Henry David Thoreau Thoreau, Henry David

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(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,...

(The entire section is 122,650 words.)