Poems of Nature

Page 13 of 13

My life more civil is and free
Than any civil polity.
Ye princes, keep your realms
And circumscribd power,
Not wide as are my dreams,
Nor rich as is this hour.
What can ye give which I have not?
What can ye take which I have got?
Can ye defend the dangerless?
Can ye inherit nakedness?{117}
To all true wants Time's ear is deaf,
Penurious States lend no relief
Out of their pelf:
But a free soul—thank God—
Can help itself.
Be sure your fate
Doth keep apart its state,—
Not linked with any band,
Even the noblest in the land,—
In tented fields with cloth of gold
No place doth hold,
But is more chivalrous than they are,
And sigheth for a nobler war;
A finer strain its trumpet rings,
A brighter gleam its armor flings.{118}
The life that I aspire to live,
No man proposeth me;
No trade upon the street[13]
Wears its emblazonry.


When the world grows old by the chimney-side,
Then forth to the youngling nooks I glide,
Where over the water and over the land
The bells are booming on either hand.
Now up they go ding, then down again dong,
And awhile they ring to the same old song,
For the metal goes round at a single bound,
A-cutting the fields with its measured sound,
While the tired tongue falls with a lengthened boom
As solemn and loud as the crack of doom.{120}
Then changed is their measure to tone upon tone,
And seldom it is that one sound comes alone,
For they ring out their peals in a mingled throng,
And the breezes waft the loud ding-dong along.
When the echo hath reached me in this lone vale,
I am straightway a hero in coat of mail,
I tug at my belt and I march on my post,
And feel myself more than a match for a host.


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 practise more than my tongue saith;{122}
That my low conduct may not show,
Nor my relenting lines,
That I thy purpose did not know,
Or overrated thy designs.

Printed by T. and A. Constable, Printers to Her Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press


[1] In the present selection a return has been made, wherever possible, from the emendations introduced by Thoreau's editors to the original text.

[2] Article on 'The Poetry of Thoreau,' by Joel Benton. Lippincott's Magazine, 1886.

[3] John Weiss, in the Christian Examiner, 1865.

[4] This poem was written on a sheet of paper wrapped round a bunch of violets, tied loosely with a straw, and thrown into the window of a friend. It was read at Thoreau's funeral by his friend Bronson Alcott.

[5] The above title, prefixed to these stanzas in Emerson's selection, is scarcely suited to so personal and characteristic a poem.

[6] Suggested by the print of Guido's 'Aurora,' sent by Mrs. Carlyle as a wedding gift to Mrs. Emerson.

[7] The explanation of this poem, given on Emerson's authority, but necessarily somewhat conjectural, is that a reference is made, under the character of the 'gentle boy,' to the girl with whom both Henry and John Thoreau were in love.

[8] This and the following poem appeared under the title of 'Orphics' in the Dial.

[9] Wrongly printed 'fen' in Emerson's selection.

[10] The first four of these stanzas (unnamed by Thoreau) were published in the Boston Commonwealth in 1863, under the title of 'The Soul's Season,' the remainder as 'The Fall of the Leaf.' There can be little doubt that they are parts of one complete poem.

[11] These stanzas formed part of the original manuscript of the essay on 'A Winter Walk,' but were excluded by Emerson.

[12] First printed in full in the Boston Commonwealth, October 30, 1863. The last fourteen lines had appeared in the Dial under the title of 'The Black Knight,' and are so reprinted in the Riverside Edition.

[13] In the Dial this line runs, 'Only the promise of my heart.'

[14] A copy of this hitherto unpublished poem has been kindly furnished by Miss A. J. Ward.

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