of Forest Trees”

page 255: “acorns that have lain for centuries”: Lorin Dudley Chapin, The Vegetable Kingdom; or, Hand-Book of Plants and Fruits (New York: Jerome Lott, 1843), p. 55. 

“Wild Apples”

page 293: The fruit of the crab: J. C. Loudon, Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum; or the Trees and Shrubs of Britain, 8 vols. (London: Printed for the Author; and sold by Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844), vol. 2, p. 896.

page 294: “At Michalemas time”: John Brand, Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, 3 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), vol. 1, p. 356.

page 295: “The mo appelen the tree bereth”: from the manuscript, “The Romance of the Monk,” held in Scion College, London, as used under the heading, “Appelen, Appelyn,” in Thomas Wright, Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1857), p. 86.

page 296: “Stand fast, root!”: John Brand, Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, 3 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), vol. 1, pp. 9-10.

page 303: “Et injussu consternitur ubere mali”: a line not from Palladius but rather Columella (De Re Rustica, Book X, l. 16). The translation is Thoreau’s, his source for Columella being the anthology, Scriptores Rei Rusticae (Heidelberg, 1595). 

page 306: “Nor is it every apple I desire”: Francis Quarles, Emblems, Divine and Moral (Chiswick: C. & C. Whittingham, 1825), p. 262.

“A Plea for Captain John Brown”

page 262: “refused to train . . . and was fined”: Thoreau’s source may have been conversation with Brown himself for such was Brown’s own account of his youth. In an 1857 letter to Henry Stearns, for example, Brown wrote that as a young man he had become so disgusted “with Military affairs that he would neither train, nor drill; but paid fines….” See Franklin B. Sanborn, ed., The Life and Letters of John Brown (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891), pp. 12-17.

“The Last Days of John Brown”

page 287: “It will pay”: The New York Herald, December 16, 1859, p. 1, col. 6.