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Henry David Thoreau: "Sometimes a Poetaster"

Updated on December 27, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Henry David Thoreau / Cabin in the Woods

Source

Simplify, Simplify!

More Philosopher Than Poet

Henry David Thoreau's self-effacing claim that he was “sometimes a Poetaster” likely reveals something about the poet's reputation: he was more the philosopher than poet. He also wrote fewer poems than philosophical essays.

The “sometimes a Poetaster” no doubt looked upon poetry writing in the original definition of the term, which is "maker." Thoreau, in a questionnaire from the secretary of his Harvard graduating class, wrote about himself:

I am a Schoolmaster—a Private Tutor, a Surveyor—a Gardener, a Farmer—a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.

Clearly, the "poetaster" had no qualms about stating exactly what he did with his time. Perhaps he thought of himself as a Renaissance man or perhaps just a jack-of-all-trades-and-a-master-of-none. Whatever his self-evaluation, he did remain intense in his beliefs, especially his political beliefs.

David Henry Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he came to enjoy nature as a child. After the death of his uncle David for whom he was named, Thoreau reversed his first and middle names from "David Henry" to "Henry David."

Despite his family’s poverty, Thoreau was still able to swing admission to and graduation from Harvard University. After graduating in 1837, Thoreau worked in the family business, which was pencil-making. Also despite performing such mundane though useful work, Henry David remained an individual to a radical degree.

Thoreau's Famous Cabin in the Woods

Henry David Thoreau resided at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson for a time. Under the influence of the great transcendentalist philosopher/poet Emerson, Henry David began writing philosophical essays and poems with a transcendentalist flavor. His poems and essays were printed in Emerson's journal titled The Dial.

Thoreau also attended meetings with a literary group that included, in addition to Emerson, George Ripley, A. Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. This group of literati later became the designated original members of the Transcendentalist Movement in American literature.

Thus it was on a parcel of Emerson's land that Thoreau built his famous cabin in 1845, at Walden Pond. And it was here in that cabin that he wrote his most important works, Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

In all, Thoreau passed only two year in the Walden Pond cabin that he built. His living there was an experiment. He had wanted to try to live simply and self-sufficiently. He wanted to "live deliberately" so he could engage in “sucking the marrow out of life.” Thus, after only two years, he felt his experiment was a success.

A Night in Jail

Thoreau sounds like 1960s radical in his civil disobedience. He railed against the war with Mexico and slavery. In July 1846, thus he refused to pay his poll tax, an act which placed him behind bars.

Thoreau expressed great outrage when he was released from jail the very next day and found out that someone had paid that tax for him. The good samaritan was either Thoreau's aunt or it also might have been Emerson.

Out of his brush with the law, Henry David penned his famous radical treatise, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Both the Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have claimed influence from this Thoreauvian tract.

Thoreau and Poetry

While Thoreau and poetry, qua poetry, have never been a tight fit, the man's life and philosophical stances are the stuff and basic foundation of true poetry. The literary life chosen by Henry David is unique and has proven influential.

Children's book illustrator, D. B. Johnson, was inspired by Thoreau to compose his book, Henry Builds a Cabin. The book demonstrates for children a new manner of thinking about a home, as well as an innovative way to think originally and creatively.

Thoreau's poem titled "Conscience" features the line, “I love a life whose plot is simple.” The great philosopher's philosophy of life exemplified simplicity as the Transcendentalist essayist disdained ways that were complex and materialistic.

Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis, a disease that he had suffered for most of his life on May 6, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he was born. Never having traveled outside his native New England, Thoreau once quipped: “I have traveled a good deal in Concord."

Political Theory

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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