Poetry Wednesday: Henry David Thoreau

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

Henry David Thoreau.  Author.  Abolitionist.  Transcendentalist.  Civil Disobeyer.  Tree Hugger.


I first made acquaintance with Mr. Thoreau around seventh grade, through a short passage from Walden that appeared in my English textbook.*  I spent even more time with him in high school, where my fellow civics classmates and I were informed in no uncertain terms that refusing to complete our papers on Civil Disobedience would in no way enhance our grades, no matter our obvious grasp of the concept.

It wasn’t until college that I discovered he also wrote poetry.

My favorite  isn’t polished verse, exactly—the rhymes are a bit forced and the meter is a tad iffy, but there’s a certain amused joy, a certain impatient serenity,** that makes me think I would have liked this man.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Conscience is instinct bred in the house,
Feeling and Thinking propagate the sin
By an unnatural breeding in and in.
I say, Turn it out doors,
Into the moors.
I love a life whose plot is simple,
And does not thicken with every pimple,
A soul so sound no sickly conscience binds it,
That makes the universe no worse than ‘t finds it.
I love an earnest soul,
Whose mighty joy and sorrow
Are not drowned in a bowl,
And brought to life to-morrow;
That lives one tragedy,
And not seventy;
A conscience worth keeping;
Laughing not weeping;
A conscience wise and steady,
And forever ready;
Not changing with events,
Dealing in compliments;
A conscience exercised about
Large things, where one may doubt.
I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestinated to be good,
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none;
Born to its own affairs,
Its own joys and own cares;
By whom the work which God begun
Is finished, and not undone;
Taken up where he left off,
Whether to worship or to scoff;
If not good, why then evil,
If not good god, good devil.
Goodness! you hypocrite, come out of that,
Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.
I have no patience towards
Such conscientious cowards.
Give me simple laboring folk,
Who love their work,
Whose virtue is song
To cheer God along.

To be honest,my next favorite—which seems to flow a little better—makes me know I would have liked him:

Indeed, indeed, I cannot tell
(Henry David Thoreau)

Indeed, indeed, I cannot tell,
Though I ponder on it well,
Which were easier to state,
All my love or all my hate.
Surely, surely, thou wilt trust me
When I say thou dost disgust me.
O, I hate thee with a hate
That would fain annihilate;
Yet sometimes against my will,
My dear friend, I love thee still.
It were treason to our love,
And a sin to God above,
One iota to abate
Of a pure impartial hate.

*I don’t recall the specifics—it was either about simplicity or nature, which doesn’t exactly narrow it down—but I suspect it’s the same one that appears in all intermediate school English textbooks.

**It may be an oxymoron, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.


8 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Henry David Thoreau

  1. I went on my own Thoreau bend as a young impressionable student. Isn’t it funny that I never once thought about what he looked like? Seeing him now, I can’t help but think he had one of the faces that, although serious, look like they know the punchline to a joke no one else has yet heard.

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