Sunday, February 17, 2013

Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's "Conscience"

Henry David Thoreau
Analysis of Close Reading
Conscience is instinct bred in the house,
Feeling and Thinking propagate the sin
By an unnatural breeding in and in
I say, Turn it out doors,
Into the moors. (5)
I love a life whose plot is simple,
And does not thicken with every pimple,
A soul so sound no sickly conscience binds it,
That makes the universe no worse than’t finds it.
I love an earnest soul, (10)
Whose mighty joy and sorrow
Are not drowned in a bowl,
And brought to life to-morrow;
That lives one tragedy,
And not seventy; (15)
A conscience worth keeping;
Laughing not weeping;
A conscience wise and steady,
And forever ready;
Not changing with events, (20)
Dealing in compliments;
A conscience exercised about
Large things, where one may doubt.
I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestined to be good, (25)
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none;
Born to its own affairs,
Its own joys and own cares; (30)
By whom the work which God begun
Is finished, and not undone;
Taken up where he left off,
Whether to worship or to scoff;
If not good, why then evil, (35)
If not good god, good devil.
Goodness! You hypocrite, come out of that,
Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.
I have no patience toward
Such conscientious cowards. (40)
Give me simple laboring folk,
Who love their work,
Whose virtue is song
To cheer God along.

  • The conscience is unalterable (contrasted by the Party's manipulation of Winston's moral convictions in Nineteen Eighty-Four)
    • "Conscience is instinct" (Thoreau 1)
  • Rhyme scheme
    • Rhyming couplets with the exclusion of several lines of the poem
    • Alternating rhyme schemes in this poem
      • Creates ambiguity
        • Undermines speaker's ability to live a simple life
  • Apostrophe
    • "Feeling" and "Thinking" (Thoreau 2)
    • Elevation of status of feeling and thinking
      • Devices that allow humans to exercise their intrinsic freedoms
      • Corruption of human nature is in individualism
  • Anaphora
    • "A conscience" (Thoreau 16, 18, 22)
    • Contrasts complexities of human emotions with simplicity of your conscience
  • Verbal irony
    • Length of poem contradicts the valued simplicity of life
  • Gothic imagery
    • "drowned in a bowl" (Thoreau 12)
    • "thicken with every pimple" (Thoreau 7)
    • Reveals how the conscience can be corrupted by the plethora of emotions being experienced
  • Anaphora
    • "I love..."
    • Internalizes virtue
      • Shows ideal conception of how the world should operate
  • Allusion
    • "Predestined to be good" (Thoreau 25)
    • To Calvinist doctrine of predestination
      • Humans are preordained to go to heaven or hell
  • Repetition
    • "own"
      • Emphasis on remaining true to yourself
  • Implication of society's lies and deception (virtue of honesty has been lost)
  • Anaphora
    • "If not good" (Thoreau 35, 36)
    • Reveals doubt clouding speaker's judgment
    • Conscience should be undeterred by our emotions
  • Alliteration
    • "conscientious cowards" (Thoreau 40)
    • Hastens pacing of poem
    • Added emphasis toward the conscience, which is not an exercise of freedoms, but an instinctive nature
  • Conscience equates to virtue to Thoreau

1 comment:

  1. This poem is interesting because the complex subject of the poem, the conscience, is developed with the use of simple language. The lack of rhythm within the poem, as you mentioned in your presentation, is important to Thoreau’s overall message. He states in the poem that “a plot that is simple” is one to be loved, much as I like the poem much more since I don’t have to overanalyze it! :) But really, Thoreau is making a message with the lack of devices and structure – he is demonstrating that this poem can be structured however he wishes, he can write whatever comes to his mind.

    The other part of the poem that stands out is the last four lines. The idea of not simply working, but content with hard work is virtuous. Much like another comment I made, this goes back to the idea of virtuous manhood. An idea that was present in Kipling’s poem “If.” Virtues are explored in many different scenarios, however, Thoreau implies that true test comes down to work and the ability to enjoy the life we have been given. This meaning is deep and you have definitely explored deep into it!