H Henry David Thoreau

Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell by Henry David Thoreau

In this poem, ‘Indeed, Indeed I cannot Tell’, Henry David Thoreau manages to relate with almost every living human being. He communicates a feeling that is all too familiar for many people. He is confused about the feeling he is experiencing- so confused, in fact, that he doesn’t know whether it is love or hate. The feeling that Thoreau relates to this poem is one that most have felt when they have experienced the breaking off of a relationship. Thoreau expresses these feelings so articulately that readers can easily conclude the cause of this feeling.

Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell by Henry David Thoreau


Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell Analysis

Lines 1-4

Indeed indeed, I cannot tell,
Though I ponder on it well,
Which were easier to state
All my love or all my hate

With these lines, the speaker makes it clear that he is experiencing a feeling of both hatred and love at the same time. This is not a feeling of complacency or indifference. Rather, this is an intense feeling of both hatred and love at the same time. Although this seems contradictory, the speaker reveals that he has spent some time thinking about the feelings he is experiencing. And even though he has “ponder[ed] on it well”, he still concludes that he does not know whether he feels more hatred or more love toward his subject. This reveals that the speaker is actively seeking a resolution to his feelings, and though he has spent much time thinking and pondering this, he cannot decide whether he feels more love or hatred, and furthermore, he cannot understand why he feels this way.


Lines 5-8

Surely, surely, thou wilt trust me
When I say thou dost disgust me.
O, I hate thee with a hate
That would fain annihilate;

In line five of ‘Indeed, Indeed I cannot Tell’, the speaker begins the line with the repetition of the word “surely”. This may seem insignificant at first glance, but the repetition of this word is a biblical reference. In the new testament, Jesus often uses the repetition of the Hebrew word which translates into “surely, surely” or “verily, verily” or “truly, truly”. Many biblical scholars suggest that when Jesus uses this specific repetition, it is because he wants us to pay close attention to what he is going to say next. The speaker uses this same tactic here, and the readers will naturally pay closer attention to the next few lines because he prefaces it with “surely, surely.” Now the speaker has the reader’s undivided attention, he asks a question of his subject. He asks a rhetorical question, essentially asking, “surely you can understand that you disgust me?” This gives the readers the idea that the subject should be well aware of the reason for the speaker’s hatred. In effect, it indirectly places blame on the subject and allows the readers to identify with the speaker. In lines seven and eight, the speaker then admits that his hatred is strong enough to annihilate the subject of it. Since the speaker has already effectively helped the readers to identify with him, these lines serve to help the readers have an even stronger and more negative view of the subject of this poem.


Lines 9-14

Yet sometimes against my will,
My dear friend, I love thee still.
It were treason to our love,
And a sin to God above,
One iota to abate
Of a pure impartial hate.

‘Indeed, Indeed I cannot Tell’ has a shift of tone. It softens, somewhat, as the speaker admits that although he has intense hatred in his heart, sometimes he accidentally lets go of that hatred, and he still feels love for this person. This is why he says, “I love thee still” after explaining that it is only “sometimes” that he feels this love, and that it is “against [his] will”. This reveals to the readers that the speaker has made every effort to remove any feeling of love toward the subject, but has not been able to do so completely. This reveals that he is experiencing the loss of a relationship, as he openly admits that he once loved this person. In lines eleven through fourteen, he explains that to allow even a hint of the feeling of love to enter his heart, would be like treason. He explains that it would be treason to their love, meaning that it would be a betrayal of what they once had. He feels that the love they once had was so strong and so pure, that now that it is gone, he must feel only pure hatred. To let go of his hatred would be to betray what they once had. He even says that it would be “a sin to God above” if he allowed himself to still feel love toward this person. In the last two lines of ‘Indeed, Indeed I cannot Tell’, the speaker reaffirms that he cannot “abate” even “one iota” of what he feels toward this person. And what he feels is “pure impartial hate”.


Henry David Thoreau and Poem Background

Many scholars suggest that Henry David Thoreau was in love with nature, and never had a romantic relationship besides that. While it is true that his first and last love was definitely nature, it is also interesting that In 1839, he fell in love with a relative of one of the students he taught at Concord Academy. Her name was Ellen Sewall. It is unknown whether she felt the same way about Thoreau. She did turn him down, and it is speculated that she did so because her father did not approve of him. Thoreau never married or even engaged in a romantic relationship. He believed that he was in love with Miss Sewall, but she never returned his love. It is reasonable, then, to conclude that ‘Indeed, Indeed I cannot Tell’ was written about Ellen Sewall. He loved her, and perhaps she loved him too, but she refused him all the same. This refusal caused him to hate her as much as he had ever loved her, though it would seem he was never able to fully let go of his love for her.

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Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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