The Poem

Henry David Thoreau’s “Inspiration” consists of twenty-one four-line stanzas that declare that only through a humility of spirit can one find communion with the godlike “ancient harmony” that is the basis of truth and that lies at the heart of human experience. This humility of spirit is necessary to purge the mind from the artificial distractions of what the poet calls “the general show of things.” The poem signals this humility in the second stanza, when the poet declares that if he sings with a “light head erect” his verse will remain “weak and shallow” despite even the efforts of the “muses.” The muses here are not the true sources of inspiration, as they may have been to traditional, classical poets, but merely conduits through which the poet’s verse may take shape. The “light head erect” refers to the presumptuous, unthinking attitudes and conventions that make the poet complacent and thus unable to receive the truth.

To receive such truth the poet must make his soul an “accomplice” to his heart’s yearnings. He must grope “with bended neck” and listen—as in an act of faith—to the timeless “line” that God has written. This act of faith is superior to the intellect—Thoreau calls it “wit”—and the hope that naturally springs from it. The poet must learn to surrender to the prompting of his heart and realize first that his “love and reverence” for the external beauty of things has blinded him...

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Forms and Devices

Thoreau wrote more than two hundred poems during his early career, but only a few were published during his lifetime. Some critics consider his poetry as mere glosses to his more significant prose works such as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and his masterpiece, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854). However, his poems often provide insight into certain characteristics of Thoreau’s writing style. “Inspiration” is a good example of the clarity of expression that has often been attributed to his work.

This clarity of expression has been achieved despite the restraints imposed on the poem by the poet’s use of the traditional verse form of the quatrain and the even more limiting use of rhyming tetrameters. In four beats to each line and with every other line in the quatrain rhyming, Thoreau still manages to convey exactly what he means. As a direct statement of the principles of Transcendentalism, the poem contains few images. Its diction relies more on the use of aphoristic wit than the traditional devices of metaphor or simile. The very first quatrain contains a didactic statement which, in its concise, aphoristic form, suggests the style of such eighteenth century poets as Alexander Pope: “The work we choose should be our own,/ God lets alone.”

Like Pope, Thoreau enjoys clever wordplay. In the sixth quatrain, for instance, in which the poet explains the presence of the divine force within him, he...

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