Henry David Thoreau Thoreau, Henry David - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862

(Born David Henry Thoreau) American essayist, poet, and translator. See also Walden Criticism.

Thoreau has earned a reputation as one of the great nonfiction prose stylists in American letters, but he is seldom admired for his poetry. The approximately three hundred poems Thoreau produced mostly were written early in his life, and they are generally considered to be second-rate and interesting only for their youthful sense of urgency, the biographical insight they provide into their author, and as a gloss to the prose. Thoreau's poems express many of the concerns seen in his essays—love of nature, mystical insight into truth, social injustice—and also give voice to his psychological and artistic expectations and disappointments, and explain his understanding of the role of the poet and the nature of inspiration. In fact, some poems indicate that Thoreau found poetry not to be the best vehicle to express his ideas, which he thought were better explained in the concrete language of prose. To be sure, many critics have pointed out, there are occasional touches of originality and insight in Thoreau's poetry, but most agree it is uneven in quality and does not compare to the witty, sparkling prose displayed in works such as Walden.

Biographical Information

Thoreau, christened David Henry Thoreau, was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817, to a family of modest means. His father, John, was a shopkeeper who had a string of unsuccessful businesses before establishing a profitable pencil factory, and his mother, Cynthia, supplemented the family income by keeping a boarding house. As a child, Thoreau enjoyed the beauty of the woods in Concord and excelled at grammar school. He was the only child in the family to receive a college education, attending Harvard College from 1833 to 1837 and graduating near the top of his class. After Harvard he taught briefly at the Concord public schools, but was dismissed after a few weeks because of his opposition to using corporal punishment to discipline students. Unable to find another teaching job, Thoreau, with his brother John, opened a private school, which became known for its progressive educational methods based on the teachings of the American Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott. He also began writing essays and published poetry in The Dial, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist literary magazine.

In 1841, Thoreau and his brother closed down their school, primarily because of John's ill health. The same year, Emerson invited Thoreau to live with his family as a handyman. Thoreau accepted, seeing it as a perfect opportunity to write and earn his keep. At Emerson's home he met some of the greatest figures in American Transcendentalism, including George Ripley and Margaret Fuller. Thoreau also studied Hindu scriptures, continued to contribute poems and essays to The Dial, and occasionally helped to edit the magazine. In 1842, his brother John died, leaving Thoreau devastated. He moved to New York the following year, but returned to Concord in 1844. In 1845 he moved to Walden Pond, on Emerson's property, where he stayed for two years and wrote much of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. It was during this period that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to Massachusetts in opposition to slavery and the Mexican War. After returning from Walden Pond, Thoreau supported himself by working again as Emerson's handyman and then as a surveyor. In the early 1850s Thoreau began to feel as if he had not fulfilled his literary calling, but the 1854 publication of Walden and its enthusiastic reception, particularly in Transcendentalist circles, restored his confidence. The moderate succes of Walden also made it easier for Thoreau to publish his essays in more popular periodicals. Throughout the 1850s Thoreau traveled and lectured widely on conservation of natural resources and spoke publicly against slavery. Because had been sickly for much of his life, when Thoreau developed tuberculosis in 1860 he was too weak to fully recover from his illness. He died in Concord on May 6, 1862.

Major Works

During his lifetime, Thoreau published essays, poems, and translations of Greek and Roman poetry in various periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, Putnams, and The Dial. The only two full-length books he saw into print were A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. The first of these is a narrative with meditative essays and poems that recounts Thoreau's 1839 boat trip with his brother John. Thoreau's masterpiece, Walden, a group of essays that recounts his stay at Walden Pond, also has verses interspersed with the prose.

Thoreau likely began writing seriously poetry in 1837, when he was twenty years old, and continued until 1850. His most prolific poetic period of was between 1838 and 1844. Of the approximately three hundred poems he composed, eighty-five were published in his lifetime in periodicals (sometimes as part of an essay) and in the longer prose works. The first collection of Thoreau's poetry, Poems of Nature, edited by Henry S. Salt and Frank B. Sanborn, appeared posthumously in 1895. Several poems were included in the collected editions of Thoreau's work that appeared in 1894 and 1906, and a handful also appeared in his other books of essays. Carl Bode's 1943 scholarly edition, The Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, was the first comprehensive volume of Thoreau's poetry. An enlarged edition thirteen with newly discovered pieces appeared in 1964.

Thoreau maintained that the function of the poet was to reveal the truth about nature, and many of his best poems are contemplations on the natural world. He seems to have been especially moved by foggy and misty landscapes, as evidenced in “Haze” and “Fog.” These poems also have an element of mysticism as they take the form of supplication to objects whose meaning the poet seeks to understand. Thoreau's most famous poem is probably the ten-line meditation “Smoke,” which appears in the “House-Warming” chapter of Walden. In it, Thoreau reflects on the smoke rising at dawn above the hamlet and likens it to the defiant lcarus of classical mythology. The poet is like the flame and the smoke the poem that is sent upward to God. However, the poem does not clarify the truth of God's sun as the poet had hoped, but serves only to blot it out. Other poems that reveal Thoreau's attitude toward poetry deal with the subject of inspiration. In “Inspiration” the poet laments that the sensitivity he feels toward the world when he is inspired cannot be translated untainted into action. In “The Poet's Delay” and “I am a Parcel of Vain Striving Tied” (also called “Sic Vita”) Thoreau expresses his sense of the artist's—and indeed his own—limitations in a world of infinite wonder. Other themes that appear in Thoreau's poems include human relationships (“Sympathy,” “Friendship,” “Love”), mystical experience (“Bluebird”), freedom (“Independence”), and the transitory nature of life (“Autumn”).

Critical Reception

Thoreau is perceived as a poet of limited achievement, but his poems have been the subject of some discussion by critics because of what they reveal about Thoreau the man and artist. In his own day, Thoreau managed to publish a good many of his poems, although they were not read much outside a small circle of New England Transcendentalists. The early poem “Sympathy” drew praise from Emerson as “the purest strain, and the loftiest, I think that has yet pealed from this unpoetic American forest.” But Emerson's enthusiasm soon cooled, and his final assessment of his friend's verses was that they were sometimes crude and showed that his “genius was better than his talent.” Thoreau's poetry received scant attention after he died, and even the 1895 volume Poems of Nature elicited no sustained critical commentary. It was only after the publication of Carl Bode's 1943 edition of the Collected Poems that Thoreau's poetry began to be discussed by critics. The first serious assessment came in Henry Wells' 1945 essay, “An Evaluation of Thoreau's Poetry,” which noted Thoreau's classical influences and admired the poems for their breadth of vision. Since then, other critics have offered the verses measured praise while acknowledging their limitations and chiefly biographical interest. Commentaries on the poems have tended to point out Thoreau's indebtedness to the poets of antiquity and the seventeenth-century English Metaphysical poets, the role of epiphany and inspiration in the verses, and their themes of freedom and rebellion. Some critics also argue that, since many of the poems appear with the essays, they should not be considered as entities in themselves but are best seen as illuminating the prose. They would, then, agree with Thoreau's own assessment of himself when he wrote: “My life has been the poem I would have writ, / But I could not both live and utter it.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Poems of Nature 1895

The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 20 vols. (essays, journals, letters, and poetry) 1906

Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau 1943

Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, Revised Edition 1964

*“Resistance to Civil Government” (essay) 1849

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (essays) 1849

“Slavery in Massachusetts” (essay) 1854

Walden, Or A Life in the Woods (essays) 1854

“A Plea for Captain John Brown” (essay) 1860

“Walking” (essay) 1862

Excursions (essays) 1863

“Life Without Principle” (essay) 1863

The Maine Woods (essays) 1864

Cape Cod (essays) 1865

A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (essays) 1866

Early Spring in Massachusetts (essay) 1881

Autumn (essay) 1884

Summer (essay) 1884

Winter (essay) 1884

Journal. 14 vols. 1949

The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau 1958

*Published in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau and elsewhere as “Civil Disobedience.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (essay date 1862)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau,” in Thoreau as Seen By His Contemporaries, edited by Walter Harding, Dover Publications, 1960, pp. 26-8.

[In the following excerpt from his essay on the life of Thoreau, originally published in the Atlantic Monthlyin 1862, Emerson says his friend's verses were “often rude and defective.”]

His poetry might be bad or good; he no doubt wanted a lyric facility and technical skill, but he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception. He was a good reader and critic, and his judgment on poetry was to the ground of it. He could not be deceived as to the presence or absence of the poetic element in any composition, and his thirst for...

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Fred W. Lorch (essay date 1938)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau and the Organic Principle in Poetry,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 53, No. 1, March 1938, pp. 286-302.

[In the following essay, Lorch examines Thoreau's organic theory of poetry, noting its importance in his poetic credo.]


Studies of Henry David Thoreau as a man of letters have led primarily to an examination of his attitude toward nature, society, government, and religion, and, on the purely literary side, of his style. His theory of the art of poetry has received less emphatic attention, perhaps because Thoreau wrote very little verse, because he...

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George S. Hellman (review date 1943)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Henry Thoreau as a Versifier,” in The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1943, p. 30.

[In the following review of Carl Bode's 1943 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Hellman says the volume does not establish Thoreau as a very important poet—despite the poems' “occasional sparks of divine fire.”]

In collecting and editing well over 300 pieces of Thoreau's verse—some of them fragmentary, others of as many as twenty stanzas—Dr. Carl Bode has placed lovers and students of New England's most individualistic philosopher under a considerable debt. Not that the volume establishes Thoreau as a very important poet—and this, despite...

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Henry W. Wells (essay date 1944)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Evaluation of Thoreau's Poetry,” in Thoreau: A Century of Criticism, edited by Walter Harding, Southern Methodist University Press, 1954, pp. 150-61.

[In the following essay, Wells contends that Thoreau's verse is that of an independent young man, but also notes his myriad influences and asserts that Thoreau's greatest poetic strength was his breadth of vision.]

Eighty-one years after the death of Henry Thoreau has appeared under the careful editorship of Carl Bode the first edition of Thoreau's verse to provide an adequate view of his poetical attainments. The story is, to say the least, unusual. One recalls that eighty years is more than twice the...

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Francis H. Allen (review date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Collected Poems,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1945, pp. 260-67.

[In the following review of Carl Bode's 1943 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Allen points out minor textual inaccuracies in the volume but in general finds Bode's edition otherwise to be a fine scholarly effort.]

In reviewing in November, 1943, the Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode, American Literature gave the book the commendation it so richly deserved, but, except at a single point, did not consider it critically in detail. I hope it is not too late for a few more critical remarks about this admirable but not...

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Carl Bode (essay date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rejoinder,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1945, pp. 267-69.

[In the following response to Francis Allen's review of his 1943 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Bode agrees that the poem “Carpe Diem” is not from Thoreau's hand, but says that many of the textual inaccuracies that Allen suggested be fixed reflect Thoreau's own errors, which Bode sought to preserve as a matter of literary and historical record.]

I am sincerely grateful to Mr. Allen for his interest in the Collected Poems, and it is pleasant indeed to have an opportunity to acknowledge that fact. When, in time to come, I prepare a second edition, I shall be...

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Delmer Rodabaugh (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's ‘Smoke,'” in The Explicator, Vol. 17, No. 7, April 1959, Item 47.

[In the following note, Rodabaugh contends the “flame” in the last line of the poem “Smoke” is another indication of Thoreau's paganism.]

The last two lines of “Smoke,” by Henry Thoreau, embody the author's characteristic paganism. F. O. Matthiessen points out (American Renaissance, p. 166), that “clear flame” includes in its meaning the flame of Thoreau's own spirit—so confident and firm that it approaches hubris. Such a reading is supported by the poem's context, which is the entire book Walden. I wish to go further and suggest reasons why...

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Kenneth Walter Cameron (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A New Thoreau Poem—‘To Edith,'” in The Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 16, 1960, pp. 40-1.

[In the following essay, Cameron maintains that the verses written to Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, Edith, were actually written by Thoreau.]

When Edith Emerson was born on November 22, 1841, her father wrote in his journals:1 “Edith. There came into the house a young maiden, but she seemed to be more than a thousand years old. She came into the house naked and helpless, but she had for her defence more than the strength of millions. She brought into the day the manners of the Night.” These lines reflect Emerson's thoughts on infancy expressed in...

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William White (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Unpublished Thoreau Poem,” in American Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1, March 1962, pp. 119-21.

[In the following essay, White offers a previously unpublished text of an early Thoreau poem and discusses its similarities to works by Thomas Gray and John Milton.]

In Appendix B of the Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau (Chicago, 1943) Carl Bode refers to poems he could not find, among them “Life is a Summer's Day,” an “original autograph manuscript poem, probably unpublished, of eleven stanzas of triplets, written in ink on both sides of [a] quarto sheet, with alterations and emendations in the hand of the author; unsigned. Dated July 2, 1837.” And...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1963)

SOURCE: “Making the Forest Poetic,” in Times Literary Supplement, 1963.

[In the following review of Carl Bode's 1964 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, the reviewer notes the poems' literary indebtedness to the seventeenth-century English poets, particularly George Herbert.]

Professor Carl Bode's edition of Henry Thoreau's poems was first published in 1943, and it was at once acknowledged that the editor had done his work very well indeed. He had searched widely and thoroughly to bring together all the verse he could find, in print and manuscript, and both his textual and general...

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Raymond D. Gozzi (review date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of collected poems in The New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters, Vol. 37, No. 3, September 1964, pp. 393-97.

[In the following review of Carl Bode's enlarged 1964 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Gozzi contends that Bode's first volume has done much to elevate the perception of Thoreau as a poet.]

The Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau was the first variorum edition of an American poet when issued in 1943. This is a reprinting of that out-of-print 385-page 1943 edition, with some 25 new pages added at the end. Its title-page description of “Enlarged Edition” is therefore more proper than the...

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Paul O. Williams (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Concept of Inspiration in Thoreau's Poetry,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 79, No. 4, Part 1, September 1964, pp. 466-72.

[In the following essay, Williams explores the importance in Thoreau's poetry of the idea of inspiration, and argues that he did not find poetry a substantial enough medium to give voice to his idea of spiritual beauty.]

The great majority of Thoreau's poems bear in some way on the subject of inspiration: on the conditions of its induction, the description of its progression, the feeling and value of the vision it gives, or the lament for its absence. A study of inspiration in Thoreau's poetry...

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Robert O. Evans (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poetry and the Prose Works,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 56, 1969, pp. 40-52.

[In the following essay, Evans maintains that Thoreau's poetry and prose are linked, and so to consider the poems as individual entities diminishes Thoreau's stature as an artist.]

Despite Carl Bode's critical edition of Thoreau's complete poetry, with a brief introduction (1943) and a critical article by Henry W. Wells, “An Evaluation of Thoreau's Poetry,” the following year, little has been added to our appreciation and understanding of Thoreau as a poet since the pronouncements of Emerson,1 who at first thought highly of Thoreau's...

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Richard Fleck (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Note on Thoreau's Mist Verse,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1, 1969, pp. 1-5.

[In the following essay, Fleck analyzes Thoreau's use of misty, foggy landscapes in his verse.]

Within the works of Henry David Thoreau one finds ample description of and commentary on mist and haze. Whether in the form of damp and dense fog or in shimmering rays of heat, mist and haze created for Thoreau an ethereal effect. All recognizable landscape became transformed and paradisiacal and stimulated his poetic imagination into new realms. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers Thoreau describes the misty summit of Mount Greylock in the...

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Lyle Glazier (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Rebellious Lyric,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No 54, 1969, pp. 27-30.

[In the following essay, Glazier offers a close reading of the poem “Light-winged Smoke,” discussing elements of rebellion evident in its free form, imagery, and central figure of the defiant lcarus of classical mythology.]

It is true of Thoreau's small lyric, “Light-winged Smoke” as it is true of any poem which is unified and organic, that the proper avenue to the argument is through an analysis of its texture. When Emerson remarked, “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,” he was writing about the process of...

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Carl Dennis (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Correspondence in Thoreau's Nature Poetry,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 58, 1st Quarter 1970, pp. 101-09.

[In the following essay, Dennis contends that Thoreau views nature not as a benevolent force to be succumbed to, but an emblem or type of language that is to be actively scrutinized and interpreted.]

Although Thoreau wrote perhaps only a handful of first-rate poems, he follows Emerson in regarding poetry as one of the noblest activities of man, and in his poetry he often tries to embody attitudes which his prose states only theoretically. This connection between theory and practice applies especially to his conception of nature....

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Arthur L. Ford (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: The Poetry of Henry David Thoreau, Transcendtal Books, 1970, pp. 4-24.

[In the following essay, Ford offers an analysis of the themes, imagery, and structure of the poems.]


The ultimate experience for Thoreau was a complete destruction of the division between himself and that outside himself, a unification—or reunification—of all elements of existence. Whereas Emerson talked of a soul reaching out and becoming one with the non-physical Oversoul, Thoreau described a more tangible oneness with physical nature. Emerson used nature as a vehicle to the Ideal; Thoreau, the sensualist, acknowledged this use but became too intimate...

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Lauriat Lane, Jr. (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Finding a Voice: Thoreau's Pentameters,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 60, Summer 1970, pp. 67-72.

[In the following essay, Lane offers a close reading of two 1850 poems, “Tall Ambrosia” and “Among the Worst of Men.”]

In the late summer of 1850, around August 31, Henry Thoreau copied or composed in his manuscript journal two poems in iambic pentameter verse.1 These poems or parts of poems—for two journal pages are missing before the first, and after a paragraph of prose Thoreau tried to continue the second—are as they stand, Thoreau's most successful in this form. They also much resemble Robert Frost's narrative...

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Mary S. Mattfield (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poem #189: An Emended Reading,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 33, No. 1, November 1970, pp. 10-12.

[In the following essay, Mattfield maintains Thoreau could not have intended many of the spellings that appear in his original “Poem #189,” and suggests a revised version of the poem.]

“Poem No. 189”

For though the caves were rabitted,
                                        And the well sweeps were slanted,
Each house seemed not inhabited
                                        But haunted.
The pensive traveler held his way,
                                        Silent &...

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Betsy Feagan Colquitt (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poetics,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 1971, pp. 74-81.

[In the following essay, Colquitt suggests that Thoreau's judgments about the poet's experience hampered his success as a writer of verses.]

“Yes, I've seen her poetry
Interesting if one is interested in Celia,
Apart, of course, from its literary merit
Which I don't pretend to judge.”

—“The Cocktail Party”

Edward Chamberlayne's judgment on his mistress' poetry reflects with accuracy the critical verdict on the poetry of Thoreau: his poetry is interesting if one is interested in Thoreau as man and as writer of prose....

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Muriel Rukeyser (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau and Poetry,” in Henry David Thoreau, edited by Walter Harding, George Brenner and Paul A. Doyle, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1972, pp. 103-16.

[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture at a festival honoring Thoreau, the poet Rukeyser asserts that Thoreau's poems are “suburban in relation to the forest of the prose” and compares Thoreau to Sir Walter Raleigh.]

Thoreau, whom we come to honor, speaks to us today. You have been hearing, seeing the traces of Thoreau in our own time. I imagine much of what I am going to say to you may be recapitulation. But I want to recapitulate for you, from this place where I...

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H. Grant Sampson (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Structure in the Poetry of Thoreau,” in Costerus, Vol. 6, 1972, pp. 137-54.

[In the following essay, Sampson argues that much of Thoreau's poetry has the structure reminiscent of the meditative tradition of seventeenth-century poetry.]


Thoreau's reputation as a major American writer has not depended upon his poetry. Although Emerson, in an article on “New Poetry” in The Dial for October 1840, recognized him as an important writer, he classified Thoreau as a “portfolio” poet whose greatness lay in the future; and later Emerson advised him to burn his poetry. Eighty-one years passed from the time of Thoreau's death...

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Kenneth Silverman (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sluggard Knight in Thoreau's Poetry,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 2, April 1973, pp. 6-9.

[In the following essay, Silverman maintains that Thoreau's “sluggard knights” in his poems suffer conflicts between their desire for heroic self-assertion and their lazy natures.]

Many of Thoreau's poems record his effort to unite thought and action or, as he put it, to live deliberately. Surprisingly often, the effort seems to leave Thoreau depressed not elated, stirred less by morning courage than by midnight Angst. Several poems start with declarations of impotence: “In vain I see the morning rise”; “I am the autumnal sun”;...

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C. N. Srinath (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes from ‘Chrysalis': Some Glimpses of Thoreau's Poetry,” in Studies In American Literature: Essays in Honour of William Mulder, edited by Jagdish Chander and Narindar S. Pradhan, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 183-93.

[In the following essay, Srinath claims Thoreau's poetry reveals a “vehement originality” that ignores the existence of his predecessors and contemporaries and comes closer to the English Metaphysicals for its terse quality.]

It may not be surprising for a student of American Transcendentalism to see how true to its spirit the writers were even in the choice of their medium, their chief medium being prose. There is perhaps a...

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Regina Hansen (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Conditions for Poetry: A Study of Thoreau's Challenge to Transcendence,” in The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 1977, pp. 188-200.

[In the following essay, Hansen claims Thoreau's poetic philosophy reveals an artist engaged in the task of writing poetry and metapoetry simultaneously.]

In many of his works, Thoreau expresses his concern with the poet. He uses the word poet in the sense of seer, the vates of the Romans, to write about himself, with poet providing a useful objective persona.

When Thoreau writes of the conditions in which the poet must live, the attitudes he must foster, or the results he...

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Mary I. Kaiser (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘'Converging With the Sky'”: The Imagery of Celestial Bodies in Thoreau's Poetry,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3, July 1977, pp. 15-28.

[In the following essay, Kaiser surveys the celestial imagery of Thoreau's poetry and concludes the inconsistencies in his view stems from “unavoidable conflicts” in Thoreau's world.]

Celestial bodies pervade Thoreau's verse as symbols of spiritual facts. Thoreau sees heavenly bodies in a new way; by using a naturalist's careful observation of their peculiarities, he develops the symbolic significance of the heavens beyond the usual Romantic associations: “The sun which I know is not Apollo, nor is...

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Richard Bridgman (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rags and Meanness: Journals, Early Essays, Translations, and Poems,” in Dark Thoreau, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 1-26.

[In the following excerpt from his study of Thoreau's works, Bridgman claims Thoreau's early essays, translations, and poems are highly personal.]

Much of what Thoreau felt in his early years is concentrated in his poems and journals. They initiate the terms of his confusions and they help to explain both the violence and the evasions present in his writing. On the positive side, he idealized friendship and exulted in the diversity of nature. On the negative, he discovered little that was attractive in himself or in the social...

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Mary E. Pitts (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poem ‘Sympathy': His ‘Gentle Boy' Identified,” in The Concord Saunterer, Vol. 18, No. 2, December 1985, pp. 20-7.

[In the following essay, Pitts argues that the “gentle boy” of the poem “Sympathy” is Thoreau himself.]

On June 24, 1839, when Henry David Thoreau was almost twenty-two years old, he wrote this now famous poem in his Journal:1


Lately alas I knew a gentle boy,
Whose features all were cast in Virtue's mould,
As one she had designed for Beauty's toy,
But after manned him for her own stronghold.
On every side he...

(The entire section is 3235 words.)

Elizabeth Hall Witherell (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau's Watershed Season As A Poet: The Hidden Fruits of the Summer and Fall of 1841,” in Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson, University of Virginia Press, 1990, pp. 49-68.

[In the following essay, Witherell maintains that the group of interrelated poems Thoreau composed in the summer and fall of 1841 provide an important example of the role of poetry in his development as a writer.]

The assessment of Thoreau's poetic talent as a minor one is so widely shared and so obviously correct that critics and biographers generally treat his poetry in relation to some larger issue in his life or work. Although many explications of...

(The entire section is 10180 words.)

Elizabeth Hall Witherell (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thoreau as Poet,” in The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, edited by Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 57-70.

[In the following essay, Witherell finds that Thoreau's poems are mainly of interest for what they tell us about Thoreau's life and his development as an artist.]

In the Transcendentalist view, especially as articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The Poet” and in Nature, the poet's responsibility is essentially religious—by a finer organization, a greater sensitivity to truth and beauty, the poet perceives and interprets the eternal realm that stands behind the apparent reality of the material world. Thoreau...

(The entire section is 5748 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Canby, Henry Seidel. Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1939, 508 p.

Early, important critical biography of Thoreau emphasizing Thoreau’s importance as a social critic and creative thinker.

Channing, William Ellery. Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist. New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1966, 397 p.

Sympathetic biography written by one of Thoreau's best friends praising his imagination, humor, love of nature, and moral conviction.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, 502 p.

Meticulously documented...

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