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The fifty poems here brought together under the title ‘Poems of Nature’ are perhaps two-thirds of those which Thoreau preserved. Many of them were printed by him, in whole or in part, among his early contributions to Emerson’s Dial, or in his own two volumes, The Week and Walden, which were all that were issued in his lifetime. Others were given to Mr. Sanborn for publication, by Sophia Thoreau, the year after her brother’s death (several appeared in the Boston Commonwealth in 1863); or have been furnished from time to time by Mr. Blake, his literary executor.
Most of Thoreau’s poems were composed early in his life, before his twenty-sixth year, ‘Just now’ he wrote in the autumn of 1841, ‘I am in the mid-sea of verses, and they actually rustle round me, as the leaves would round the head of Autumnus himself, should he thrust it up through some vales which I know; but, alas! many of them are but crisped and yellow leaves like his, I fear, and will deserve no better fate than to make mould for new harvests.’ After 1843 he seems to have written but few poems, and had destroyed perhaps as many as he had retained, because they did not meet the exacting requirements of his friend Emerson, upon whose opinion at that time he placed great reliance. This loss was regretted by Thoreau in after years, when the poetical habit had left him, for he fancied that some of the verses were better than his friend had supposed. But Emerson, who seldom changed his mind, adhered to his verdict, and while praising some of the poems highly, perhaps extravagantly, would admit but a small number of them to the slight selection which he appended to the posthumous edition of Thoreau’s Letters, edited by him in 1865; and even these were printed, in some instances, in an abbreviated and imperfect form. A few other poems, with some translations from the Greek, have lately been included by Thoreau’s Boston publishers in their volume of Miscellanies (vol. x. of the Riverside Edition, 1894). But no collection so full as the present one has ever been offered to the public.
It has not been attempted to make this a complete collection of Thoreau’s poems, because, as has been well said, ‘many of them seem to be merely pendants to his prose discourse, dropped in as forcible epigrams where they are brief, and in other instances made ancillary to the idea just expressed, or to perpetuate a distinct conception that has some vital connection with the point from which it was poured forth. It is, therefore, almost an injustice to treat them separately at all.’ After the discontinuance ofThe Dial, Thoreau ceased to publish his verses as separate poems, but interpolated them, in the manner described, in his prose essays, where they form a sort of accompaniment to the thought, and from which it is in many cases impossible to detach them. That he himself set some value on them in this connection may be gathered from a sentence in the last of his published letters, in which he writes to a correspondent: ‘I am pleased when you say that in The Week you like especially those little snatches of poetry interspersed through the book, for these I suppose are the least attractive to most readers.’
Everything that concerns a great writer has its special interest; and Thoreau’s poetry, whatever its intrinsic value may be, is full of personal significance; in fact, as Emerson remarked, ‘his biography is in his verses.’ Thus, many of these poems will be found to throw light on certain passages of his life. ‘Inspiration,’ for example, is the record of his soul’s awakening to the new impulse of transcendentalism; the stanzas on ‘Sympathy’ perhaps contain in a thinly disguised form the story of his youthful love, and the sacrifice which he imposed on himself to avoid rivalry with his brother; the lines ‘To my Brother’ refer to the sudden and tragic death of John Thoreau in 1842; and ‘The Departure’ is believed to be the poem in which Henry Thoreau, when leaving in 1843 the home of Emerson, where he had lived for two years, took farewell of his friends. The numerous other allusions to the life and scenery of Concord, with which Thoreau’s own life was so closely blended, require no comment or explanation.
Thoreau’s view of the poetic character, as stated by him in The Week, is illustrative of his own position. ‘A true poem,’ he says, ‘is distinguished not so much by a felicitous expression, or any thought it suggests, as by the atmosphere which surrounds it. There are two classes of men called poets. The one cultivates life, the other art: one seeks food for nutriment, the other for flavor; one satisfies hunger, the other gratifies the palate.’ There can be no doubt to which of these classes Thoreau himself belongs. If metrical skill be insisted on as an indispensable condition of poetry, he can hardly be ranked among the poets; nor, where this criterion was dominant, was it surprising that, as one of his contemporaries tells us, with reference to his verses in The Dial, ‘an unquenchable laughter, like that of the gods at Vulcan’s limping, went up over his ragged and halting lines.’ But in the appreciation of poetry there is a good deal more to be considered than this; and, as the same writer has remarked, there is ‘a frank and unpretending nobleness’ in many of Thoreau’s verses, distinguished as they are, at their best, by their ripe fulness of thought, quiet gravity of tone, and epigrammatic terseness of expression. The title of poet could hardly be withheld from the author of such truly powerful pieces as ‘The Fall of the Leaf,’ ‘Winter Memories,’ ‘Smoke in Winter,’ or ‘Inspiration.’
Nor should it be forgotten that Thoreau was always regarded as a poet by those who were associated with him. ‘Poet-Naturalist’ was the suggestive title which Ellery Channing applied to him; and Hawthorne remarked that ‘his thoughts seem to measure and attune themselves into spontaneous verse, as they rightfully may, since there is real poetry in them.’ Even Emerson’s final estimate was far from unappreciative. ‘His poetry,’ he wrote in his biographical sketch, ‘might be bad or good; he no doubt wanted a lyric facility and technical skill, but he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception. His own verses are often rude and defective. The gold does not yet run pure—is drossy and crude. The thyme and marjoram are not yet honey. But if he want lyric fineness and technical merits, if he have not the poetic temperament, he never lacks the causal thought, showing that his genius was better than his talent.’
Perhaps what Thoreau said of Quarles, one of that school of gnomic poets of which he was a student, might be aptly applied to himself: ‘It is rare to find one who was so much of a poet and so little of an artist. Hopelessly quaint, he never doubts his genius; it is only he and his God in all the world. He uses language sometimes as greatly as Shakespeare; and though there is not much straight grain in him, there is plenty of rough, crooked timber.’ The affinity of Thoreau’s style to that of Herbert, Donne, Cowley, and other minor Elizabethans, has often been remarked; and it has been truly said that the stanzas ‘Sic Vita’ might almost have a niche in Herbert’s Temple.
It must be granted, then, that Thoreau, whatever his limitations, had the poet’s vision, and sometimes the poet’s divine faculty; and if this was manifested more frequently in his masterly prose, it was neither absent from his verse nor from the whole tenor of his character. It was his destiny to be one of the greatest prose writers whom America has produced, and he had a strong, perhaps an exaggerated, sense of the dignity of this calling. ‘Great prose,’ he thinks, ‘of equal elevation, commands our respect more than great verse, since it implies a more permanent and level height, a life more pervaded with the grandeur of the thought. The poet only makes an irruption, like a Parthian, and is off again, shooting while he retreats; but the prose writer has conquered, like a Roman, and settled colonies.’
If, therefore, we cannot unreservedly place Thoreau among the poetical brotherhood, we may at least recognise that he was a poet in the larger sense in which his friends so regarded him—he felt, thought, acted, and lived as a poet, though he did not always write as one. In his own words— ‘My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.’
Such qualities dignify life and make the expression of it memorable, not perhaps immediately, to the multitude of readers, but at first to an appreciative few, and eventually to a wide circle of mankind.