Thoreau’s Poetry

Thoreau’s Poetry

Henry David Thoreau, the Concord philosopher and naturalist, is chiefly famous as an enthusiastic lover of wild Nature and a determined satirist of the follies of conventional society. While the literary excellence of his prose writings, such as Walden, and the Excursions, and the Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is now generally admitted by those critics (still all too few) who are thoroughly acquainted with his works, his poetry is far less known, some of it being still unprinted, and some remaining uncollected in the four volumes of Dial, or scattered in disjointed form through the pages of the Week. It is true that Emerson republished a few of the poems as an appendix to the volume of Letters which he edited in 1865; but even these were printed, in some instances, in an abbreviated and imperfect form. It is to be hoped that a fuller collection of Thoreau’s poetry may some day find its place among his published works, not so much on account of its intrinsic value as because everything that concerns a great writer has its special interest, and in Thoreau’s case these poetical pieces have much biographical significance. ‘His biography is in his verses,’ says Emerson, in his memoir of Thoreau’s life.

We may perhaps venture to pass lightly over the somewhat technical questions whether Thoreau and the other members of the Boston School can be regarded in strict justice as ‘poet’s at all. A writer of Lippincott’s Magazine* claims confidently a place for Thoreau among the poetic brotherhood, on the ground that the qualities in which he was deficient were the mere superfluous sentimentalities of art. On the other hand, a well-known critic has pointed out that metre is an indispensable condition of poetry, and that Thoreau was quite unpractised in the delicacies of metrical effect. ‘The examples of Thoreau’s so-called poetry,’ he says,** ‘are more unmitigated doggerel than even Carlyle’s or Emerson’s. With regard to men of such splendid gifts as Carlyle, Emerson, and Thoreau, the remarkable thing is, not that they should have no sense of metre, but having none they should try and write in metre.’ We are here reminded of the criticism which Emerson passed on his own poetical talent—a criticism applicable to Thoreau no less than to himself. ‘I am born a poet, of a low class without a doubt, yet a poet. My singing, be sure, is very husky, and is for the most part in prose. Still I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter and specially of the correspondences between these and those.’ It is certain that in this sense Thoreau was always regarded as a poet by those with whom he came in contact. Emerson wrote of him to Carlyle in 1841 as ‘a poet whom you may one day be proud of.’ Hawthorne remarked that ‘his thoughts seem to measure and attune themselves into spontaneous verse, as they rightfully may, since there is real poetry in them.’ ‘Poet-naturalist’ was the title applied to him by Ellery Channing, his friend and biographer.

Thoreau’s own view of the poetic character is clearly stated in the Week. ‘A true poem,’ he thinks, ‘is distinguished not so much by a felicitous expression, or any thought it suggests, as by the atmosphere which surrounds it. There are two classes of men called poets. The one cultivates life, the other art: one seeks food for nutriment, the other for flavour; one satisfies hunger, the other gratifies the palate.’ As far as conscious endeavour was concerned, he was himself far less an artist than a moralist, his poetry being essentially of the ‘gnomic’ order, characterised by a quiet, thrifty, sententious ripeness of thought and terse, epigrammatic brevity of utterance. His models in style were certain poets of the minor Elizabethan school—Cowley, Herbert, Donne, Quarles, and other kindred writers, many of whom he had studied with such sympathetic industry and devotion that he sometimes caught and reproduced their peculiarities of tone and feeling with startling fidelity. What he says of Quarles in one of this letters might indeed be said of himself. ‘It is rare to find one who was so much of a poet and so little of an artist. Hopelessly quaint, he never doubts his genius; it is only he and his God in all the world. He uses language sometimes as greatly as Shakespeare; and though there is not much straight grain in him, there is plenty of rough, crooked timber.’ George Herbert was another of Thoreau’s special favourites, and it has been truly remarked that the stanzas entitled ‘Sic Vita’ might almost have a niche in Herbert’s Temple.

‘I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that; their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather.

A bunch of violets without their roots,
And sorrel intermixed,
Encircled by a wisp of straw
Once coiled about their shoots,
The law
By which I’m fixed.

And here I bloom for a short hour unseen,
Drinking my juices up,
With no root in the land
To keep my branches green,
But stand
In a bare cup.’ . . .

It was Thoreau’s habit to copy out his poems, or such fragments of poems as he composed from time to time, in the daily journal which he always kept with characteristic diligence and regularity; and from the journal he afterwards transcribed and completed the verses as occasion demanded. Many of these poems are interesting as throwing light on certain passages of their author’s life, which are otherwise unexplained in this writings. The elegiac stanzas headed ‘Sympathy,’ for instance, contain in a slightly disguised form the story of Thoreau’s youthful love and the sacrifice which he imposed on himself in order to avoid rivalry with this brother. ‘Inspiration,’ again, one of the finest of his poems, is the record of his spiritual birth and first awakening to the new life of Transcendentalism. It is much to be regretted that Emerson published no more than seven stanzas of the nineteen which Thoreau wrote. Of those which are here subjoined, the first only appears in the poem s printed in the volume of Letters:—

‘I hearing get who had but ears,
And sight who had but eyes before,
I moments live who lived but years,
And truth discern who know but leaning’s lore.

I hear beyond the range of sound,
I see beyond the range of sight,
New earths, and skies, and seas around,
And in my day the sun doth pale his light.

A clear and ancient harmony
Pierces my soul through all its din,
As through its utmost melody—
Farther behind than they, farther within.

More swift its bolt than lightening is,
Its voice than thunder is more loud,
It does expand my privacies
To all, and leave me single in the crowd.

It speaks with such authority,
With so serene and lofty tone,
That idle Time runs gadding by
And leaves me with Eternity alone.’

Most, if not all, of Thoreau’s poems were composed between 1837 and 1847, in the years of his early manhood. ‘Just now,’ he wrote in the autumn of 1841, ‘I am in the mid-sea of verses, and they actually rustle around me, as the leaves would round the head of Autumnus himself, should he thrust it up through some vales which I know; but alas! many of them are but crisped and yellow leaves like his, I fear, and will deserve no better fate than to make mould for new harvests.’ Many of these early poems found publication in the Dial, the quarterly organ of transcendental opinion, which was started in 1840 by Emerson, Ripley and Margaret Fuller; and there was nothing, even in that much-ridiculed periodical, which excited more contemptuous merriment in critical circles. ‘An unquestionable laughter,’ says one of Thoreau’s contemporaries, ‘like that of the gods at Vulcan’s limping, went up over his rugged and halting lines.’ Nevertheless there were some good as well as bad verses among these contributions to the Dial. The short poem on ‘Smoke’ was declared by Emerson to be superior to any lyric of Simonides, and there is some fine blank verse incorporated in the essay on the ‘Natural History of Massachusetts.’ The following stanzas, which have never before appeared in print, were intended by Thoreau to form a portion of ‘A Winter Walk,’ an article which was published in the Dial in 1843; but they were omitted, presumably at Emerson’s suggestion. They quaintly describe a mild spring-like day in the New England winter, amid the scenery with which Thoreau was so familiar.

‘The rabbit leaps,
The mouse out-creeps,
The flog out-peeps
Beside the brook;
The ferret weeps,
The marmot sleeps,
The owlet keeps
In his snug nook.

The apples thaw,
The ravens caw,
The squirrel gnaw
The frozen fruit;
To their retreat
I track the feet
Of mice that eat
The apple’s root.

The snow-dust falls,
The otter crawls,
The partridge calls
Far in the wood;
The traveller dreams,
The tree-ice gleams,
The blue-jay screams
In angry mood.

The willows droop,
The alders stoop,
The pheasants group
Beneath the snow;
The catkins green
Cast o’er the scene
A summer’s sheen,
A genial glow.’

After the cessation of the Dial in 1844, Thoreau rarely if ever cared to publish his verses as separate poems, but preferred to interpolate them in his prose essays, where they did duty, as Mr. Sanborn has expressed it, ‘as choruses, or hymns, or word-pictures, to illustrate the movement of his thought.’ The Week especially contains a large number of poems thus quoted, many of them being reprints from the Dial; a few others are found in Walden, the didactic character of which book made it less adapted for this kind of poetical illustration. After his thirtieth year Thoreau seldom wrote poetry, being deterred perhaps to some extent by the faint praise of his friend Emerson, which caused him to destroy a considerable number of his manuscript poems, an act afterwards regretted by him. Yet Emerson’s final estimate of his poetical powers was far from being an unappreciative one. ‘His poetry,’ he remarks in his biographical sketch, ‘might be bad or good; he no doubt wanted a lyric facility and technical skill, but he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception. He was a good reader and critic, and his judgment on poetry was to the ground of it. He could not be deceived as to the presence or absence of the poetic element in any composition, and his thirst for this made him negligent, and perhaps scornful, of superficial graces. His own verses are often rude and defective. The gold does not yet run pure—is drossy and crude. The thyme and marjoram are not yet honey. But if he want lyric fineness and technical merits, if he have not the poetic temperament, he never lacks the causal thought, showing that his genius was better than his talent.’

An instance of Thoreau’s best vein of poetry may be seen in the following stanzas, entitled, ‘Annus Mirabilis,’ which were printed in the Boston Commonwealth the year after his death, but are now almost unknown to the readers of his works. Their quiet pathos are gravity entitle them to a high place among such autumnal studies.

‘Thank God who seasons thus the year,
And sometimes kindly slants his rays;
For in his winter he’s most near,
And plainest seen upon the shortest days.

Who gently tempers now his heats,
And then his harsher cold, lest we
Should surfeit on the summer’s sweets,
Or pine upon the winter’s crudity.

A sober mind will walk alone,
Apart from Nature, if need be,
And only its own seasons own;
For Nature leaving its humanity.

Sometimes a late autumnal thought
Has crossed my mind in green July,
And to its early freshness brought
Late-ripened fruits and an autumnal sky.

The evening of the year draws on,
The fields a later aspect wear;
Since summer’s garishness is gone,
Some grains of night tincture the noontide air.

Behold! the shadows of the trees
Now circle wider ’bout their stem,
Like sentries that by slow degrees
Perform their rounds, gently protecting them.

. . . . .

Far in the woods, these golden days,
Some leaf obeys its Maker’s call;
And though their hollow aisles it plays
With delicate touch the prelude of the Fall.

Gently withdrawing from its stem,
It lightly lays itself along
Where the same hand has pillowed them,
Resigned to sleep upon the old year’s throng.

The loveliest birth is brown and sere,
The farthest pool is strewn with leaves
Which float upon their watery bier,
Where is no eye that sees, no heart that grieves.’

Whatever be the precise definition of poetry, and whatever the criterion by which a true poem is distinguished, it cannot be denied that such stanzas as these are both memorable and suggestive. There is, as has been well said, a ‘frank and unpretending nobleness’ in Thoreau’s verse at its highest, which should rescue it from being so generally overlooked or under-valued. For the rest, it must be admitted that his prose works are on the whole more poetical than his verse, and that it was a wise instinct which led him in his maturer life to discontinue the latter study. It was his vocation to be one of the most brilliant prose authors whom America has yet produced, and he had an adequate sense of dignity of this calling. ‘Great prose,’ he tells us, ‘of equal elevation, commands our respect more than great verse, since it implies a more permanent and level height, a life more pervaded with the grandeur of the thought. The poet often only makes an irruption, like a Parthian, and is off again, shooting while he retreats; but the prose writer has conquered, like a Roman, and settled colonies.’

If, therefore, we cannot unreservedly apply to Thoreau the title of poet, when metrical skill is held to be an indispensable element of poetry, we must recognise that he was essentially a poet in the large sense in which his acquaintances so regarded him,—he felt, thought, acted, and lived as a poet, though he did not always write as one. In his own words—

‘My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.’

H. S. Salt

Art Review (London), Vol. 1, May 1890