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 to the truth of a deeper reality.
Stanzas 6-10 form the heart of the poem, containing the central idea of the philosophy that became known as Transcendentalism. After the poet has gained the necessary humility in the face of the natural world, accepting, by an act of faith, the prompting of his heart, he suddenly feels—“unsought, unseen”—the divine power residing within him. In an instant—“More swift its bolt than lightning is”—the poet becomes more keenly aware of the life around and within him. Like God, he becomes an all-absorbing mind, seeing and hearing beyond sight and sound, living years within the span of moments. He comprehends the truth, not as knowledge gained from books but as a “clear and ancient harmony” that expands his “privacies” and unites him to the eternal. It is at this very moment that the poet feels both newly born and at the prime of life.
Unfortunately, this experience of unity with all of nature is not gained without conflict. Though it gives the poet a sense of “manhood’s strength,” it also comes at an “unseasoned time” and “vexe[s] the day with its presuming face.” The poet, then, must rely on his undying faith in the validity of the experience, on that moment of inspiration that “shows where life’s true kernel’s laid.”
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 plays with the words “sensual” and “sensible,” thereby making a distinction between the physical world and the internal world of the mind. It is this disciplined approach to diction that saves the poem from becoming simply a bald, direct statement or an abstruse philosophical exposition.
One charge that may rightly be leveled on the poem, however, is its lack of brevity. The poet makes his point by the end of the twelfth quatrain (line 48). The last nine quatrains merely elaborate on the effect of that “ancient harmony” which he has experienced. Yet this elaboration highlights another aspect of Thoreau’s creative process.
We know that for most of his adult life Thoreau kept a journal, and that it provided him, in effect, with the working notes that were to form the basis of his published works. In one entry, for instance, Thoreau observes that only a superficial “acquaintance” with external reality is not “sufficient to make it completely the subject of [one’s] muse.” This idea is clearly seen and more cogently presented in the opening sections of “Inspiration.”
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