Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
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, faces the world proudly and bravely.
Thoreau’s deep love for his older brother John, who died of lockjaw at twenty-seven, is seen in the quatrain “Where’er Thou Sail’st Who Sailed with Me” and in the grief-filled lines of “Brother Where Dost Thou Dwell.” Henry’s brief but passionate attraction to Ellen Sewall’s young brother Edmund appears in “Lately, Alas, I Knew a Gentle Boy” (titled “Sympathy” in the Dial). His love for Ellen is expressed in “Love” (reminiscent of John Donne) and in the gay lines of “The Breeze’s Invitation.” Apparently Thoreau conceived of love as necessarily coexisting with hate though rising above it, and the love-hate motif is found in such poems as “Indeed, Indeed, I Cannot Tell” and “I Will Obey the Strictest Law of Love.”
From a man who lived as close to nature as Thoreau did, one would expect to find poetic evidence of his response to the world about him. In “Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life” the poet remembers how in winter he has recalled the beauty of the world in spring or summer and he has been enriched to continue his winter’s tasks. “Smoke in Winter,” beginning “The sluggish smoke curls up from some deep dell,” describes how the just-risen woodsman sends the smoke, his “early scout, his emissary,” from his home “To feel the frosty air, inform the day. . . .” In the rhythmic “When Winter Fringes Every Bough” the ice and snow in their beauty remind the poet of summer as if it hid beneath, and the cracking of the ice on the pond hurries him to the scene to join nature in her festival mood. “Rumors from an Aeolian Harp” pictures an imagined vale of beauty, love, youth, and virtue which is contrasted with the real world of toil, strife, and sin. “Low-Anchored Cloud” employs a series of metaphors to paint a poetic canvas: “Fountain-head and source of rivers, / Dew-cloth, dream drapery, / And napkin spread by fays; / Drifting meadow of the air. . . .” “My Books I’d Fain Cast Off, I Cannot Read” follows the advice of Wordsworth in “The Tables Turned,” and the poet lies watching a battle of red and black ants on a hummock and even enjoys the sudden rain which drenches him. In “Nature” he desires no high fame or place in the world, only to be a child and pupil of nature living and working in it. “A Winter and Spring Scene” is an interesting experiment in four-syllable lines with multiple rhymes to achieve an effect of lighthearted celebration of early spring in New England.
One chapter of Walden is entitled “Sounds”; in it Thoreau tells of those he hears from his cabin, some from nature and some from the world of men. His responsiveness to sounds is found also in his poems. There are the songs of the chickadee, the vireo, and other birds. In “The Cliffs and Springs” the poet, alone, hears at noon the trill of the veery or thrush and feels that the melody is addressed to him from “out the depths of universal being.” The bird song ends, there comes the low of distant cattle, and then the cries of farm boys in a neighboring vale remind him that he is a mere denizen of earth. “Upon the Bank at Early Dawn” celebrates the cock that wakes the world and in the “rare bragging of thy throat” makes even God himself appear more young. “The Funeral Bell” contrasts the sad tones of the tolling bell with the silence of lovely flower bells. “Music” reveals the renovating power of musical notes upon the dull, despondent spirit. “I’ve Heard My Neighbor’s Pump at Night,” with its comparison of the sound to a bittern’s call or the squeak of a meadow hen, anticipates the New England poems of Robert Frost.
No case can be made for Thoreau as more than a minor poet, but his best lines have a memorable quality in them. Nowhere is this better seen than in his “Smoke,” first published in the Dial in 1843 and republished in Walden more than a decade later.
Light-winged Smoke, Icarian bird,Melting thy pinions in thy upwardflight;Lark without song, and messenger ofdawn,Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;Or else, departing dream, and shadowyformOf midnight vision, gathering up thyskirts;By night star-veiling, and by dayDarkening the light and blotting out thesun;Go thou, my incense, upward from thishearth,And ask the gods to pardon this clearflame.