Many things about a poet’s life can be observed in the poetry he writes.
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Over the years, their environment, lifestyle, and beliefs become reflected in their poetry. Henry David Thoreau was a factory worker, essay writer, and teacher before he was a poet. He was also a Transcendentalist and an active supporter of stopping slavery. Most of all, he had a passion for nature and the environment. It is his passion for nature and his Transcendentalist beliefs that can be seen most in his poetry.
Thoreau’s passion for nature helped him decide to become a poet. “A canoe trip that he and John took alongside the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839 confirmed in him the opinion that he ought to be not a schoolmaster but a poet of nature” (Clendenning, 1990). On this trip, Thoreau realized that “nature is a poem” (Myerson 22). His voluntary desire to live in a small self-built rough home in the wilderness, well away from all other people illustrates his dedication to the Transcendental idea that possessions and concentration upon material wealth were merely a distraction from the true process of living.
His vision of a successful life, having actually following through on the suggestions he received from his inner self, was to remove himself from society in order to connect himself more solidly with nature, the source of all goodness and truth with the final goal being to perhaps inspire others to follow in his footsteps. This was not necessarily in determining to move into remote cabins in the woods, but instead to follow their own inner guidance rather than the external prodding of the material culture. Although he wrote some poetry that appears to be addressing nature, most of his poetry is written with a philosophical or political tone that is placed within the scenes and symbolism of nature and shaped by the attitudes of Transcendentalism.
Shortly before he decided to become a poet of nature, Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson and Margaret Fuller pioneered the movement known as Transcendentalism. This philosophical and literary movement had a significant influence on Thoreau’s writing.
Transcendentalists attempt to redefine the world and the human experience in terms of spirituality and interconnectedness with the physical natural world. While the idea of transcendentalism has always remained very fluid as a natural by-product of its primary tenets, individual study of those who lived the life, the most famous of whom today is Henry Thoreau, can provide great insight as to what is meant by the word ‘transcendentalism’. Emerson took Thoreau under his wing and even published Thoreau’s first poems. The two men became close friends as Thoreau worked to understand the Transcendental beliefs. These are essentially a combination of “romanticism with reform. It celebrated the individual rather than man.
Transcendentalism conceded that there were two ways of knowing, through the senses and through intuition” (Clendenning, 1990). It is these types of Transcendental ideas that appear in his poetry and prose.
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Another one of the common characteristics of the movement is a general attempt to create a better world by refocusing on what it truly means to live.
The first poem I will examine for these ideas is “The Summer Rain.” In this poem, the lines are painted with images of nature, and upon first reading, one might take it to just be about a summer day. “And now the cordial clouds have shut all in, And gently swells the wind to say all’s well; / The scattered drops are falling fast and thin, / Some in the pool, some in the flower-bell” (Thoreau 25-28). This begins to reflect Transcendental values. The important part of Transcendentalism, though, is that nature can become symbolic for a number of other things. For this reason, one should understand there are numerous connections to be made within a single image. Looking closer, the poem has a political undertone, perhaps attempting to address the problems of slavery or the issues involved in the Mexican War.
Thoreau speaks of this poem in one of his more famous publications, Walden. According to the author’s statement in the book, the poem is actually about “a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black” (Bly, 90 6-8).
Within the poem, it can be determined that Thoreau spent an entire afternoon watching the ants fight. His text is an attempt to discover why the “red republicans” and the “black imperialists” would fight so intensely.
Thoreau’s Transcendental beliefs are reflected in the lines, “Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough / What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town / If juster battles are enacted now / Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?” (Thoreau 9-12). The poet remains passive in this epic battle while the two ant armies wage war. This is reflective of an incident in his life at the time the poem was written. At near this point in time, Thoreau had been arrested for refusing to pay a poll tax.
He did so to express his opposition to slavery as it became an issue in the Mexican War which had already been going on for the past several years. He believed in passive resistance and that people should refuse to obey any law they believed was unjust. Thus, the poem is a simple poem about a war between ants at the same time that it is an assessment of then-current political circumstances in the country as well as personal circumstances within Thoreau’s life.
Thoreau again demonstrates the depths of Transcendentalism in his poem “I Am the Autumnal Sun.” The poem opens by introducing the reader to nature’s ability to sometimes reach out and infuse a person with a sense of her presence in much the same way that God stirs within us. “not her Father but his Mother stirs / within him, and he becomes immortal with her” (2-3).
From introducing the concept in the first stanza, Thoreau fully loses himself in his identification with nature in the second stanza. This emphasizes another Transcendental value of intimate communication with the natural world. Yet the poem goes deeper as Thoreau again uses nature to express his disappointment and pessimism toward the political situation of his day. By identifying with the autumn sun, Thoreau is commenting on his exhaustion in attempting to change a world incapable of listening as “with autumn gales my race is run” (8). The idea that the world isn’t listening is brought forward in the way that Thoreau mentions the natural world is still awaiting its harvest. “When will the hazel put forth its flowers, / Or the grape ripen under my bowers?” (9-10). His personal bitterness in the public’s inability to understand the true values of life is expressed in the way he describes himself as “all sere and yellow” (13). In his identification with the autumn season, Thoreau delivers a powerful message of despair in the current state of things as, without having seen the expected harvest, he ends the poem with the suggestion that “winter is lurking within my moods, / And the rustling of the withered leaf / Is the constant music of my grief” (16-18). Thus, Thoreau demonstrates here, too, the ideals of Transcendental ideals through his employment of nature as the means of sending a message regarding the political and personal situation in which he finds himself.
Through his poetry and other writings, Thoreau brings forward his perspective on the concept of true success in life not in terms of material wealth, but instead in terms of a life fully lived in keeping with the Transcendental beliefs. The important elements of this belief system esteemed nature and depth of knowledge while it rejected commonly held beliefs regarding what is the meaning of success.
To Thoreau, it was important to examine the depths of the soul to discover one’s true inner nature. Once this was found, one could begin to live a life more in keeping with the real self. However, this did not mean completely divorcing oneself from the world. Once the self was discovered, it was necessary for the individual to speak out in the public realm to try to bring the world closer keeping with the insights nature has brought. These ideas can be traced through his poetry and other writings.
In “The Summer Rain”, for example, Thoreau examines the natural process of war through the activities of two groups of ants struggling over territory. Without making the connection explicit, Thoreau makes deep comments on the political situation of his time, namely the questions of slavery and the Mexican War. At the same time, he comments on relatively public aspects of his personal life. He does much the same thing in “I Am the Autumn Sun.” Again employing the symbolism of nature, Thoreau discusses the empty pursuits of the material culture, which bears no fruit. At the same time, he expresses his disappointment that his efforts so far have not been heard or heeded. By examining the various elements of Thoreau’s life and works, one can begin to understand the basic tenets of the Transcendentalists and the depth of experience that characterized the movement.
Bly, Robert. The Winged Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986: 1-151.
Clendenning, John. “Thoreau, Henry David.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1990.
Myerson, Joel. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995: 1-224.
Smith, Bradford. Men of Peace. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1964: 1-359.
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Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001: 1-703.
The Walden Woods Project. “Thoreau’s Life and Writings.” The Thoreau Institute. 2009. Web.