Thoreau’s Poetic Shift to Nature Poetry
Since time in memorial poetry has been taunted to be the most elite of all literary art forms; this is so because poetry requires a certain level of intelligence to appreciate. Through the years poetry has taken on its own life, even …
Thoreau’s Poetic Shift to Nature Poetry
Since time in memorial poetry has been taunted to be the most elite of all literary art forms; this is so because poetry requires a certain level of intelligence to appreciate. Through the years poetry has taken on its own life, even existing way past the lifetimes of the poets. Many things about a poet’s life could be gleaned from the poetry that he/she writes. Save for the conventions in writing poetry, one has to pay attention to what the poet is writing to actually peer into the soul of the poet. More than the technicalities involved, what is more important is the subject matter chosen by the poet. Many academics assert the need for the presence of a significant human experience (SHE) in all forms of poetry, and if this is given heed, the notion that poems are reflections of the experiences of the poet and the experiences that surround the poet is given more logic. Thoreau (1817) exhibits this kind of poetic feature, despite suppositions that his poetry was not as good as his prose which is reflected in his various discourses and essays about nature. Arguably so, Thoreau (1817) did not only exhibit this feature in his poetry, he also gave new life to the phrase ‘poetic shift’ which refers to the changes in the subject matter of a poet as influenced by events around him/her.
The elitism and the intelligence attached to poetry made it a preferred medium of expression for many Transcendentalists who believed in the concept that there is something more than just the material and the empirical. This philosophical and literary movement pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller had a profound influence on Thoreau’s work, more so that he was a transcendentalist himself as well as a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Myerson, 1995) To begin the argument that Thoreau went through a palpable shift in his poetry subject matter, let us first consider the poem ‘Sympathy’ (Thoreau, 1817), which is his very first poem written sometime before 1839, when he went on a nature trip to Concord and Merrimack River with his brother John; which is assumedly also the time when the changes in his poetry became evident.
In “Sympathy” (Thoreau, 1817) the poet talks about a close childhood acquaintance whom he loses later on in life. On first reading of the poem, it takes on a very light tone with various details that talk about childhood and innocence. In the first two lines, “Whose features all were cast in Virtue’s mould,/As one she had designed for Beauty’s toy” (Thoreau, 1817) the poet refers to how pure and unadulterated his acquaintance was in terms of his ideals and his outlook; in the same stanza of the poem, the poet very quickly refers to how the boy had already grown up, “But after manned him” (Thoreau, 1817), giving the reader the impression that the ‘growing up’ part is not really the main subject of the poem. Moving on, the poem reveals its main theme, the poet’s unexpected acquaintance with the boy and the eventual strengthening of this acquaintance, “So was I taken unawares by this,/I quite forgot my homage to confess… Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,/A stern respect withheld us farther yet” (Thoreau, 1817), and later, how the poet lost this acquaintance to death, “In sad remembrance that we once did meet,/And know that bliss irrevocably gone… The spheres henceforth my elegy shall sing,/
For elegy has other subject none” (Thoreau, 1817) The poem itself is just a simple chronicling of an acquaintance and the loss of that acquaintance, but if the details are carefully considered, there are salient references to the transcendental beliefs of the poet, as in the line, “In other sense this youth was glorious,/Himself a kingdom wheresoe’er he came” (Thoreau, 1817) which clearly illustrates the value of the intangible in the person, rather than the person himself. Although there are images in the poem that detail nature, like “He forayed like the subtle breeze of summer,/That stilly shows fresh landscapes to the eyes” (Thoreau, 1817) and “Make haste and celebrate my tragedy;/With fitting strain resound ye woods and fields” (Thoreau, 1817), these are not the main subject matters of the poem, rather, they are simply used to present images in consonance with the significant human experience of acquaintance and loss. For instance, the line about summer is more of an allusion to the existence of opportunity than to the season itself, and the lines about the woods and fields are more about the emptiness of response.
So, it is clear in this poem that nature is not the subject. This particular direct approach to abstractions without the use of nature as a device is also evident in his poem ‘Friendship’ written in 1838. With line like, “I fain would ask my friend how it can be,/But when the time arrives,/Then Love is more lovely/Than anything to me,/And so I’m dumb.” (Thoreau, 1817) and “And each may other help,/and service do,/Drawing Love’s bands more tight,/Service he ne’er shall rue/While one and one make two,/And two are one” (Toreau, 1817) directly attacks the subject of friendship instead of using images of nature to make his work more tasteful. Not that the poems are tasteless and bland, but they would at least sound more colorful and would be more vivid had the poet used more tangible and concrete images like the ones you see in nature to enrich the pieces. As always, the objective in poetry is to make tangible the abstract, and the use of concrete images would have made his poems clearer in the mind of the reader.
Right after Thoreau’s trip with his brother to the Concord and the Merrimack River, accurately about three year’s after, in 1842, four poems of Thoreau appeared in “The Dial” (Gunnar, 2008) a literary magazine of that period. These three poems are ‘Inward Morning’, ‘Rumors from an Aeolian Harp’, ‘Free Love’, and ‘The Poet’s Delay’ (Thoreau, 1817). In all of these four poems, the apparent shift in the poet’s devices becomes very evident. Here in these four poems, instead of merely alluding to nature as a detail in his work, nature becomes the main device to imagize the various subjects. Consider for instance his description of love, in the poem, ‘Free love’, “My love must be as free/As is the eagle’s wing,/Hovering o’er land and sea/And every thing.” (Thoreau, 1817); here, nature is used as a simile that describes the quality of love that the poet yearns to have.
In ‘Inward Morning’, he has the lines “Lo, when the sun streams through the wood/Upon a winter’s morn,/Where’er his silent beams intrude/The murky night is gone.” (Thoreau, 1817), in ‘The Poet’s Delay’, we find the lines, “Amidst such boundless wealth without,/I only still am poor within,/The birds have sung their summer out,/But still my spring does not begin.” (Thoreau, 1817), and in ‘Rumors from an Aeolian Harp’, we find these lines, “And ever, if you hearken well,/You still may hear its vesper bell,/And tread of high-souled men go by,/Their thoughts conversing with the sky.” (Thoreau, 1817) In these three poems, there is no need to delve into the deeper meanings of the lines to see that the devices used are all images of nature; the eagle, the sun, winter, summer, the birds, and sky, are all nature’s images.
Distinctly, however, except for the difference in the approach that was used in tackling the subject matter, the poet still retains the transcendental concepts in these poems. Such is evident, for instance, in his reference to certain ideas that are clearly transcendentalist concepts – in ‘Free Love’, we see the negative reference to capriciousness in the 5th stanza, in ‘Inward Morning’, there is a reference to the value of internal peace in the lines, “Till some new ray of peace uncalled/Illumes my inmost mind” (Thoreau, 1817), in ‘The Poet’s Delay’ the poet reiterates the need for intangible wealth with the lines, “Amidst such boundless wealth without,I only still am poor within,” (Thoreau, 1817), and in ‘Rumors from and Aeolian Harp’, Thoreau (1817) distinctly outlines the value of virtue with the lines, “There love is warm, and youth is young,/And simple truth on every tongue,/for Virtue still adventures there,/And freely breathes her native air.” (Thoreau, 1817) Hence, we could not accurately say that although Thoreau (1817) wanted to fill his work with the ideals of transcendentalism, there was a shift in how he did this from the late 1830s to the early 1940s.
This particular quality of Thoreau’s (1817) poetry becomes even more pronounced in the piece titled “The Summer Rain”. Here notice how rich the lines have become as these are replete with images of nature, for instance, “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, 1817); also, consider how the poet employed visual imagery more than his past works, as in the lines, “And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower– I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue”. (Thoreau, 1817) Upon Thoreau’s (1817) adaptation of nature in his work, his poems became more vivid and more visual, hence, creating a more concrete platform for his poetry. While it can be surmised that it was his boating trip with his brother in Merrimack (CFP, 2006) that must have initiated this change in his poetry, the issue of poetic foresight should be considered. At some point in any poet’s life there is a period of epiphany, like a poem that also has that same particular moment.
It is at this point that the poet realizes something in relation to his/her art – or in poetry, it is the point in the poem where the reader finally understands or comprehends what the poem is all about. Some academics call this the ‘haiku moment’ or the ‘aaaaah moment’ and as a point of discussion, this particular moment probably happened to Thoreau (1817) during the trip with his brother. There are two assumptions that can be made of this trip; one, that it made Thoreau (1817) realize that nature was poetry materialized and that using nature in his writings would enrich his work; and two, that this particular trip strengthened his ties with his brother against the setting of nature, and it is this strengthening of their bonds that actually made him appreciate nature more. Whatever the reason for this epiphany, only one thing can be said of presence of nature as a detail in Thoreau’s poetry – that it only served to make his poetry better. Again, note that merely using nature in poetry will not improve the quality of the piece, rather it is the unity of organization and the appropriateness of the images in Thoreau’s (1817) poetry that give his work an added sterling feature.
Years after John Thoreau’s death in 1843, Henry David Thoreau (1817) continued to write nature poetry, perhaps as a means of recalling and immortalizing his brother’s memory and their closeness which was validated during their trip to Concord and Merrimack River. Thoreau (1817) affined himself to nature more after his brother’s death and made this feature of the earth a staple in his poetry. He went to climb mountains like Mt. Saddleback in 1844, and lives a solitary life in a house near a pond in Walden in 1845. He became so enamored with nature that in 1847, he works with the naturalist Louis Agassiz in collecting specimens during long walks. In conjunction, he continued to write every morning, and read Coleridge widely. His topic of interest was using natural history to discover many things about the universe. He even has a mini museum of specimens himself in his own bedroom. (CFP, 2006). Thoreau (1817) cherished the memory of his brother, and as a validation of the relationship of nature to his brother, he drafted “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (Thoreau, 1817) in 1846. This, he wrote in memory of that trip he took with his brother that eventually became the balm that opened his eyes to the beauty of nature and the effectiveness of this detail in the art of poetry.
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