Henry David Thoreau’s poem ‘Friendship’ is a beautiful depiction of the definition of a relationship that exists between two friends. To describe this tie, Thoreau delves deeper into the meaning of love. By the end of this piece, he describes him and his dearest friend, Emerson, as “Two sturdy oaks”. Though they have separate bodies, their roots are intertwined inseparably. The poem was published with an essay by the same title.
‘Friendship’ by Henry David Thoreau is about the bond the poet shares with his close friend Emerson.
At the beginning of the poem, Thoreau’s persona describes the nature of love. According to him, love is a feeling that is heavenly in itself. He does not know why it is so nor does anyone. Love is not a verbal expression. It is either experienced or felt.
In the following lines, he speaks of a man having three qualities: love for truth, eyes to appreciate beauty, and inherent goodness. His friend has all these qualities. As they are similar in nature, they became friends. The friendship between them helps each of them to grow. It ties them together in a bond making two of them “one”.
The last two stanzas metaphorically describe the speaker and his friend as two sturdy oaks standing in the meadow’s pride. Like the trees, they both are strong. While looking from outside, it may seem their heads barely touch. But, their roots are intertwined.
The poem consists of a total of eleven stanzas. Each stanza contains five intricately rhyming lines. Thoreau uses the ABAAC rhyme scheme in this poem. It means the first, third, and fourth lines rhyme together. While the remaining lines end with distinct sounds. It creates an interlocked rhyming pattern depicting the bond of friendship. This poem is written in a regular meter. It is composed of iambic pentameter, iambic trimeter, and iambic dimeter alternatively. In each stanza, the first line contains five iambs and the following three lines contain three iambs. The last line has two iambic feet.
Thoreau uses the following literary devices in his poem ‘Friendship’.
- Metaphor: In the first stanza of the poem, “love” is a metaphor of a distinct world. Thoreau further compares it to “meat”, “sweetest drink”, and the linker of heaven and earth. In the tenth stanza, he metaphorically compares him and Emerson to oaks.
- Personification: There is a personification in these lines “Love cannot speak/ But only thinks and does”.
- Allusion: By this line “Without the help of Greek,” Emerson alludes to classical Greek art or poetic forms.
- Alliteration: It occurs in the following phrases: “close connecting,” “However hard,” “man may,” etc.
- Anaphora: It occurs in the following lines: “And make one soul the seat,/ And favorite retreat”.
I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
Tween heaven and earth.
The poetic persona of Thoreau begins this piece by talking about how he thinks of love. Love is a feeling that cannot be measured. It is a vast and deep emotion that can only be compared to the size of a world.
According to the speaker, its taste is similar to that of meat and the sweetest drink. He tries to fuse the feelings associated with drinking to love. Furthermore, love bridges heaven and earth. Through this reference, Thoreau tries to depict the spiritual aspect of love that has the capacity to give earthly things a heavenly outlook.
There is a use of alliteration in the phrase “close connecting”. Here, the “c” sound gets repeated to create internal rhyming. The fourth and fifth lines of this stanza are enjambed. A reader has to quickly go through both lines to grasp the idea.
I only know it is, not how or why,
My greatest happiness;
However hard I try,
Not if I were to die,
Can I explain.
In the second stanza, the speaker makes an arbitrary remark. He is saying that his definition is solely subjective. If one asks for an explanation regarding how his statements can be justified as truth, he cannot provide a supporting clause.
He can only say that love is his “greatest happiness”. Love is an emotion that can be compared with the idea of happiness. However, he tries hard to come up with an explanation. According to him, even if he is dying, he cannot explain why this emotion is the greatest of all.
In the second line of this section, Thoreau uses hyperbole. It is meant for the sake of emphasis.
I fain would ask my friend how it can be,
But when the time arrives,
Then Love is more lovely
Than anything to me,
And so I’m dumb.
In this section, the poet alludes to his bosom friend Emerson. As he is unable to explain why he defines it in that way, he would prefer to ask his friend Emerson to clarify why he thinks so. In the following lines, his remarks are light and humorous. He refers to him as “dumb” as speechless for his inability to express the things he wants to. It is possible that he does not actually know the answer. Even nobody can describe the feelings associated with love in words. That’s why it is better to think in the way the poet shows: “Love is more lovely/ Than anything to me”.
For if the truth were known, Love cannot speak,
But only thinks and does;
Though surely out ’twill leak
Without the help of Greek,
Or any tongue.
In this stanza, the speaker remarks that no matter if the truth is known or not, it cannot ever be expressed verbally or in the medium of language. It has its own language that is felt, not heard. According to the speaker, love cannot speak. It only thinks or does. Here, the poet personifies “Love” and invests it with the idea of thinking or doing something.
Here, the poet talks about those who love. They cannot express their thoughts revolving around emotion. Whether they can express it or not, it will surely be expressed without the art taught by the Grecians or by any human language.
There is a metaphor in the line “Though surely ’twill leak”. In this line, “Love” is compared to a liquid. There is an allusion to the Greek language or art in the fourth line. The last line contains a synecdoche.
A man may love the truth and practise it,
Beauty he may admire,
And goodness not omit,
As much as may befit
In the fifth stanza of ‘Friendship,’ Thoreau refers to the fact that loving is an art. When a person is able to grasp the value of it, he starts practicing it by showering it to others. The things of beauty look more appealing in his eyes. He starts to cherish the inherent goodness of his heart. According to the speaker, when one starts to nurture love in his heart, it starts to shape him as a person to be revered. Here, the poet talks about the spiritual aspect of love and how it makes one’s soul virtuous.
But only when these three together meet,
As they always incline,
And make one soul the seat,
And favorite retreat,
In the first line of this stanza, the speaker refers to three qualities: truthfulness, admiration for the beauty, and goodness. Thoreau’s speaker when these qualities are fused into one entity becomes a “retreat of loveliness”. He thinks these virtues cannot be separated.
Here, the poet refers to his friend Emerson again. He implies that his friend is a manifestation of goodness and truthfulness. He has keen eyes at appreciating beauty. As the poet possesses these qualities, he finds solace in his friend’s accompaniment. He compares his friend to a “retreat of loveliness” metaphorically.
The third and fourth lines of this stanza begin with the same conjunction “and”. It is a use of anaphora. As the poet repeats the conjunction twice, it also becomes an example of polysyndeton. He does so for emphasizing the ideas of these lines.
When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates
In the seventh stanza of the poem, the poetic persona talks about how they became close friends. It is because of the similarity in the way they think and their personalities. By using a simile, he compares their friendship to two distinct ideas. Firstly, he connects the idea with the existence of love and hate. Then he goes on to connect it with nature.
According to him, nature has proclaimed them to be friends. It means that they are destined to be friends. After being tied to this bond, they now have equal fates. In this way, the poet describes their friendship as a divine one.
This stanza ends with a one-liner coda. The poet ends this stanza with only a single word to bring readers’ focus on particularly the word “Eternally”. Besides, there is assonance of the “e” sound in the last two lines.
And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love’s bands more tight,
Service he ne’er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;
This stanza takes an objective turn. Thoreau tries to detach himself from the text and expresses his thoughts about the role of friendship. When two souls are tied in a bond of friendship, they may help each other to grow. They do things for one another without being disappointed. The service one offers to his friend is not ever repented on.
In the last two lines, the poet talks about how they are one. He presents a paradox here. Generally, one and one make two. But, here, the poet refers to the fact that two close friends always feel the same way. It seems that they are different people. In reality, for their similarities in thinking patterns, they become one.
In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move
In this stanza, the poet explores the value of friendship and how it benefits them. According to him, in such a state, one man can prove his full potential. When a person has a friend who understands him always by his side, he can grow inwardly. He can prove his true potential if such a friend is there during his need.
Moving on to the following lines, the poet talks about the love that exists between two friends. This love has a power that helps the soul to move resistlessly. It is the strength of friendship that keeps them motivated.
In this section, the poet uses inversion and enjambment. The poet inverts the order of the lines to make them sound more pleasant. Besides, he uses enjambment to internally connect the lines and maintain the flow.
Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter’s storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow’s pride,
For both are strong
The first line of this stanza contains a metaphor. Through this line, Thoreau compares him and his friend Emerson to two sturdy oak trees. By this reference, he means two individuals that remain together. In the following line, he uses another metaphor in “winter’s storm”. It is a symbolic reference to the trials and tribulations of life. According to the poet, they both stand together in the face of difficulties.
In spite of any bad circumstances, metaphorically referred to as “wind and tide”, they remain rooted. They grow up as the “meadow’s pride”. It can a reference to the poet’s nation. They both are the pride of their nation. Like the sturdy oaks, they both are strong from within.
Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
The last stanza of ‘Friendship’ describes how the speaker and his friend barely resembles each other outwardly. The poet presents visual imagery of two oaks standing side by side at a distance. None can find the similarities or the tie existing between them by looking at them from outside. They have to dive deeper and find their roots.
According to the poet, their roots are intertwined. Through the metaphor of the “roots”, he is hinting at the bond of friendship. He says that their friendship is inseparable. As they have grown to fullness, now their roots interlocked. It takes a lot of time to create such a relation. Even cannot untie their knots. It will remain there as long as the ground of friendship remains intact.
Thoreau’s poem ‘Friendship’ was first published in his book “The Essay on Friendship” in 1903. In this poem, Thoreau alludes to his friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He met Emerson through a mutual friend in Concord. Emerson was 14 years older than him and took a paternal interest in Thoreau. With Emerson’s guidance, he became familiar with several writers and thinkers of his time. In 1841, he moved to Emerson’s house and continued his literary career. Their long-lasting relationship ended through Thoreau’s death on May 6, 1862.
Explore more Henry David Thoreau poems.
Henry David Thoreau wrote this poem in the spring of 1838.
The meaning of this poem deals with the definition and nature of the tie of love that exists between two friends.
This poem taps on the themes of love, friendship, virtue, and togetherness.
The tone of this piece is direct, emotive, inspirational, and thoughtful.
The following list a few poems that similarly center on the themes present in Henry David Thoreau’s poem.
- ‘Dialogue of Friendship Multiply’d’ by Katherine Philips – This poem contains the dialogue between two women, one of whom wishes to begin a friendship with the other. Read more Katherine Philips poems.
- ‘Sonnet: I Thank You’ by Henry Timrod – This piece explores friendship as a theme. Upon receiving a gift of flowers from his friend, he wrote this beautiful sonnet. Read more Henry Timrod poems.
- ‘Friend’ by Hone Tuwhare – In this poem, Tuwhare discusses a friendship that has fallen into ruin through the passage of years. Explore more Hone Tuwhare poems.
- ‘To a Friend’ by Amy Lowell – This touching poem reflects on the selfishness of the innermost desire that human beings harbor to have a real and long-lasting friendship. Read more Amy Lowell poems.
You can also read about the best-known friendship poems.