Henry David Thoreau's "My Prayer"
Henry David Thoreau
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.
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.")
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
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.
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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."
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© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes