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.
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.
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”).
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.”