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

Updated on May 19, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Henry David Thoreau

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

Introduction and Text of "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din"

The speaker of the poem disdains his contemporary society and its citizens. He is decrying what he considers to be grass materialism, without regard to lasting and time-honored values. Among such rabble, he finds no heroes.

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.

Untitled Poems

When a poem is untitled, its first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

Commentary

Henry David 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: The Spirit of the American Revolution

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

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: Dreaming a Productive Dream

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;

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: Standing Up to Enemies

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.

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: No Heros

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.

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: Unfavorable Comparison

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

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.

Commemorative Stamp - U.S.A.

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Life Sketch of Henry David Thoreau

Because Thoreau wrote fewer poems than essays, he likely considered himself a much less a poet than a philosopher.

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 there 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 a 1960s radical in his civil disobedience. He railed against the war with Mexico and slavery. In July 1846, he refused to pay his poll tax, an act which placed him behind bars. But the budding rebel then 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. He lived by his command to simplify life that he expounded in Walden:

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

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."

Brief Introduction to Thoreauvian Thought

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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