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Henry David Thoreau's "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din"

Henry David Thoreau’s publication, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which is in diary form, features this poem in his entry for "Saturday." The poem is placed after a quotation of the first two stanzas from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "Concord Hymn." Thoreau does not include Emerson’s name, merely, "As a Concord poet has sung," preceding Emerson’s stanzas. Immediately preceding his own poem, Thoreaus writes, "Our reflections had already acquired a historical remoteness from the scenes we had left, and we ourselves essayed to sing."

The speaker of the poem disdains his contemporary society and its citizens. He is decrying what he considers to be grass materialism, without regard to lasting and time-honored values. Among such rabble, he finds no heroes.

Ah, 'tis in vain the peaceful din

Ah, ‘tis in vain the peaceful din
That wakes the ignoble town,
Not thus did braver spirits win
A patriot’s renown.

There is one field beside this stream,
Wherein no foot does fall,
But yet it beareth in my dream
A richer crop than all.

Let me believe a dream so dear,
Some heart beat high that day,
Above the petty Province here,
And Britain far away;

Some hero of the ancient mould,
Some arm of knightly worth,
Of strength unbought, and faith unsold,
Honored this spot of earth;

Who sought the prize his heart described,
And did not ask release,
Whose free-born valor was not bribed
By prospect of a peace.

The men who stood on yonder height
That day are long since gone;
Not the same hand directs the fight
And monumental stone.

Ye were the Grecian cities then,
The Romes of modern birth,
Where the New England husbandmen
Have shown a Roman worth.

In vain I search a foreign land
To find our Bunker Hill,
And Lexington and Concord stand
By no Laconian rill.

Henry David Thoreau -  "...it represents Henry just as he was in that summer...", said Eben J. Loomis of this 1854 portrait of Thoreau (by Samuel Worcester Rowse)

Henry David Thoreau - "...it represents Henry just as he was in that summer...", said Eben J. Loomis of this 1854 portrait of Thoreau (by Samuel Worcester Rowse)

Commentary

The speaker is unable to find heroes and heroic deeds among his contemporaries.

First Movement: The Spirit of the American Revolution

Ah, ‘tis in vain the peaceful din
That wakes the ignoble town,
Not thus did braver spirits win
A patriot’s renown.

The speaker begins by reporting his musings on the spirit of the American Revolution. He contrasts the revolutionary fighters with what he observes as a lesser spirit in his contemporaries.

The speaker states his belief that as the citizens awaken each morning and experience the peaceful noise of business of the town, they go about in a vain dream. He opines that in earlier times, such vanity had not existed and in its place there had been a true patriotism.

Second Movement: Dreaming a Productive Dream

There is one field beside this stream,
Wherein no foot does fall,
But yet it beareth in my dream
A richer crop than all.

Let me believe a dream so dear,
Some heart beat high that day,
Above the petty Province here,
And Britain far away;

The speaker asserts that his dream is more productive than those who allow the field and the stream to remain unused. Then the speaker asks his muse to allow him to understand the spirit of those brave men who fought for independence from England in the area near his location.

By referring to Britain as far away, the speaker reveals that the struggling revolutionaries were defending their right to freedom. The speaker has referred to the town as both "ignoble" and "petty" showing his disdain for his contemporaries as he contrasts them with the revolutionaries of the preceding century.

Third Movement: Standing Up to Enemies

Some hero of the ancient mould,
Some arm of knightly worth,
Of strength unbought, and faith unsold,
Honored this spot of earth;

Who sought the prize his heart described,
And did not ask release,
Whose free-born valor was not bribed
By prospect of a peace.

Instead of remaining small minded, those heroes stood up to their enemies like the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome. They did not sell their power and their faith, and by their strength and heroic example, they gave honor to their "spot of earth." Those revolutionary heroes fought to attain their worthwhile goals. They did not attempt to shrink from their duty.

Those heroes struggled to attain victory, not allowing themselves to be compromised by bribery and deceit. They demanded much of themselves not selling out but struggling on for peace with honor and valor.

The speaker accuses his contemporaries of trying to find an easy way out of difficulty. They do not have the courage and foresight to rail against the civil evils of slavery and war with their neighbor, Mexico.

Fourth Movement: No Heros

The men who stood on yonder height
That day are long since gone;
Not the same hand directs the fight
And monumental stone.

Ye were the Grecian cities then,
The Romes of modern birth,
Where the New England husbandmen
Have shown a Roman worth.

Referring to the heroes he has been eulogizing, the speaker then reports that those earlier heroes are gone, and those who fight today are not of the same spirit as they, even as these contemporaries negotiate to erect monuments to these heroes.

Then the speaker addresses those early American heroes, telling them they were strong and stalwart like the ancients—the ancient Greeks and Romans. The New England farmers showed this strength as they fought for American independence from Britain.

Fifth Movement: Unfavorable Comparison

In vain I search a foreign land
To find our Bunker Hill,
And Lexington and Concord stand
By no Laconian rill.

Then the speaker says that it is useless to try to find such heroes now. He has searched in vain and remains unable to locate any hero who would compare favorably with those who fought that early American battle. Thus, there is no gallant struggle now that can compare to the battle that took place at Bunker Hill.

The two cities of Lexington and Concord cannot compare in bravery and forthrightness to the ancient Spartan city. The speaker of the poem disdains contemporary society and its citizens, and so he contrasts their reticent behavior to those brave citizens a century earlier in America. At the same time, he refers to the ancients—the Greek and Roman warriors—who demonstrated bravery and constancy as they struggled to achieve victory over their enemies.

The speaker is aware that every age has its enemies. He looks back in history seeing that brave citizens had struggled against their enemies and won because of their determination, iron will, and bravery. He appears to be somewhat appalled that his contemporaries seem to lack that same will to fight against their enemies.

Henry David Thoreau - Commemorative Stamp - U.S.A.

Henry David Thoreau - Commemorative Stamp - U.S.A.

Brief Introduction to Thoreauvian Thought

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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