Saturday, June 28, 2008

Henry David Thoreau

His deepest personal longings Thoreau either concealed in his Journal or turned into poems. His most frutful poetic period dated from the time he began writing the A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to shortly before the publication of Walden. His poems are significant utterances, both because of their intrinsic merit and because of his high conception of the role of poet. True, some of the later verses are hasty and prosaic, while some of the early ones imitate Herbert and other metaphysicals. But in between lie a considerable number which contain the essence of Thoreau's Transnecdentalism, sensitive, natural, and independent.1

The following poems are included in The Portable Thoreau:
I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied; In the Busy Streets, Domains of Trade; I Knew a Man by Sight; Lately, Alas, I Knew a Gentle Boy; Each More Melodious Note I Hear; Independence; Not Unconcerned Wachusett Rears His Head; My Friends, Why Should We Live; Low in the Eastern Sky; Great Friend; Fog; Brother Where Dost Thou Dwell; This Is My Carnac, Whose Unmeasured Dome; Love Equals Swift and Slow; Though All the Fates Should Prove Unkind; Manhood; Between the Traveler and the Setting Sun; Nature.
According to the English Web at Virginia Commonwealth University, the following poems by Thoreau were published in The Dial (1840-1844).2
Prayer ***The Moon *** Smoke ***Conscience***Rumors from an Aeolian Harp*** Low-Anchored Cloud *** Let such pure hate still underprop *** The Inward Morning ***The Summer Rain*** Sic Vita ***[My Life Has Been the Poem]***Friendship*** I Knew a Man by Sight ***Epitaph on the World ***Indeed, Indeed, I Cannot Tell***On Fields O'er Which the Reaper's Hand has Passed***Pray to What Earth***They Who Prepare my Evening Meal Below***What's the Railroad to Me?***Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life*** Inspiration
Of the eighteen poems published in 1947 and the twenty-one poems published approximately 100 years earlier, only two poems have the distinction of enjoying the favor both of the editor(s) of yesteryear and of the 20th century. Sic Vita reappears as I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied. According to the University of Notre Dame's online translation service, sic can mean any of the following: so, thus, in this way; like this, as follows; in that case, with this limitation.3
A number of questions emerge for me when I consider the selections made for each publication. Was Carl Bode aware of the poems published in The Dial? I imagine he was aware. Perhaps he wanted to call attention to poems he thought had been underappreciated. Perhaps he was swayed by his preference for poetry that seems to indicate a “high conception of the role of poet,” a preference which the editor(s) of The Dial may have shared and interpreted differently than Mr. Bode.
Did Thoreau submit the poems selected for The Portable Thoreau to The Dial? Possibly those poems had not yet been written. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was published in 1849. Walden was published in 1854. Mr. Bode prefers the poems written during this time (1849 to 1854) to the ones published in the early 1840s, as explained above.
I'm sure our Readers can imagine their own questions as well. Here are a few poems from The Dial, followed by a few from The Portable Thoreau.


Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.

And next in value, which thy kindness lends,
That I may greatly disappoint my friends,
Howe'er they think or hope that it may be,
They may not dream how thou'st distinguished me.

That my weak hand may equal my firm faith
And my life practice what my tongue saith
That my low conduct may not show
Nor my relenting lines
That I thy purpose did not know
Or overrated thy designs.


Conscience is instinct bred in the house,
Feeling and Thinking propagate the sin
By an unnatural breeding in and in.
I say, Turn it out doors,
Into the moors.
I love a life whose plot is simple,
And does not thicken with every pimple,
A soul so sound no sickly conscience binds it,
That makes the universe no worse than 't finds it.
I love an earnest soul,
Whose mighty joy and sorrow
Are not drowned in a bowl,
And brought to life to-morrow;
That lives one tragedy,
And not seventy;

A conscience worth keeping;
Laughing not weeping;
A conscience wise and steady,
And forever ready;
Not changing with events,
Dealing in compliments;
A conscience exercised about
Large things, where one may doubt.
I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestinated to be good,
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none;
Born to its own affairs,
Its own joys and own cares;
By whom the work which God begun
Is finished, and not undone;
Taken up where he left off,
Whether to worship or to scoff;
If not good, why then evil,

If not good god, good devil.
Goodness! you hypocrite, come out of that,
Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.
I have no patience towards
Such conscientious cowards.
Give me simple laboring folk,
Who love their work,
Whose virtue is song
To cheer God along.

[My Life Has Been the Poem]

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

I remember this couplet from my high school English textbook. :^)

Pray to What Earth

Pray to what earth does this sweet cold belong,
Which asks no duties and no conscience?
The moon goes up by leaps, her cheerful path
In some far summer stratum of the sky,
While stars with their cold shine bedot her way.
The fields gleam mildly back upon the sky,
And far and near upon the leafless shrubs
The snow dust still emits a silver light.
Under the hedge, where drift banks are their screen,
The titmice now pursue their downy dreams,
As often in the sweltering summer nights
The bee doth drop asleep in the flower cup,
When evening overtakes him with his load.
By the brooksides, in the still, genial night,
The more adventurous wanderer may hear
The crystals shoot and form, and winter slow
Increase his rule by gentlest summer means.

Friendship (excerpt)

I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
Tween heaven and earth.

The following two poems were published in The Dial and also in The Portable Thoreau.

Sic Vita AKA I Am A Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied

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.

A nosegay which Time clutched from out
Those fair Elysian fields,
With weeds and broken stems, in haste,
Doth make the rabble rout
That waste
The day he yields.

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.

Some tender buds were left upon my stem
In mimicry of life,
But ah! the children will not know,
Till time has withered them,
The woe
With which they're rife.

But now I see I was not plucked for naught,
And after in life's vase
Of glass set while I might survive,
But by a kind hand brought
To a strange place.

That stock thus thinned will soon redeem its hours,
And by another year,
Such as God knows, with freer air,

More fruits and fairer flowers
Will bear,
While I droop here.

I Knew A Man By Sight (excerpt)
Late in a wilderness
I shared his mess,
For he had hardships seen,
And I a wanderer been;
He was my bosom friend, and I was his.

And as, methinks, shall all,
Both great and small,
That ever lived on earth,
Early or late their birth,
Stranger and foe, one day each other know.

The following poems are from The Portable Thoreau.

In The Busy Streets, Domains of Trade
In the busy streets, domains of trade,
Man is a surly porter, or a vain and hectoring bully,
Who can claim no nearer kindredship with me
Than brotherhood by law.

Each More Melodious Note I Hear
Each more melodious note I hear
Brings this reproach to me,
That I alone afford the ear,
Who would the music be.

Independence (excerpt)
My life more civil is and free
Than any civil polity.

Ye princes keep your realms
And circumscribed power,
Not wide as are my dreams,
Nor rich as is this hour.


The life that I aspire to live
No man proposeth me -
No trade upon the street
Wears its emblazonry.
Excerpted from comments at Poets dot org accessed 6/28/08:
Although Thoreau thought of himself primarily as a poet during his early years, he was later discouraged in this pursuit and gradually came to feel that poetry was too confining. It is as a prose writer that Thoreau made his most meaningful contributions, both as a stylist and as a philosopher. A tireless champion of the human spirit against the materialism and conformity that he saw as dominant in American culture, Thoreau's ideas about civil disobedience, as set forth in his 1849 essay, have influenced, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and his mastery of prose style has been acknowledged by writers as disparate as Robert Louis Stevenson, Marcel Proust, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry Miller. Largely ignored in his own time, the self-styled "inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms" has emerged as one of America's greatest literary figures. Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862, in his native Concord.4

1. from The Portable Thoreau, 1947, p. 238. Carl Bode, editor.
4. from accessed 6/28/08.

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