Thoreau the philosopher: The hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove

The following quote of Henry David Thoreau reflects a symbolism, rather deep I suspect, of three sentient beings: dog, horse and dove (bird).  Historians and literary scholars speculate these lost animals never existed.  Like so many queries, further research is necessary.  My quick and dirty (fast, not slow or deep) study assumes that they did exist AND they represent Thoreau’s tangential thinking.  In part, the dog is companionship, friendship, association; the horse is the passion and energy of men and women; and the dove is the transcendental quality, possessed by all men, to break the bonds of family, religion, nation and materialism.

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854).

* * *

And, in association with such tracking and calling, I submit my own experiences with hound, horse and bird:

Come here, boy, come here. I hear the rustle of grass and juniper brush before I see my hound.

One long high whistle, followed by three low-toned whistles. The gallop towards me grows louder, the ground shakes and earth is a-flying.

The dove comes back to be with its own kind, a cooing ensues and a dance. I reach inside their loft — they are accustomed to me — and pick one gently up and as I stroke its breast, it sleeps, head tucked under its wing. I lay it gently down and in the morning’s light it disappears behind the clouds.

* * *

Not trying to be didactic or professorial (I hate that, even in my own classroom), what do you think about Thoreau’s quote?  Should this quote be taken literally?  Symbolically?  Or both?  I’ll expect your comments by September 1, or I will have to check the non-compliance box next to your name.  So, let’s get on with the punishment, shall we?


Notes, corrections and additions:

The original post contained only Thoreau’s quote and my three extrapolations about hound, horse and dove.  I added the first paragraph before the quote and added the questions at the end of the post.  The photographs have also been added — all additions occurred August 27, 2011.

I originally started re-reading Thoreau for a variety of reasons, especially searching for irony and wit in his writing, but I got side-tracked with this quote.


Filed under Life in Balance, Nature Quote of the Day, Quote of the Day

17 responses to “Thoreau the philosopher: The hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove

  1. I often read, and then go off to ponder before commenting. I did that here, but now I see the post has changed a bit! Well, no dissection from me, just a little reflection.

    All of us lose bits of the world as we travel on, and spend a goodly portion of our time trying to recover them. Listen to cruisers anchored in a hidden cove, sharing drinks and stories. One remembers a sunset, a certain slant of light from “that time in Trinidad”. Without fail other sunsets appear unbidden – the night after the storm in the Keys, the lemon-yellow sunset before Ike, the rose-streaked skies like a grosbeak’s breast. The story-tellers aren’t reporting, they’re recovering, revivifying glimpses of something beyond themselves, whistling up sunsets or whales or porpoise or landfalls as surely as you whistle up Yeller.

    We’re all on the trail of something that only can be glimpsed, not held. It’s the best reason I can think of to get up every morning and look around. The hound, the horse and the dove may have reappeared, or they may not. But something will be there, for sure.

  2. Shoreacres: I agree. We are on the trail of that thing that is glimpsed and cannot be held, clutched or possessed. I like the “lose bits of the world as we travel on.” I probably lack the maturity here on this point for I get bogged down in trying to get back what was lost, etc. I find, however, the older I get I am content with glimpsing and having an appreciation for the here and now. I know that Thoreau in the following paragraph, or maybe the paragraph before the one I quoted, was saying the same thing: living in that niche between the past and future was what he wanted to do.

    I further like your term and you have used it before: revivifying. Can’t be done but by telling the stories, as you write, and going back over the images we have stored, we do, in a sense, revivify. I believe your examples are from your own life, am I not correct? Thanks for putting Yeller in with whales or porpoise. Good company.

    Although some have said that the fantasy is “stronger” than reality, I don’t believe that anymore as of this week. I want the reality, the art of living in the niche between the past and the future. (Of course, wanting “reality” is kind of weird because it is already here, so wanting it is rather crazy. I may want to change my realities.) Yes, I’ll plot and plan for the future (cut wood for winter) and dream, but reality has the touch, smell, feel, taste and sight. Neither past nor future has any of the five. Go Thoreau!

    • Walker Percy had a fine line for it in his work, “Lancelot” – as he put it, “To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.”

      Yes, those examples are from my life. As for stories – it’s amazing to me sometimes to think of how many there are to be told. And all we have to do is begin…

      Of course the interesting thing about reality is that whatever the facts, the narratives can differ from person to person. Just ask any family gathered around a holiday table what REALLY happened when Uncle John turned up three days late for his wedding…. Count the number of people, multiply by two and that’s about the versions of the “truth” you’ll get!

      • Shoreacres: That is so true. Multiple narratives about the same event. About all they could agree upon was that he was late. Or, was he? I’ll have to read Percy. Haven’t in a long time. Hard to remember if I ever did. If he was part of the core English literature group, I probably did.

  3. Jack, I’m so glad I saved this for today, I somehow must have know additions would be made that add to my joy in this piece.

    I Love the Thoreau quote. I’m looking for a used copy of Walden, as the new ones are unlived-in. I don’t know if it can be taken literally, perhaps, but symbolically it’s perfect and I love his idea that others are looking for them as well. Your introductory statement about breaking the bonds of family, religion, nation and materialism is squarely where I want to spend more time. That place you mention, between past and future, is the best place to be. I’ve been looking at my past a bit more lately, as a way to accept who I am and have always been, to come back fully to my truest self. Now, though, is where its at.

    I really enjoyed reading Shoreacres comments. She always has such a wonderful way of expressing herself, and I love your response to her.

    Well, I made it under the wire, so am in compliance. I’m almost sorry I won’t be privy to the punishment, you made it sound almost enticing.

    Life feels really good, right now, in this fine moment. Thanks for a very enjoyable read.

    • Teresa: I’ve borrowed a copy of Walden and am going through it, making notes. Interesting you say, “unlived-in.” I especially like books that are old editions. They nearly always have been cherished, like an axe handed down from father or brother. The dove flying on behind the clouds is a kind of Icarus, a soaring beyond, the transcendental aspect of going beyond objectivity. Some of what I reference here comes from James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I like the idea, as you write, that Thoreau meets people and tells them of the “hound, horse and dove” and they seem anxious to recover them as well. In that sentence, he brings fellow travelers into the search (not a Holy Grail thing, but maybe?) who identify and may have lost their own “hound, horse and dove.” If others are looking too, might we have a common quest?

      Yes, Shoreacres writes thoughtfully, her descriptions like those of Wild Bill are vivid, personal and attachable. I liked her “glimpsing” at things, not possessing them. I think the coast of Texas fits her well.

      Teresa, that life feels good at the moment is a good place to sit or walk. Goodness knows with all the sorrow in the world, we need an occasional day of relief and contentment.

      Ah, yes, Teresa, you made it under the wire. No checking your box in the grade book for non-compliance.

  4. Each one have trails to follow, If a dog is friendship and associations, then there will always be friends to remember and friends and associations to consider. Friends were lost during decades, some have come back, some disappear, some new come to, the trail is constant…… the horse, the trail for passion and energy is what I love the most, I have always felt passion and energy for things, and I found the trail quickly if I run into trouble, I’m still on the trail in order to find passion and energy for something ; the horse never fails me I hope.The dove, the transcendental part – I would prefer a hawk, I often dream about hawks – I have lost the trail to religion and to some family , I’m not materialistic, so what about the trail here? I’m scared of the present fanatic nationalism. I would like to find the lost trail to my family, I don’t work on a religious trail, I love my little country, but I’m not a nationalist. And I often ignore problems around this. Have I lost my transcendental trails? It seems that the dove has disappeared.
    So, I know how to find the dog – I know the horse is there on the trail, but I seem to have lost the dove. If the dove was a hawk I might be able to see it and find it!

    • Grethe: Oh, yes, the dove, the hawk. Seems to be the most elusive of them all. It happens, the losing and we look for what has gone. I think that the replacements of those things is a kind of everyman’s quest. My dog Yeller does not replace Toy, my first dog, but Yeller is here beside me and fills the loss and he is a fine dog, good dog.

      The dove as a transcendental symbol seems to be the most elusive and I don’t think my dove-as-transcendental figure is universally accepted by the academic community (course, what is universally accepted except the Table of Elements?). Nonetheless, this post has gone in several directions I never expected. I didn’t even look for philosophical bearings to quote in my blog, but this Thoreau passage was too good to pass up since I have dogs and horses. Alas, I have no dove.

      Grethe, I understand you quite well as do, I’m sure, all the other readers. Thank you for your personal and thoughtful comment.

  5. Well, I’m not very understandable! Gosh!

  6. Writing this from a generator powered computer. It will be sometime before we cover from Irene. Anyways, I have always believed that this quote was about (even then) the loss of the natural world, and how people would try to regain its trust if only they would take personal interest or responsibility for the loss.

    Some might say also dog=loss of human compassion, horse=loss of freedom, and dove= loss of peace.

    Combine all this with the over riding theme of loss of nature and you have an immense set of thoughts bound within only a few words.

    • Wild Bill: I appreciate the time you spent on the generator powered computer to comment on Thoreau. I hear by the news that the rain was a deluge up there. I like your succinct way of stating that the paragraph of Thoreau was a loss of nature, the natural world. From your comment, you have thought about this paragraph before and remember it. I have recently started to re-read Thoreau and I am really getting blown away with this read. Back in the 1960s, I must have been asleep. I knew he was a genius, but the scope and depth of this Walden is immense! That paragraph I quoted stopped me dead. I went back over it again and again.

      Bill, I will be thinking about you and your surgery. You will be, in three months, hiking those trails in beautiful New England again. Let’s see, that would make it about the first of January 2012, into the winter, into the storm, and into nature you will be. I’ll bet my boots on that!

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  8. Pingback: UPG PhLog » Blog Archive » It’s Animal Month! – Transcendentalists

  9. O love the Thoreau quote–have enjoyed it for many years… It came to mind again this morning as I was thinking of these “Ox Herding” pictures (see link below). A google search brought me here…. Thanks for sharing!

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