Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life

by Henry David Thoreau

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The Poem

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Henry David Thoreau’s “Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life” is a one-stanza meditation of thirty lines in which the poet recalls specific moments in his life when natural phenomena—the icicles of winter, the “shimmering noon” of summer, the recently plowed fields covered in a blanket of snow—renewed his spirit. Such a renewal offers him the courage to move on with the business of living.

The speaker fortifies the idea by establishing a contrast between the “circuit” of his ordinary, “plodding life” and the cycle of nature represented by the round of the seasons. Such a progression, beginning in winter, moving through summer and coming around again to winter, convinces the poet of the shallowness of “the best philosophy,” which seeks only to console humanity rather than enlighten it with the “azure hue” of “untarnished” insight. The poet, in other words, finds peace not in a formal philosophical system of objective truths, but in an intuitive grasp of reality as afforded through an observation of and communion with nature.

His observations, as he recalls them, are both poetic and startling in their accuracy. His description of icicles, elongating as they melt against the sun’s heat, is a reminder of Thoreau’s ability as a keen, accurate naturalist, as his later prose writings, particularly Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), published more than a decade later, attest. He remembers observing one winter how these “icy spears” formed on trees, fences and the “jutting spouts” of human-made things. Thus humankind and nature are united in a kind of ironic bond, one made of ice. He remembers also the play of light and shadow at noon in summer, “some unrecorded beam” that shone across the upland pastures “where the Johnswort grew.”

In his mind he also hears the humming of the bee and the “purling” play of the brook as it winds along the slopes and meadows. The contrast and the seasonal images come full circuit with the poet’s final recollection of a winter scene, the look of the lately plowed fields, a thrush hovering, as all lay covered in an “integument” of snow. Once again, both humankind and nature are bound, as if by the same skin—“integument.”

The poet is enriched by his memories, which have connected him with nature. The recollected scenes are part of what he calls “God’s cheap economy,” that is, a divine manifestation of the truth, simple—“economical”—but effective. In the closing lines he finds the resolution to “go upon [his] winter’s task again,” going on with living in a world not always congenial to his comfort.

Forms and Devices

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Despite the fact that Thoreau gave up writing poetry early in his career, regarding it as distinctly inferior to his prose, his poems show a sense of technical craftsmanship, which he was later to perfect and rework in his prose. “Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life,” for example, opens with a simile that at once establishes a connection between the natural progression of the seasons in chronological time—something he was to do in Walden—and the poet’s recollections in psychological time. Just as the “violet/ Or anemone” is carried along the gentle current of a stream, so the poet’s thoughts are whirled along the stream of time to memories of winter and summer scenes that bore meaning in his life.

Though the poem is in the form of a lyric, it is really a kind of meditation in which the internalized action—the poet’s recollections—is presented by images and language suggesting an active though pastoral life. A moment of insight for the...

(This entire section contains 523 words.)

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poet becomes “an azure hue”; the frosty winter night is alive with almost warlike images: the “icy spears” melting against the “arrows” of the sun.

The structure of the poem is simple but carefully wrought. Seemingly random in its movement, the poem is built in a pattern of threes—three scenes, each described in multiples of three: the winter observation unfolds in three lines; the summer scene is itself divided into three sections, the first two having three lines, the last, five. The third scene returns to winter and completes the “circle” with six lines.

Classic nature poetry is often built upon a three-tiered structure comprising the stages of the poet’s understanding of his experience: observation, contemplation, revelation. The poet first observes and describes the physical aspects of his experience, usually a natural object or phenomenon, then proceeds to a contemplation of its meaning, finally grasping its truth or significance. In this poem Thoreau revises the format. Beginning with contemplation, suggested by the simile, he proceeds to observations, through his memories, and concludes with an apprehension of their meaning, his intention to go on with his winter task.

The poem’s structure is further tightened by the interplay between the rhythm of the seasons and the rhythm of the verse. The thirty-line meditation is conveyed in only three sentences. The first sentence, establishing the simile of the violet in the stream, runs through the first seven lines. The recollection section, containing the three seasonal scenes, is the longest, running twenty-one lines, many of them enjambed—one line running into the next, as in the manner of thought. The final section, containing the poet’s resolution to go on, emphasizes the importance of the revelation by a mere couplet—abrupt, final, conclusive.

Finally, though the poem does not feature end rhyme, it does make use of internal rhyme: “nights” at the end of line 9 and “light” in the middle of line 10; “moon” at the end of line 10 and “noon” in the middle of line 14. Examples of consonance (repetition of initial consonants) are also found at the end of line 19, “rill”; line 26, “rear”; and line 29, “rich.”


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