Henry David Thoreau Poems
Contemplating a Transcendentalist Poet
Henry David Thoreau is a well-remembered and well-loved literary figure, even now, 150 years after his death. It's primarily his prose that is studied, but he is also credited with about 300 poems. In poetry, he extolled nature, noted the spirituality inherent in common things, and contemplated the fine, and not so fine, points of human nature -- even his own feelings of hate are up for examination.
Here and there in Thoreau's poetry we find traces of the people he loved. Sometimes the references are obvious ("To my Brother"), but others ("Sympathy") may leave us searching. This is a man whom love eluded; he proposed once but never married.
Here is a sampling of Thoreau's poetry in audio and text. I have included discussion and interpretation of several poems as well as resources that can be used for further analysis.
The audio pieces are my recordings. They are not necessarily a representative sample of Thoreau's poetry. I selected pieces that I thought had a more musical quality: ones that rolled off the tongue. I am not alone in finding a lyric quality to "Rumors from an Aeolian Harp" -- it's been made into a song.
Text and Analysis: What's the Railroad to Me?
Thoughts to ponder while reading this poem: Are the structures around us really grand in and of themselves -- or do we make them so by the meanings we attach to them? Are some of those meanings more valuable than others? If so, who dictates?
In "What's the Railroad to Me?", Thoreau casts some doubt on the conventionally perceived value of the railroad (the railroad being, at the time, rather a grand invention in the eyes of most). But Thoreau doesn't use those esteemed tracks to travel -- at least not habitually! No, and so he describes the railroad in terms of something that holds more personal meaning: the natural world. Thoreau, an early environmentalist, had some criticism of the railroad, but it doesn't come out in a direct manner in this poem; here he notes that the railroad-created banks and blowing sand may actually be of some use to the swallow and the blackberry plant.
The Wondering Minstrels describes the poem as a "genuine exploration".
Exercise: Compare Thoreau's attitude toward the railroad with the squirrel's attitude toward the mountain that's expressed in Emerson's "The Fable".
What's the Railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows
It sets the sand a-blowing
And the blackberries a-growing.
Contemplating 'The Inward Morning'
"The Inward Morning" brims with hope and wonder. Thoreau marvels how it is we can know, within our beings, that some better time is coming when outwardly things seem no different than they were a moment earlier. When he speaks of looking in vain for "change abroad", he means that he's looking for some noticeable outward change, but there's none to be found. And yet somehow the change is felt.
Thoreau attributes similar feelings to the woods inhabitants. Somehow, he asserts, the "patient pine" and the flowers can also sense there in the dark night that a day is coming.
Normally I would call these assertions examples of personification, but in the case of Thoreau, I wonder: When is the attribution of consciousness a literary device -- and when is it an expression of spirituality? And is it more appropriate to say that the trees have been given human traits -- or divine ones?
The image here is not one I created (more on the artist below!), but it captures my vision of "The Inward Morning". I like how it's most black and white, but there's color creeping in in places. (What's your vision of these poems? Your students'?)
Note: I will be posting an audio of "Inward Morning" soon. I did a few takes, but wasn't ready to upload this one.
Read The Inward Morning
- The Inward Morning
From American Transcendentalism Web.
About the Images on this Page
With one exception (a lone Puget Sound photo) the photography here is from bluebirdsandteapots and is shared under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. The woods you see pictured is indeed the Walden Pond area woods.
Audio and Discussion: To My Brother
"To my Brother" is written for the brother that Thoreau lost as a young man. His beloved older brother died of lockjaw, the result of a minor shaving accident. His death was in January, but Thoreau expresses the hope that he arrived in a better place and in a better season. The poem was written in his journal and included in his familial letters
Biographer Henry Salt writes that it was obviously very difficult for Thoreau to recount the events, even a dozen years later, but that Thoreau wrote that only nature had the right to perpetual grief.
In this tribute, Thoreau personifies nature, suggesting that the birds would be glad to bear a message from him.
The reader can find a mixture of hope and despondency and some vacillation. At the very end, Thoreau admits that possibly the absence of some birds does not indicate that they are off grieving. Possibly there has been some forgetting.
To my Brother
Brother, where dost thou dwell?
What sun shines for thee now?
Dost thou indeed fare well
As we wished thee here below
What season didst thou find?
'T was winter here.
Are not the Fates more kind
Than they appear?
Is thy brow clear again
As in thy youthful years?
And was that ugly pain
The summit of thy fears?
Yet thou wast cheery still
They could not quench your fire;
Thou didst abide their will
And then retire.
Where chiefly shall I look
To feel thy presence near?
Along the neighboring brook
May I thy voice still hear?
Does thou still haunt the brink/ Of yonder river's tide/ And may I ever think/ That thou art by my side?
What bird will thou employ/ To bring me word of thee/ For it would give them joy/ 'T would give them liberty/To serve their former lord/ With wing and minstrelsy.
A sadder strain mixed with their song/ They've slowlier built their nests/Since thou art gone/ Their lively labor rests.
Where is the finch, the thrush/ I used to hear/ Ah, they could well abide/ The dying year.
Now they know more return/ I hear them not/ They have remained to mourn/ Or else forgot
Audio and Discussion: Pray to What Earth
"Pray to What Earth" takes an up close look at the natural world during winter. We see hints of summer in the winter world (at least if we imagine summer as the softest, gentlest season).
The picture here is of Ravenna Woods, in Seattle. I sifted through my snow pictures and my eye was drawn to this picture, and to something hitherto unknown or unremembered: a solitary figure on the footpath. He may appear the same color as the trees -- but he isn't one.
Read Pray to What Earth
- Pray to What Earth
Virginia Commonwealth University.
Audio: Rumors from an Aeolian Harp
"Rumors from an Aeolian Harp" captures a wistful poet yearning for a better place. The instrument referenced in the title is a unique one. Who is it who plays the aeolian harp? The wind! In this poem, the wind carries more than notes; it also carries rumors of a land that sounds a lot like Heaven.
Rumors from an Aeolian Harp: Musical Version
How fitting that Rumors from an Aeolian harp should be set to music! The artist describes the style as folk/ acoustic. Something about it reminds me of Celtic tunes. The piece makes use of guitar, violin, and flute -- but no harp. Ah, well, human hands don't play the aeolian harp, anyway!
The use of flute perhaps gives the piece added meaning. Thoreau himself played the flute.
Read Rumors from an Aeolian Harp
Words for Ellen Sewall
This piece is not technically poetry -- it's from a journal entry in 1840, but it's surely poetic. (Some artists are at their most poetic when writing prose.)
These words are believed to be related to Thoreau's proposal to Ellen Sewall:
I thought that the sun of our love should have risen as noiselessly as the sun out of the sea, and we sailors have found ourselves steering between the tropics as if the broad day had lasted forever. You know how the sun comes up from the sea when you stand on the cliff, and doesn't startle you, but every thing, and you too are helping it
Alas, Ellen turned poor Henry down! Something to ponder: If things had gone differently -- if that broad day had indeed lasted forever -- how would it have altered the poet? The man?
Reflecting on Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell
Indeed, indeed, I cannot tell,
Though I ponder on it well,
Which were easier to state
All my love or all my hate...
I confess: I was a bit disappointed when I first read this poem. I mean... transcendentalist hate poetry?
I've pondered the poem over time. One of my early guesses about it was wrong. It was written long before the rift between Emerson and Thoreau formed -- indeed, it was written at a point where they were quite close. The friend that Thoreau here refers to, the one who is hated but sometimes still loved, is not Emerson.
However, I still wonder if their friendship might offer a clue about this poem... and this poem a clue about their friendship. Thoreau was capable of idolizing other persons; some describe his feelings as hero worship. He was also capable of harboring wounded, dark feelings. With some part of himself, at least. A song from 150 years later plays in my head: "But then most of all..."
Who was the poem actually written for? I don't know that there is a definite answer (even when we ponder it well). Some have suggested Ellen Sewall. The would-be wife who spurned him? Now that would be human nature. Not divine, not transcendental, merely human.
Somewhere the disappointment went out of me.
- Indeed, Indeed, I Cannot Tell
Text of the poem.
Thoreau on Love - Love Poems
Literary Criticism of Thoreau's Poems
Here are several perspectives on Thoreau's poetry, some from his contemporaries... and some from contemporary times.
- John Burroughs - 1882
This work was written in 1882 just 20 years after Thoreau's death. John Burroughs expressed that a major characteristic of Thoreau's work was hyperbole.
- Modern Criticism
Now here are thoughts on Thoreau from eNotes. The claim: Thoreau was far more accomplished as a prose writer than as a poet.
- Bronson Alcott's Tribute -- 1862
This was written around the time Thoreau died, and is more tribute than criticism, but Alcott does give him accolades as a poet as a poet as well as a philosopher and man.
- Charles Ives' Discussion
Charles Ives mentions Thoreau's poetry, but primarily discusses the poetic -- indeed musical -- quality of his prose. "Low-Anchored Cloud" is discussed in some detail.
- Thoughts from Virginia Commonwealth University
Two modern critics compare Thoreau and Emerson.
Student Discusses Personal Connections to Thoreau's 'Nature'
We bring our own connections to our interpretation of poetry. Here a university student, a runner, goes out into nature to read the poem and discuss its personal meaning.
Putting Poetry in Context - Thoreau's Life
Read More of Thoreau's Poetry
These are poetry collections you can read online without advertisements interfering.
- The Writings of Henry David Thoreau
Includes all the poems from Poems and Excursions as well as four poems from The Dial.
- A Collection of 21 Poems
From American Transcendentalism web.
- Alphabetical List of Thoreau's Poetry
Wikipedia has over 200 Thoreau poems, listed alphabetically by title or first line.
Poetry Out Loud: Thoreau
High school students who are participating in the Poetry Out Loud competition must select poems from the anthology.
- Henry David Thoreau Selections
The anthology includes two selections by Thoreau.