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Henry David Thoreau's "My Prayer"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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


My Prayer

Great God, I ask thee 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.

Reading of "My Prayer" (last three words cut off: "overrated thy designs")


The transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau asserted that his poetic talent rendered him, "sometimes a Poetaster." The accuracy of this evaluation stands evident in his Italian sonnet simply titled, "My Prayer."

Thoreau also offers the following reason for lacking poetic ability: "My life has been the poem I would have writ, / But I could not both live and utter it." Fortunately, readers have been treated to Thoreau's true talent: his experiment in examining his life.

That he examined his life and tried to find a suitable path is a gift to subsequent generations and a reminder of the Socratic injunction that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Though it was a short life, Thoreau's was arguably one well worth living.

The Philosopher

Thoreau's poem simply titled "My Prayer" undoubtedly says exactly what the philosopher wanted to say. The philosophy of the poem may seem somewhat dissident but upon reflection, the reader can make great sense of it, despite its lack of poetic polish.

The poem's form is similar to an Italian sonnet with the octave split into two quatrains. Each quatrain consists of two couplets. The sestet's first two lines are also a couplet. The overall rime scheme is AABBCCDD EEFGFG. It might be called an innovative Italian sonnet.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Octave: "Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf"

The speaker in "My Prayer" is asking "Great God" to let him "not disappoint [him]self" but he also asks that he "greatly disappoint [his] friends." He then asks that his behavior rise to a level that he can find acceptable: "in my action I may soar as high / As I can now discern with this clear eye."

The speaker is being utterly practical; he wants to be no better and no worse than he is capable of. This makes him sound quite pragmatic without even a hint of romantic nonsense.

The first quatrain focuses on his plea for himself, while the second quatrain focuses on his plea for his friends; this plea is "next in value."

By God's "kindness," he hopes not only to disappoint his friends, but he also wants them to be unable to have a clue about his own qualities. The reader might deem this to be truly selfish desire, but the speaker assumes that whatever his "friends" may know about him is bound to be inaccurate.

Sestet: "That my weak hand may equal my firm faith"

In the sestet, the speaker implores "Great God" to strengthen him physically by making "[his] weak hand" to "equal [his] firm faith." The speaker here avers that he is a spiritually strong person, and his next line also supports this assertion: "my life practice what my tongue saith."

The speaker does not want to be guilty of the hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Humbly, the speaker asks that he may not seem to display a lack of moral understanding of "[God's] purpose," while at the same time he does not want to seem to be flattering God or "overrat[ing] [God's] designs."

A Philosopher's Integrity

The poem, "My Prayer," employs mostly literal language. The speaker of this piece engages no metaphor and no imagery. The line, "in my action I may soar as high," hints at the metaphorical engagement of a bird's action. This lack of clarity and purpose support Thoreau's notion that he was, in fact, a poetaster, and not a true poet.

The poem does offer two examples of the device known as synecdoche: "my weak hand" stands in reference to the whole body. "My relenting lines" refer to the whole poem. Such paltry pickings again testify to the philosopher's integrity in labeling himself correctly; his ability to declaim his philosophical stance far exceeded his skills at rendering his feelings poetically.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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