Podcast of Henry David Thoreau on Poetry and Writing



In 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his brother made a river voyage in a boat that they built themselves. This voyage became the subject of Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849 at his own expense. In this thirty-three minute excerpt, Thoreau finds himself describing the incredible beauty and serenity of the natural scene around him. But his mind wanders into a profound examination of poetry and the requirements of good writing. His call to man for a life of poetry and his demand that writers create simply from an impulse to action are powerful and true. I don’t think there is a better piece of advice that exists for writers and readers alike.

Thoreau frequently quotes from Homer’s Iliad and other sources in this piece. I have tried to separate his quotes with pauses and a change in reading tone. You might want to glance at the actual words as you listen for clarification.

Here is the text of the reading:

What would we not give for some great poem to read now, which
would be in harmony with the scenery,–for if men read aright,
methinks they would never read anything but poems. No history nor
philosophy can supply their place.

The wisest definition of poetry the poet will instantly prove
false by setting aside its requisitions. We can, therefore,
publish only our advertisement of it.

There is no doubt that the loftiest written wisdom is either
rhymed, or in some way musically measured,–is, in form as well
as substance, poetry; and a volume which should contain the
condensed wisdom of mankind need not have one rhythmless line.

Yet poetry, though the last and finest result, is a natural
fruit. As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a
gourd, man bears a poem, either spoken or done. It is the chief
and most memorable success, for history is but a prose narrative
of poetic deeds. What else have the Hindoos, the Persians, the
Babylonians, the Egyptians done, that can be told? It is the
simplest relation of phenomena, and describes the commonest
sensations with more truth than science does, and the latter at a
distance slowly mimics its style and methods. The poet sings how
the blood flows in his veins. He performs his functions, and is
so well that he needs such stimulus to sing only as plants to put
forth leaves and blossoms. He would strive in vain to modulate
the remote and transient music which he sometimes hears, since
his song is a vital function like breathing, and an integral
result like weight. It is not the overflowing of life but its
subsidence rather, and is drawn from under the feet of the poet.
It is enough if Homer but say the sun sets. He is as serene as
nature, and we can hardly detect the enthusiasm of the bard. It
is as if nature spoke. He presents to us the simplest pictures
of human life, so the child itself can understand them, and the
man must not think twice to appreciate his naturalness. Each
reader discovers for himself that, with respect to the simpler
features of nature, succeeding poets have done little else than
copy his similes. His more memorable passages are as naturally
bright as gleams of sunshine in misty weather. Nature furnishes
him not only with words, but with stereotyped lines and sentences
from her mint.

“As from the clouds appears the full moon,
All shining, and then again it goes behind the shadowy clouds,
So Hector, at one time appeared among the foremost,
And at another in the rear, commanding; and all with brass
He shone, like to the lightning of aegis-bearing Zeus.”

He conveys the least information, even the hour of the day, with
such magnificence and vast expense of natural imagery, as if it
were a message from the gods.

“While it was dawn, and sacred day was advancing,
For that space the weapons of both flew fast, and the people fell;
But when now the woodcutter was preparing his morning meal,
In the recesses of the mountain, and had wearied his hands
With cutting lofty trees, and satiety came to his mind,
And the desire of sweet food took possession of his thoughts;
Then the Danaans, by their valor, broke the phalanxes,
Shouting to their companions from rank to rank.”

When the army of the Trojans passed the night under arms, keeping
watch lest the enemy should re-embark under cover of the dark,

“They, thinking great things, upon the neutral ground of war
Sat all the night; and many fires burned for them.
As when in the heavens the stars round the bright moon
Appear beautiful, and the air is without wind;
And all the heights, and the extreme summits,
And the wooded sides of the mountains appear; and from the
heavens an Infinite ether is diffused,
And all the stars are seen, and the shepherd rejoices in his heart;
So between the ships and the streams of Xanthus
Appeared the fires of the Trojans before Ilium.
A thousand fires burned on the plain, and by each
Sat fifty, in the light of the blazing fire;
And horses eating white barley and corn,
Standing by the chariots, awaited fair-throned Aurora.”

The “white-armed goddess Juno,” sent by the Father of gods and
men for Iris and Apollo,

“Went down the Idaean mountains to far Olympus,
As when the mind of a man, who has come over much earth,
Sallies forth, and he reflects with rapid thoughts,
There was I, and there, and remembers many things;
So swiftly the august Juno hastening flew through the air,
And came to high Olympus.”

His scenery is always true, and not invented. He does not leap in
imagination from Asia to Greece, through mid air,

<epei_e` ma’la polla` metaxy’
Ourea’ te skioe’nta, thala’ssa te _ech_e’essa.>

for there are very many
Shady mountains and resounding seas between.

If his messengers repair but to the tent of Achilles, we do not
wonder how they got there, but accompany them step by step along
the shore of the resounding sea. Nestor’s account of the march
of the Pylians against the Epeians is extremely lifelike:–

“Then rose up to them sweet-worded Nestor, the shrill orator
of the Pylians,
And words sweeter than honey flowed from his tongue.”

This time, however, he addresses Patroclus alone: “A certain
river, Minyas by name, leaps seaward near to Arene, where we
Pylians wait the dawn, both horse and foot. Thence with all
haste we sped us on the morrow ere ‘t was noonday, accoutred for
the fight, even to Alpheus’s sacred source,” &c. We fancy that
we hear the subdued murmuring of the Minyas discharging its
waters into the main the livelong night, and the hollow sound of
the waves breaking on the shore,–until at length we are cheered
at the close of a toilsome march by the gurgling fountains of

There are few books which are fit to be remembered in our wisest
hours, but the Iliad is brightest in the serenest days, and
embodies still all the sunlight that fell on Asia Minor. No
modern joy or ecstasy of ours can lower its height or dim its
lustre, but there it lies in the east of literature, as it were
the earliest and latest production of the mind. The ruins of
Egypt oppress and stifle us with their dust, foulness preserved
in cassia and pitch, and swathed in linen; the death of that
which never lived. But the rays of Greek poetry struggle down to
us, and mingle with the sunbeams of the recent day. The statue
of Memnon is cast down, but the shaft of the Iliad still meets
the sun in his rising.

“Homer is gone; and where is Jove? and where
The rival cities seven? His song outlives
Time, tower, and god,–all that then was, save Heaven.”

So too, no doubt, Homer had his Homer, and Orpheus his Orpheus,
in the dim antiquity which preceded them. The mythological
system of the ancients, and it is still the mythology of the
moderns, the poem of mankind, interwoven so wonderfully with
their astronomy, and matching in grandeur and harmony the
architecture of the heavens themselves, seems to point to a time
when a mightier genius inhabited the earth. But, after all, man
is the great poet, and not Homer nor Shakespeare; and our
language itself, and the common arts of life, are his work.
Poetry is so universally true and independent of experience, that
it does not need any particular biography to illustrate it, but
we refer it sooner or later to some Orpheus or Linus, and after
ages to the genius of humanity and the gods themselves.

It would be worth the while to select our reading, for books are
the society we keep; to read only the serenely true; never
statistics, nor fiction, nor news, nor reports, nor periodicals,
but only great poems, and when they failed, read them again, or
perchance write more. Instead of other sacrifice, we might offer
up our perfect (<telei’a>) thoughts to the gods daily, in hymns or
psalms. For we should be at the helm at least once a day. The
whole of the day should not be daytime; there should be one hour,
if no more, which the day did not bring forth. Scholars are wont
to sell their birthright for a mess of learning. But is it
necessary to know what the speculator prints, or the thoughtless
study, or the idle read, the literature of the Russians and the
Chinese, or even French philosophy and much of German criticism.
Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read
them at all. “There are the worshippers with offerings, and the
worshippers with mortifications; and again the worshippers with
enthusiastic devotion; so there are those the wisdom of whose
reading is their worship, men of subdued passions and severe
manners;–This world is not for him who doth not worship; and
where, O Arjoon, is there another?” Certainly, we do not need to
be soothed and entertained always like children. He who resorts
to the easy novel, because he is languid, does no better than if
he took a nap. The front aspect of great thoughts can only be
enjoyed by those who stand on the side whence they arrive.
Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which
each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot
read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even
make us dangerous to existing institutions,–such call I good

All that are printed and bound are not books; they do not
necessarily belong to letters, but are oftener to be ranked with
the other luxuries and appendages of civilized life. Base wares
are palmed off under a thousand disguises. “The way to trade,”
as a pedler once told me, “is to _put it right through_,” no
matter what it is, anything that is agreed on.

“You grov’ling worldlings, you whose wisdom trades
Where light ne’er shot his golden ray.”

By dint of able writing and pen-craft, books are cunningly
compiled, and have their run and success even among the learned,
as if they were the result of a new man’s thinking, and their
birth were attended with some natural throes. But in a little
while their covers fall off, for no binding will avail, and it
appears that they are not Books or Bibles at all. There are new
and patented inventions in this shape, purporting to be for the
elevation of the race, which many a pure scholar and genius who
has learned to read is for a moment deceived by, and finds
himself reading a horse-rake, or spinning-jenny, or wooden
nutmeg, or oak-leaf cigar, or steam-power press, or kitchen
range, perchance, when he was seeking serene and biblical truths.

“Merchants, arise,
And mingle conscience with your merchandise.”

Paper is cheap, and authors need not now erase one book before
they write another. Instead of cultivating the earth for wheat
and potatoes, they cultivate literature, and fill a place in the
Republic of Letters. Or they would fain write for fame merely,
as others actually raise crops of grain to be distilled into
brandy. Books are for the most part wilfully and hastily
written, as parts of a system, to supply a want real or imagined.
Books of natural history aim commonly to be hasty schedules, or
inventories of God’s property, by some clerk. They do not in the
least teach the divine view of nature, but the popular view, or
rather the popular method of studying nature, and make haste to
conduct the persevering pupil only into that dilemma where the
professors always dwell.

“To Athens gowned he goes, and from that school
Returns unsped, a more instructed fool.”

They teach the elements really of ignorance, not of knowledge,
for, to speak deliberately and in view of the highest truths, it
is not easy to distinguish elementary knowledge. There is a
chasm between knowledge and ignorance which the arches of science
can never span. A book should contain pure discoveries, glimpses
of _terra firma_, though by shipwrecked mariners, and not the art
of navigation by those who have never been out of sight of land.
_They_ must not yield wheat and potatoes, but must themselves be
the unconstrained and natural harvest of their author’s lives.

“What I have learned is mine; I’ve had my thought,
And me the Muses noble truths have taught.”

We do not learn much from learned books, but from true, sincere,
human books, from frank and honest biographies. The life of a
good man will hardly improve us more than the life of a
freebooter, for the inevitable laws appear as plainly in the
infringement as in the observance, and our lives are sustained by
a nearly equal expense of virtue of some kind. The decaying
tree, while yet it lives, demands sun, wind, and rain no less
than the green one. It secretes sap and performs the functions
of health. If we choose, we may study the alburnum only. The
gnarled stump has as tender a bud as the sapling.

At least let us have healthy books, a stout horse-rake or a
kitchen range which is not cracked. Let not the poet shed tears
only for the public weal. He should be as vigorous as a
sugar-maple, with sap enough to maintain his own verdure, beside
what runs into the troughs, and not like a vine, which being cut
in the spring bears no fruit, but bleeds to death in the endeavor
to heal its wounds. The poet is he that hath fat enough, like
bears and marmots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates
in this world, and feeds on his own marrow. We love to think in
winter, as we walk over the snowy pastures, of those happy
dreamers that lie under the sod, of dormice and all that race of
dormant creatures, which have such a superfluity of life
enveloped in thick folds of fur, impervious to cold. Alas, the
poet too is, in one sense, a sort of dormouse gone into winter
quarters of deep and serene thoughts, insensible to surrounding
circumstances; his words are the relation of his oldest and
finest memory, a wisdom drawn from the remotest experience.
Other men lead a starved existence, meanwhile, like hawks, that
would fain keep on the wing, and trust to pick up a sparrow now
and then.

There are already essays and poems, the growth of this land,
which are not in vain, all which, however, we could conveniently
have stowed in the till of our chest. If the gods permitted
their own inspiration to be breathed in vain, these might be
overlooked in the crowd, but the accents of truth are as sure to
be heard at last on earth as in heaven. They already seem
ancient, and in some measure have lost the traces of their modern
birth. Here are they who

“ask for that which is our whole life’s light,
For the perpetual, true and clear insight.”

I remember a few sentences which spring like the sward in its
native pasture, where its roots were never disturbed, and not as
if spread over a sandy embankment; answering to the poet’s

“Let us set so just
A rate on knowledge, that the world may trust
The poet’s sentence, and not still aver
Each art is to itself a flatterer.”

But, above all, in our native port, did we not frequent the
peaceful games of the Lyceum, from which a new era will be dated
to New England, as from the games of Greece. For if Herodotus
carried his history to Olympia to read, after the cestus and the
race, have we not heard such histories recited there, which since
our countrymen have read, as made Greece sometimes to be
forgotten?–Philosophy, too, has there her grove and portico, not
wholly unfrequented in these days.

Lately the victor, whom all Pindars praised, has won another
palm, contending with

“Olympian bards who sung
Divine ideas below,
Which always find us young,
And always keep us so.”

What earth or sea, mountain or stream, or Muses’ spring or grove,
is safe from his all-searching ardent eye, who drives off
Phoebus’ beaten track, visits unwonted zones, makes the gelid
Hyperboreans glow, and the old polar serpent writhe, and many a
Nile flow back and hide his head!

That Phaeton of our day,
Who’d make another milky way,
And burn the world up with his ray;

By us an undisputed seer,–
Who’d drive his flaming car so near
Unto our shuddering mortal sphere,

Disgracing all our slender worth,
And scorching up the living earth,
To prove his heavenly birth.

The silver spokes, the golden tire,
Are glowing with unwonted fire,
And ever nigher roll and nigher;

The pins and axle melted are,
The silver radii fly afar,
Ah, he will spoil his Father’s car!

Who let him have the steeds he cannot steer?
Henceforth the sun will not shine for a year;
And we shall Ethiops all appear.

From _his_

“lips of cunning fell
The thrilling Delphic oracle.”

And yet, sometimes,

We should not mind if on our ear there fell
Some less of cunning, more of oracle.

It is Apollo shining in your face. O rare Contemporary, let us
have far-off heats. Give us the subtler, the heavenlier though
fleeting beauty, which passes through and through, and dwells not
in the verse; even pure water, which but reflects those tints
which wine wears in its grain. Let epic trade-winds blow, and
cease this waltz of inspirations. Let us oftener feel even the
gentle southwest wind upon our cheeks blowing from the Indian’s
heaven. What though we lose a thousand meteors from the sky, if
skyey depths, if star-dust and undissolvable nebulae remain?
What though we lose a thousand wise responses of the oracle, if
we may have instead some natural acres of Ionian earth?

Though we know well,

“That’t is not in the power of kings [or presidents] to raise
A spirit for verse that is not born thereto,
Nor are they born in every prince’s days”;

yet spite of all they sang in praise of their “Eliza’s reign,” we
have evidence that poets may be born and sing in _our_ day, in
the presidency of James K. Polk,

“And that the utmost powers of English rhyme,”
_Were not_ “within _her_ peaceful reign confined.”

The prophecy of the poet Daniel is already how much more than

“And who in time knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue? To what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent,
T’ enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What worlds in th’ yet unformed occident,
May come refined with the accents that are ours.”

Enough has been said in these days of the charm of fluent
writing. We hear it complained of some works of genius, that
they have fine thoughts, but are irregular and have no flow. But
even the mountain peaks in the horizon are, to the eye of
science, parts of one range. We should consider that the flow of
thought is more like a tidal wave than a prone river, and is the
result of a celestial influence, not of any declivity in its
channel. The river flows because it runs down hill, and flows
the faster the faster it descends. The reader who expects to
float down stream for the whole voyage, may well complain of
nauseating swells and choppings of the sea when his frail
shore-craft gets amidst the billows of the ocean stream, which
flows as much to sun and moon as lesser streams to it. But if we
would appreciate the flow that is in these books, we must expect
to feel it rise from the page like an exhalation, and wash away
our critical brains like burr millstones, flowing to higher
levels above and behind ourselves. There is many a book which
ripples on like a freshet, and flows as glibly as a mill-stream
sucking under a causeway; and when their authors are in the full
tide of their discourse, Pythagoras and Plato and Jamblichus halt
beside them. Their long, stringy, slimy sentences are of that
consistency that they naturally flow and run together. They read
as if written for military men, for men of business, there is
such a despatch in them. Compared with these, the grave thinkers
and philosophers seem not to have got their swaddling-clothes
off; they are slower than a Roman army in its march, the rear
camping to-night where the van camped last night. The wise
Jamblichus eddies and gleams like a watery slough.

“How many thousands never heard the name
Of Sidney, or of Spenser, or their books?
And yet brave fellows, and presume of fame,
And seem to bear down all the world with looks.”

The ready writer seizes the pen, and shouts, Forward! Alamo and
Fanning! and after rolls the tide of war. The very walls and
fences seem to travel. But the most rapid trot is no flow after
all; and thither, reader, you and I, at least, will not follow.

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For
the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if
we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening
without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. The
most attractive sentences are, perhaps, not the wisest, but the
surest and roundest. They are spoken firmly and conclusively, as
if the speaker had a right to know what he says, and if not wise,
they have at least been well learned. Sir Walter Raleigh might
well be studied if only for the excellence of his style, for he
is remarkable in the midst of so many masters. There is a
natural emphasis in his style, like a man’s tread, and a
breathing space between the sentences, which the best of modern
writing does not furnish. His chapters are like English parks,
or say rather like a Western forest, where the larger growth
keeps down the underwood, and one may ride on horseback through
the openings. All the distinguished writers of that period
possess a greater vigor and naturalness than the more
modern,–for it is allowed to slander our own time,–and when we
read a quotation from one of them in the midst of a modern
author, we seem to have come suddenly upon a greener ground, a
greater depth and strength of soil. It is as if a green bough
were laid across the page, and we are refreshed as by the sight
of fresh grass in midwinter or early spring. You have constantly
the warrant of life and experience in what you read. The little
that is said is eked out by implication of the much that was
done. The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and
flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience, but our
false and florid sentence have only the tints of flowers without
their sap or roots. All men are really most attracted by the
beauty of plain speech, and they even write in a florid style in
imitation of this. They prefer to be misunderstood rather than
to come short of its exuberance. Hussein Effendi praised the
epistolary style of Ibrahim Pasha to the French traveller Botta,
because of “the difficulty of understanding it; there was,” he
said, “but one person at Jidda, who was capable of understanding
and explaining the Pasha’s correspondence.” A man’s whole life is
taxed for the least thing well done. It is its net result.
Every sentence is the result of a long probation. Where shall we
look for standard English, but to the words of a standard man?
The word which is best said came nearest to not being spoken at
all, for it is cousin to a deed which the speaker could have
better done. Nay, almost it must have taken the place of a deed
by some urgent necessity, even by some misfortune, so that the
truest writer will be some captive knight, after all. And
perhaps the fates had such a design, when, having stored Raleigh
so richly with the substance of life and experience, they made
him a fast prisoner, and compelled him to make his words his
deeds, and transfer to his expression the emphasis and sincerity
of his action.

Men have a respect for scholarship and learning greatly out of
proportion to the use they commonly serve. We are amused to read
how Ben Jonson engaged, that the dull masks with which the royal
family and nobility were to be entertained should be “grounded
upon antiquity and solid learning.” Can there be any greater
reproach than an idle learning? Learn to split wood, at least.
The necessity of labor and conversation with many men and things,
to the scholar is rarely well remembered; steady labor with the
hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the
best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s
style, both of speaking and writing. If he has worked hard from
morning till night, though he may have grieved that he could not
be watching the train of his thoughts during that time, yet the
few hasty lines which at evening record his day’s experience will
be more musical and true than his freest but idle fancy could
have furnished. Surely the writer is to address a world of
laborers, and such therefore must be his own discipline. He will
not idly dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before
nightfall in the short days of winter; but every stroke will be
husbanded, and ring soberly through the wood; and so will the
strokes of that scholar’s pen, which at evening record the story
of the day, ring soberly, yet cheerily, on the ear of the reader,
long after the echoes of his axe have died away. The scholar may
be sure that he writes the tougher truth for the calluses on his
palms. They give firmness to the sentence. Indeed, the mind
never makes a great and successful effort, without a
corresponding energy of the body. We are often struck by the
force and precision of style to which hard-working men,
unpractised in writing, easily attain when required to make the
effort. As if plainness, and vigor, and sincerity, the ornaments
of style, were better learned on the farm and in the workshop,
than in the schools. The sentences written by such rude hands
are nervous and tough, like hardened thongs, the sinews of the
deer, or the roots of the pine. As for the graces of expression,
a great thought is never found in a mean dress; but though it
proceed from the lips of the Woloffs, the nine Muses and the
three Graces will have conspired to clothe it in fit phrase. Its
education has always been liberal, and its implied wit can endow
a college. The world, which the Greeks called Beauty, has been
made such by being gradually divested of every ornament which was
not fitted to endure. The Sibyl, “speaking with inspired mouth,
smileless, inornate, and unperfumed, pierces through centuries by
the power of the god.” The scholar might frequently emulate the
propriety and emphasis of the farmer’s call to his team, and
confess that if that were written it would surpass his labored
sentences. Whose are the truly _labored_ sentences? From the
weak and flimsy periods of the politician and literary man, we
are glad to turn even to the description of work, the simple
record of the month’s labor in the farmer’s almanac, to restore
our tone and spirits. A sentence should read as if its author,
had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow
deep and straight to the end. The scholar requires hard and
serious labor to give an impetus to his thought. He will learn
to grasp the pen firmly so, and wield it gracefully and
effectively, as an axe or a sword. When we consider the weak and
nerveless periods of some literary men, who perchance in feet and
inches come up to the standard of their race, and are not
deficient in girth also, we are amazed at the immense sacrifice
of thews and sinews. What! these proportions,–these bones,–and
this their work! Hands which could have felled an ox have hewed
this fragile matter which would not have tasked a lady’s fingers!
Can this be a stalwart man’s work, who has a marrow in his back
and a tendon Achilles in his heel? They who set up the blocks of
Stonehenge did somewhat, if they only laid out their strength for
once, and stretched themselves.

Yet, after all, the truly efficient laborer will not crowd his
day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide
halo of ease and leisure, and then do but what he loves best. He
is anxious only about the fruitful kernels of time. Though the
hen should sit all day, she could lay only one egg, and, besides,
would not have picked up materials for another. Let a man take
time enough for the most trivial deed, though it be but the
paring of his nails. The buds swell imperceptibly, without hurry
or confusion, as if the short spring days were an eternity.

Then spend an age in whetting thy desire,
Thou needs’t not _hasten_ if thou dost _stand fast_.

Some hours seem not to be occasion for any deed, but for resolves
to draw breath in. We do not directly go about the execution of
the purpose that thrills us, but shut our doors behind us and
ramble with prepared mind, as if the half were already done. Our
resolution is taking root or hold on the earth then, as seeds
first send a shoot downward which is fed by their own albumen,
ere they send one upward to the light.