New Volume of Thoreau Poems Coming


Thursday, February 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


NEW YORK (AP) — In 1841, a young poet despaired that he would never find himself in verse. So he composed the following couplet: ``My life has been a poem I would have writ/But I could not both live and utter it.''

The young poet soon turned to prose. His name was Henry David Thoreau.

The author of such classics as ``Walden'' and ``Civil Disobedience'' never did become a major poet and publishers have not treated him as such. His poems were last compiled more than 30 years ago (that edition is out of print) and some remained unreleased.

Now the Library of America has assembled the most complete anthology ever, ``Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems,'' including a few poems never published before. Editor Elizabeth Hall Witherell doesn't claim Thoreau's verse as high art, but she does believe it worth reading.

``I would argue that even the lesser works of a great writer are fascinating to people who are interested in the writer,'' says Witherell, an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University.

``They show how he or she became the writer he or she became. You can learn something about themes and something about strengths and weaknesses. And it was the weaknesses in Thoreau's poetry that made him try prose.''

Although Thoreau emphasized prose for much of his adult life, he never stopped writing poems and even included verse in his prose work. The Library of America volume contains more than 100 poems, composed from his late teens to his early 40s.

``I'm one of the few people who seem to really like his poems,'' Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard says. ``His prose work is superior but there's a kind of casual but incisive quality to his poems. He just knew how to put words together.''

Thoreau was born in Concord, Mass., in 1817, and entered Harvard University at age 16. Even then, the man who later rhapsodized over his solitude at Walden preferred his own company, spending much of his time reading and taking long walks alone. A classmate remembered him as ``cold and unimpressionable.''

By 1839, Thoreau had met his great benefactor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau's verse soon appeared in Emerson's magazine, The Dial, and Emerson predicted that his young friend would become a ``great poet.''

Thoreau's true spirit, however, didn't translate very well into verse. His poems were confined primarily to simple rhymes and unchallenging rhythms. His influences came from the past — Virgil, Pindar, John Donne — and his work seemed to belong there, too.

``If only his poetry survived, our opinion of him would be as a much more conservative writer and thinker. His poetry consists of forms that already existed,'' Witherell says.

``He wasn't a professional poet,'' Howard adds. ``He didn't know anything except for the meditative fragments he developed. He didn't have the repertory he had in prose.''

But Thoreau readers will see that the themes made famous in his prose work — independence of mind, the genius of nature — appear in his verse. In ``The Poet's Delay,'' Thoreau praises the sun's ``western blaze,'' but worries that ``Amidst such wealth without, I am only still poor within.''

In ``The Coward,'' published for the first time, a simple quatrain condemns the unexamined life:

``The coward ever sings no song,

He listens to no chime

He has no heart, no tongue,

To build the lofty rhyme.''

In life, ``the lofty rhyme'' was the noble aim of Thoreau and Emerson and their fellow Transcendentalists. In verse, such an aim proved too lofty. Thoreau's poems lacked the freedom he desired in the world. Not even exposure to the revolutionary work of his contemporary, Walt Whitman — and a meeting with Whitman himself — liberated him.

``He felt Whitman was living the life he was supposed to be living,'' Witherell says. ``He thought Whitman was a true individual, a person of integrity and inspiration. But Whitman's poetry was too strong for him, too raw.

``Thoreau's poetry is very controlled. When you read some of the long, melodic sentences in `Walden,' you realize that compression is not one of Thoreau's gifts.''

Critic Harold Bloom also finds Thoreau's verse ``tentative,'' but he likens it favorably to Greek lyric and has praise for such poems as ``Music'' and ``Smoke,'' which he quotes from memory: ``Go thou my incense from this hearth/And ask the Gods to pardon this clear flame.''

The Library of America anthology continues a recent trend of posthumous Thoreau publications. In the past few years, two books of unfinished prose have been published — ``Wild Fruits'' and ``Faith in a Seed.''

Had he lived longer, his work may well have come out sooner. Thoreau was just 44 when a bout with tuberculosis led to his death in 1862, passing away in the front parlor of his family home in Concord. He had stored a great deal of his papers in a wooden chest.

It took decades for them to be stored safely, in the New York Public Library. By then, the wooden box had vanished and the pages were scattered. And even in mint condition, Thoreau's handwriting was virtually illegible.

``It's like the handwriting of a favorite uncle who sends you a letter from time to time. You can't quite make it out but you want to know what it says,'' Witherell observes. ``But once you figure it out it's not so hard.''

Original copies of Thoreau's poems are now stored all over the country. Whitehall received ``The Coward'' from Harvard and an obscure, untitled work that begins, ``In days of yore,'' from the Rare Book Room at the University of Illinois. A previously unpublished poem that begins, ``I have seen frozenfaced connecticut,'' turned up at Princeton University.

``Thoreau didn't travel far in his own life, but his work is everywhere. There's material in England and Switzerland,'' Witherell says.

``There may still be a couple of poems that haven't been seen. For one poem in the collection, we only have a fragment, so somewhere there may be a piece of paper with the rest of it. But that's the problem with history, you only know what survives, not what didn't.''