Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Most of Thoreau’s best poetry was written between 1839-1842, though he had experimented with verse composition for several years before those years. The poems best known to the public are those which appear in A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS—several had already been published in the magazine The Dial—and in Walden, his only books published before his death. Most of the remaining poems in the collected editions appear in Thoreau’s voluminous Journal, published after his death.

Carl Bode points out in his introduction to the COLLECTED POEMS that Thoreau was talked about and judged as a young poet by his contemporaries; a decade before his death, however, he was forgotten as a poet, though celebrated for his remarkable prose. Bode assigns three reasons for the continued neglect of Thoreau’s poems: the unevenness of his verse, Thoreau’s loss of enthusiasm for poetry, and the mistaken belief of F. D. Sanborn and others that his verses are fragments inseparable from the prose into which they were originally woven. Even such a recent biographer as Walter Harding, in THE DAYS OF HENRY THOREAU, says that most of Thoreau’s poems are third-rate. Because so many of the poems in Bode’s COLLECTED POEMS are actual fragments or are marked by aesthetic faults, incomplete revision, or even technical errors of composition, the average reader is likely to agree with Harding. Yet in a few of Thoreau’s best poems he achieves a blend of poetic beauty and skill that make these poems at least worthy of serious consideration.

Emerson said Thoreau’s biography is to be found in his poems. The hyperbole is typical, but important parts of the biography are to be found there: his personal philosophy of life and his closeness to nature, his love for his brother John, his love for Ellen Sewall and her young brother Edmund, and his concept of love itself.

The paucity of Thoreau’s poetic output is explained in part in his couplet “My life has been the poem I would have writ, / But I could not both live and utter it.” Like Emerson, his older friend and early inspirer, Thoreau believed in living each day to its utmost and living it in or near Concord, though he did leave several times on what he called “excursions” of varying lengths. This belief is found in the poem which begins “I seek the Present Time, / No other clime, / Life in today, / Not to sail another way. . . .” Poor in worldly goods but rich in his life of the spirit, Thoreau’s pride in this life is seen in “Poverty.” Like Wordsworth, one of his favorite poets, he stored in memory the beauty of the natural world for the pleasure and the spiritual gain of recollection at other times, as he suggests in the opening lines of “The Inward Morning”: “Packed in my mind lie all the clothes / Which outward nature wears. . . .” But unlike the Wordsworth of “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” who mourned the loss of life’s freshness and glory by the growing youth, Thoreau was stirred to admiration and love of the mature man who, having passed through the storms of life,...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)