Henry David Thoreau Poetry: American Poets Analysis
For Henry David Thoreau, the value of poetry lay not primarily in the poem itself, but in the act of writing the poem and in that act’s influence on the poet’s life. The importance of poetry to the poet is, as he says in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in “what he has become through his work.” Since for the Transcendentalists life was superior to art, Thoreau could assert that “My life has been the poem I would have writ,/ But I could not both live and utter it.” No art form could surpass God’s act of creating nature or a person’s act of shaping his or her own life. In his journal for 1840, Thoreau suggests that the best an artist can hope for is to equal nature, not to surpass it. The poet’s job is to publish nature’s truth accurately, and thus at times, verse seemed to him to be the best vehicle for publicizing nature because of its greater precision. By the mid-1840’s, however, he had mostly abandoned verse and concluded that “Great prose, of equal elevation, commands our respect more than great verse, since it implies a more permanent and level height. . . . The poet often only makes an irruption . . . but the prose writer has conquered . . . and settled colonies.” In 1851, he found it necessary to warn himself to beware “of youthful poetry, which is impotent.” Another problem with poetry was that it was too artificial. One could not capture in words the rhythms of the wind or the birds. He found that “the music now runs before and then behind the sense, but is never coincident with it.” One could make music, or one could make sense; Thoreau eventually preferred the latter.
Because of this ambiguous attitude toward the value of verse (he eventually came to speak of both good verse and good prose as “poetry”), Thoreau’s poetry is seldom first-rate, and even at its best, it does not rival that of such contemporaries as Emily Dickinson and Whitman. Nevertheless, it is of significance to the modern reader, first, because it demonstrates vividly the problems that American poets faced in freeing themselves artistically from European influences, and second, because it provides some fresh insights, not available as fully in his prose, into some of the deepest problems of Thoreau’s life, especially his attempts to cope with the problems of love and friendship and of his own role as an artist.
Thoreau could never quite free himself from imitating the great poets he admired to find a voice of his own. He mined his expert knowledge of Greek and Latin to write epigrams or odes (essentially Horatian in form) such as “Let Such Pure Hate Still Underprop,” which is also reminiscent of the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets in its use of paradox. Indeed, it is the Metaphysicals to whom Thoreau seems to have turned most often as muses for his own poetry: the paradoxes, introspection, and elaborate conceits of John Donne or Andrew Marvell. At other times, one can find in Thoreau’s verse the loose rhythms of John Skelton’s near-doggerel dimeter, as in “The Old Marlborough Road,” or the more graceful tetrameter couplets, which are Thoreau’s most frequently used form and which, as critic Henry Wells suggests, can also be traced to the Metaphysicals. Finally, Thoreau frequently employs the three-part structure and tight stanza form of George Herbert’s meditations. The stanza form of “I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied,” for example, is clearly modeled on Herbert, while a poem such as “The Poet’s Delay” has, as H. Grant Sampson suggests, the three-part meditative structure that moves from a particular scene in nature to the poet’s awareness of the scene’s wider implications, and finally to the poet’s recognition of the scene’s specific spiritual meaning for him.
The influence of the Romantic poets
Although Thoreau most frequently looked to the past for poetic models, he did admire some of the Romantic poets of his own day, particularly William Wordsworth. Thoreau’s “I Knew a Man by Sight,” for example, portrays a typical Wordsworthian rustic wanderer, while in Thoreau’s unfortunate attempt at rhyme in the lines “Late in a wilderness/ I shared his mess” readers also see the glaring difference in poetic skill between the two poets. In “My Books I’d Fain Cast Off, I Cannot Read,” Thoreau expresses a view of the superiority of nature to books, very much like that in Wordsworth’s “Expostulation and Reply.” In several other poems, he seems to echo Wordsworth’s theories of human development. In “Manhood,” for example, Thoreau presents the same view of the child as father of the man that Wordsworth presents in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” In “Music,” he also presents a view of a person’s loss of youthful faculties and of compensation for that loss with adult wisdom similar to that presented by Wordsworth in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and in The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850).
From this unlikely mixture of classical, Metaphysical, and Romantic influences, Thoreau apparently hoped to create a poetry that would express his own love of paradox, introspection, and nature, while creating a style both stately and rugged, at once elevated and natural. The task was, as Thoreau himself came to realize, impossible. It is also interesting to note, however, that Thoreau seems not to have looked to his own countrymen, except perhaps Emerson, for models. His diction and rhythms are most frequently traceable to European influence, and when he attempts to break free of that influence, he usually meets with...
(The entire section is 2312 words.)