Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
This poem should be read in the meditative tradition of John Donne and George Herbert, which uses startling or paradoxical first lines, plain images, and ordinary events to make philosophical statements guided by a clear vision of humanity, nature, and time which yield the poet’s vision of his proper place in the universe. Thoreau’s reputation as a poet has been slow in developing because many critics and readers think his prose is far more poetic than this poetry. Thoreau’s poem “I am a parcel of vain strivings tied” clearly was not dashed off hurriedly but is the product of a poet who worked to achieve a synthesis of form and content.
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As a shaped poem, this work illustrates the craftsmanship of Thoreau’s poetic output. By establishing a concrete image, developing the metaphor, and then considering its meaning, the poem’s impact is made profound. The transcendent qualities of life are fragile but are “alive” when one sees that one is not “plucked for nought” but instead is guided by the purposes of a “kind hand.” Just what those forces of life are is not established by the poem. Thoreau’s other work is needed to flesh out just what those forces might be.
The structure of this poem is impressive, if playful. The combination of stanza shape and rhyme scheme demonstrates Thoreau’s care and mastery as a poet even if the poem occasionally seems unclear or static. It is a poem intended to grow more clear and dynamic upon reflection. From the first two stanzas, which establish the metaphor, the poem moves into a more abstract consideration of time and the nature of life. It is in the final four stanzas that the poet forces the reader to confront his complex, sometimes paradoxical, concepts of what real life is and where its essences are to be found.
Thoreau’s poetry, especially “I am a parcel of vain strivings tied,” is guided by a subtle quality that yields greater depths as one understands the transcendentalism that he espoused. In “I am a parcel of vain strivings tied,” the poet and the poem each require an organic connection to nature to remain vital. This becomes clear in the last two stanzas, which begin,
But now I see I was not plucked for nought,And after in life’s vaseOf glass set while I might surviveBut by a kind hand broughtAliveTo a strange place.
The symbolism of the flowers here contains a deep “dis-analogy” that Thoreau exploits and, finally, redeploys to assert that when “thus thinned,” the flower “stock” will survive. The essence of vitality, then, is the secret of inspiration that is the source of poetry and poets. Cut off from that source of life, neither poet nor poem may flourish.