Eloquence in a Waterlily

Ann Pepi, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

One could laud the writings of Thoreau for the simple, plain pearls of wisdom that they offer up -- "A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom" -- for his ability in wielding a scathing wit and the possession of an uncanny ability to sense great irony in situations: "I believe that, in this country, the press exerts a greater and a more pernicious influence than the Church did in its worst period... We do not care for the Bible, but we do care for the newspaper . . . the people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit." This last statement beautifully exemplifies Thoreau's occasional use of the grotesque. Yet, even more striking and eloquent are his comparisons and contrasts of the ills of society with the beauties of nature.

But it chanced the other day that I secured a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man's deeds may smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglassii. In it, the sweet, pure, and innocent, are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but on form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.

Question: With plain language and straightforward structure Thoreau manages to successfully conjure the image of a lily being plucked for a murky pond and seamlessly weave it into a metaphor for society. He does so with repetitive use of words such as purity, sweet, scent, fragrance, innocent, slime, and muck. Does this repetitive word use serve only to link the passage together? Would people have responded to the above passage which attempts a connection with more than simply the faculty of the mind? (the passage draws upon a reader sense of smell, touch and sight through description.) What else about the structure of the paragraph creates such a sense of eloquence and ease?


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Last modified 6 March 2002