The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

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 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...

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