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Life Sketch of Henry David Thoreau, with "My Prayer" and "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din"

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Henry David Thoreau - Ninth-plate daguerreotype

Henry David Thoreau - Ninth-plate daguerreotype

More Philosopher Than Poet

Because Henry David Thoreau wrote fewer poems than essays, he likely considered himself a much less a poet than a philosopher, even labeling himself a poetaster.

Henry David Thoreau's self-effacing claim that he was "sometimes a Poetaster" likely reveals something about the poet's reputation: he was a philosopher, not 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 afford 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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Influence

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.

Thoreau Builds His Cabin in the Woods

It was on a parcel of Ralph Waldo Emerson's land that Thoreau built his famous cabin in 1845, at Walden Pond. Because Thoreau had gained much experience in carpentry, building his very simple, one-room cabin was no daunting task for the philosopher.

After acquiring the plot of land on which to build, he had to gather the materials needed for his cabin. Keeping life as inexpensive and uncomplicated as possible, he determined to buy very little. Thus, he accumulated many used materials; for example, he purchased a tiny shanty that had been the home to the family of a railroad worker.

He took the shanty apart and used the wooden planks to construct the walls of his own building. Additional wood that he needed, he acquired by cutting down pines, using an axe that he borrowed. Roof shingles, bricks for the chimney, and windows all came from second hand sources for which he paid very little.

In his most famous publication, Walden, Thoreau lists all of the materials used for the cabin along with the price of each item. He claims he is offering this list, "because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them":

Boards............. $ 8.03½, mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof sides,.. 4.00
Laths,..........1.25
Two second-hand windows with glass,.......2.43
One thousand old brick,..... 4.00
Two casks of lime,........... 2.40 That was high.
Hair,................... 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron,................ 0.15
Nails,........................... 3.90
Hinges and screws,............... 0.14
Latch,........................... 0.10
Chalk,........................... 0.01
Transportation,..1.40 I carried a good part on my back

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In all,..................... $28.12½

After his list, he adds, "These are all the material excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right." No doubt the low expense over-head pleased him very much. And today, a site called Walden Labs: Solutions for Self-Reliance will help one build such a cabin for "under $1,000":

Thoreau built his cabin from recycled and hand cut materials for $28.12 in 1845. Adjusted for inflation that’s equivalent to $878.75 in 2014. Here’s how you can build your own 10×16 Thoreau cabin replica for off-grid use, for under $1,000.

Thoreau spent 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. After all, it was there in that cabin that he wrote his most important works, Walden or Life in the Woods and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

A Night in Jail

Thoreau sounds like a 1960s radical in his civil disobedience. He railed against the institution of slavery and the war with Mexico. 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, in Walden, Thoreau quipped: "I have traveled a good deal in Concord."

Sources

Thoreau's Cabin at Walden

Thoreau's Cabin at Walden

Introduction and Text of "My Prayer"

Henry David Thoreau 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 Thoreau examined his life and tried to find a suitable path is a gift to subsequent generations and a reminder of the Socratic injunction, "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 spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

"My Prayer": An Adaptation

Commentary on "My Prayer"

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."

Octave: The Speaker Asks God

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: The Speaker Implores God

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."

Evidence of the Poetaster

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.

Commemorative Stamp - U.S.A.

Commemorative Stamp - U.S.A.

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

Henry David Thoreau held a negative view of his contemporaries, disdaining what he observed as mercenary materialism; he opined that in an earlier period, bravery and freedom were more valued.

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

Henry David Thoreau’s publication, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which is in diary form, features this poem in his entry for "Saturday." The poem is placed after a quotation of the first two stanzas from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "Concord Hymn."

Thoreau does not include Emerson’s name, merely, "As a Concord poet has sung," preceding Emerson’s stanzas. Immediately preceding his own poem, Thoreaus writes, "Our reflections had already acquired a historical remoteness from the scenes we had left, and we ourselves essayed to sing."

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.

Commentary on “Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din”

The speaker is unable to find heroes and heroic deeds among his contemporaries.

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 begins by reporting his musings 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 states his belief that as the citizens awaken each morning and experience the peaceful noise of business of the town, they go about in a vain dream. He opines that in earlier times, such vanity had not existed and in its place there had been a true patriotism.

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 from England in the area near his location.

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 small minded, 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 gave honor to their "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 reports that 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. He has searched in vain and remains unable to locate any hero who would compare favorably with those who fought that early American battle. Thus, there is no gallant struggle now that can compare to the battle that took place at Bunker Hill.

The two cities of Lexington and Concord cannot compare in bravery and forthrightness to the ancient Spartan city. The speaker of the poem disdains contemporary society and its citizens, and so he contrasts their reticent behavior to those brave citizens a century earlier in America.

At the same time, he refers to the ancients—the Greek and Roman warriors—who demonstrated bravery and constancy as they struggled to achieve victory over their enemies.

The speaker is aware that every age has its enemies. He looks back in history seeing that brave citizens had struggled against their enemies and won because of their determination, iron will, and bravery. He appears to be somewhat appalled that his contemporaries seem to lack that same will to fight against their enemies.

Henry David Thoreau Documentary

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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