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Henry David Thoreau's "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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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

"...it represents Henry just as he was in that summer...", said Eben J. Loomis of this 1854 portrait of Thoreau
"...it represents Henry just as he was in that summer...", said Eben J. Loomis of this 1854 portrait of Thoreau | Source

Ah, ‘tis in vain the peaceful din

Ah, ‘tis in vain the peaceful din
That wakes the ignoble town,
Not thus did braver spirits win
A patriot’s renown.

There is one field beside this stream,
Wherein no foot does fall,
But yet it beareth in my dream
A richer crop than all.

Let me believe a dream so dear,
Some heart beat high that day,
Above the petty Province here,
And Britain far away;

Some hero of the ancient mould,
Some arm of knightly worth,
Of strength unbought, and faith unsold,
Honored this spot of earth;

Who sought the prize his heart described,
And did not ask release,
Whose free-born valor was not bribed
By prospect of a peace.

The men who stood on yonder height
That day are long since gone;
Not the same hand directs the fight
And monumental stone.

Ye were the Grecian cities then,
The Romes of modern birth,
Where the New England husbandmen
Have shown a Roman worth.

In vain I search a foreign land
To find our Bunker Hill,
And Lexington and Concord stand
By no Laconian rill.

Commentary

Thoreau held a negative view of his contemporaries, disdaining what he observed as mercenary materialism, unlike an earlier period when bravery and freedom were valued.

First Movement: "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din"

The speaker in Henry David Thoreau's "Ah 'tis in vain the peaceful din," muses on the spirit of the American Revolution. He contrasts the revolutionary fighters with what he observes as a lesser spirit in his contemporaries.

The speaker says, "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din / That wakes the ignoble town," and then he says the "braver spirits" who achieved the recognition from the patriotic citizens did not make their noise this way, in nothing but vanity.

Second Movement: "There is one field beside this stream"

The speaker asserts that his dream is more productive than those who allow the field and the stream to remain unused. Then the speaker asks his muse to allow him to understand the spirit of those brave men who fought for independence "Above the petty Province here, / And Britain far away."

By referring to Britain as far away, the speaker reveals that the struggling revolutionaries were defending their right to freedom. The speaker has referred to the town as both "ignoble" and "petty" showing his disdain for his contemporaries as he contrasts them with the revolutionaries of the preceding century.

Third Movement: "Some hero of the ancient mould"

Instead of remaining "petty," those heroes stood up to their enemies like the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome; they did not sell their power and their faith, and by their strength and heroic example, they "Honored this spot of earth." Those revolutionary heroes fought to attain their worthwhile goals. They did not attempt to shrink from their duty.

Those heroes struggled to attain victory, not allowing themselves to be compromised by bribery and deceit. They demanded much of themselves not selling out but struggling on for peace with honor and valor.

The speaker accuses his contemporaries of trying to find an easy way out of difficulty. They do not have the courage and foresight to rail against the civil evils of slavery and war with their neighbor, Mexico.

Fourth Movement: "The men who stood on yonder height"

Referring to the heroes he has been eulogizing, the speaker then says, "The men who stood on yonder height / That day are long since gone; / Not the same hand directs the fight / And monumental stone."

Those earlier heroes are gone, and those who fight today are not of the same spirit as they, even as these contemporaries negotiate to erect monuments to these heroes.

Then the speaker addresses those early American heroes, telling them they were strong and stalwart like the ancients—the ancient Greeks and Romans. The New England farmers showed this strength as they fought for American independence from Britain.

Fifth Movement: "In vain I search a foreign land"

Then the speaker says that it is useless to try to find such heroes now: "In vain I search a foreign land / To find our Bunker Hill, / And Lexington and Concord stand / By no Laconian rill." There is no gallant struggle now that can compare to the battle that took place at Bunker Hill.

And the two cities of Lexington and Concord cannot compare in bravery and forthrightness of a Spartan city.

The speaker of the poem disdains contemporary society and its citizens by comparing them unfavorably to those a century earlier in America and those ancient Greek and Roman warriors who demonstrated bravery and constancy as their struggle to achieve victory over their enemies.

Brief Introduction to Thoreauvian Thought

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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