My life has been the poem I would have writ

Henry David Thoreau

‘My life has been the poem I would have writ’ is a simple two-line work, but within those two lines, contains many subtle grammar.


Henry David Thoreau

Nationality: American

Henry David Thoreau is one of the most important writers of the transcendentalist movement.

He wrote essays, poems, and philosophical works.

‘My life has been the poem I would have writ’ by Henry David Thoreau is a simple two-line work, but within those two lines, the poet uses grammar, verb shifts, and simple phrasing—even down to a well-placed “the”—to create the theme of the work. That theme is that “life” is better “live[d]” than discussed, so much that he has chosen to not “writ[e]” “the poem” of his “life.” Instead, he chose to “live.”

My life has been the poem I would have writ by Henry David Thoreau


My life has been the poem I would have writ Analysis

Line 1

My life has been the poem I would have writ

This first line of ‘My life has been the poem I would have writ’ sets up the could-be scenario of “the poem,” and that is the idea that Thoreau “would have writ” his “life” in a “poem.” The reader has to wait until Line 2 to uncover why this remained a conditional “would” statement that never came to pass, but there is much to uncover within this single line of text. For one thing, Thoreau is not saying that he “would have writ” a “poem” about “life.” Rather, he is saying that “life” is “the poem” that simply never got penned. This is noted in the clear declaration: “life has been the poem.” There is little room to argue contrariwise to this idea since the wording is so specific. To the poet, “life” is “the poem,” as is noted in his very phrasing.

This means that all of those things that are so synonymous with concepts of poetry are being linked to “life” in this work—love, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, and every other decorative or analytical concept that is connected with poetry. To Thoreau, “life” is a situation where all of those things are in motion, as if you are walking right in the lines of verse. This gives “life” beauty and depth, just like a “poem” can come with such grand meaning in just a handful of lines. Though “life” is finite, the possibilities and beauty from it can be beyond compare, like a quick-paced “poem.”

Also worth noting is that “life” is not noted as “hav[ing] been” a “poem,” which could have meant one of many. Rather, it is “the poem,” which indicates that it is the definitive example of the concept. Of all of the “poem[s]” in the world, this is the one that would have deserved to be penned in a work. Still, it never happened.

Thoreau’s statement that he “would have” penned this particular “poem,” as it happens, comes with the grammatic error of having “writ” where “written” should be. This indicates that whatever the reason is that he never wrote this “poem,” that reason was so pressing that could not even dedicate enough time to the concept to create a grammatically sound sentence about the “writ[ing]” prospect. He is also taking credit for this lack of “writ[ing]” as he says, “I would have writ.” This is evidence that whether or not it was penned, Thoreau is admitting that it was his responsibility to do so.


Line 2

But I could not both live and utter it.

This line of ‘My life has been the poem I would have writ’ states the rationale as to why “life” was never “writ” in “the poem,” and that is because he “could not both live and utter it.” Essentially, Thoreau is declaring that he had the choice to either tell the story of his “life” or actually “live” it, and he chose to experience it rather than detail it. This is solid reasoning since “life” is finite, as was noted earlier, so focus should be placed on more important matters that “life” presents.

There is again, however, more at work than just this rationale. Specifically, Thoreau claims that he could not “utter” “the poem” and “live” it as well. To choose the verb, “utter,” is fitting since it comes with little connotation of elegance or sophistication. In fact, “utter” feels like a verb to use when ideas are unpleasant, and a person does not quite want to speak them. By choosing this verb then, Thoreau has hinted that explaining “life” in “the poem” would have been an unpleasant task, probably because he would rather be “liv[ing]” it than speaking of it.

As well, this choice of “utter” is a bit of a contradiction to the notion of “writ[ing]” since “writ[ing]” does not entail spoken words. Instead, it concerns words on paper that can be read out loud, but can remain silently on paper. To “utter” something can mean to speak it. By this, the reader can detect another hint of the lack of importance Thoreau is placing on the act of creating “the poem” about “life.” Just as he did not have the interest in the matter to grammatically construct Line 1, he does not care enough for the concept in Line 2 to match his verb choice with the idea of “the poem.” He would rather, it seems, “live” than waste his time considering these “poem”-based concepts. This is why, as it happens, that he could only manage two lines in this entire work to so much as reference his reason for choosing against a deeper “poem.”

In both rationale and wording, then, Thoreau has let the reader know how unimportant he considers the prospect of “writ[ing]” about his “life.” Essentially, “life” does not need to be “writ[ten]” because it already is “poe[try]” that he would rather “live” than detail to someone else. In this, he has expressed an appreciation of “life” that drives his priorities, and that high priority of simply “liv[ing]” is the theme of “the poem”—even down to how short his explanation on the matter is in these two lines.


About Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was born in Massachusetts in 1817, and he had a series of noteworthy experiences in his life. For instance, he attended Harvard University and became known for his poems and other written endeavors. His written works could be grounded in natural concepts and Transcendentalism, and he was a noted abolitionist. He suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1862.

Connie Smith Poetry Expert
Connie L. Smith spends a decent amount of time with her mind wandering in fictional places. She reads too much, likes to bake, and might forever be sad that she doesn’t have fairy wings. She has her BA from Northern Kentucky University in Speech Communication and History (she doesn’t totally get the connection either), and her MA in English and Creative Writing. In addition, she freelances as a blogger for topics like sewing and running, with a little baking, gift-giving, and gardening having occasionally been thrown in the topic list.

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