Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

“Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life” can be appreciated on its own terms as a fine example of a nature poem, the product of a young man still under the creative influence of the great English Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Much of Thoreau’s poem is derivative of Romantic poetry insofar as it postulates the renewal of the spirit as a consequence of the mind’s direct apprehension of nature’s power to cure humankind’s moral ailments. Echoes of John Milton’s (1608-1674) famous pastoral elegy are heard in the closing lines, although the poet here, now renewed, does not proceed to “fresh woods and pastures new,” as in Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638), but decides rather to “go upon [his] winter task again.” Thus Thoreau revises the standard elegiac conclusion, insisting that winter, not summer, is the proper season for renewal, a season of hardship and discomfort rather than ease and solace.

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More important, however, the poem can be seen as an early statement of the principles of Transcendentalism, which Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had first set out in his essay “Nature” in 1836. The essential idea of Transcendentalism is based on the Romantic belief in the primacy of the self: Every human being carries his or her own divinity. The intuitive is thus more to be trusted than the reasoned, the spontaneous more than the deliberate, the personal more than the social. Personal experience, purified through the proper communion with nature, is thus the sole arbiter of truth. “Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life” reaffirms this conviction.

It is interesting that Thoreau uses the word “economy” in the closing section of the poem. Thoreau constantly reworked his poems. In fact, “Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life,” like many of his others, was composed in stages. Lines and phrases were found, for example, in his manuscripts and journals, later to be reworked and appearing as prose in such books as Walden. In fact, the word “economy” was used as the title of the first chapter of Walden, where, calling himself a “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms,” Thoreau pointedly scolds all humans for their plodding lives, worrying about making a living and about money and posessions.

“Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life” ends with the image of a snow-covered landscape, whereas Walden opens in winter, almost as if the book begins where the poem ends. Given what is known of Thoreau’s methods of composition and of his habit of reworking his material, it is possible to see “Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life”as an early source of, or at least a germ in the development of, his later work.

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