Henry David Thoreau

My Prayer by Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, the poet to ‘My Prayer’, has fascinated readers for generations because he was clearly ahead of his time in his thought process, beliefs, and ideas. Many followed him, but many more criticized his ideas. It wasn’t until many years later as we entered what many have termed the post-modern era, that his idea became popular. Thoreau, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, was one of the first transcendentalists. Part of this way of thinking is to transcend or rise above the menial, material, earthly world and live in light of the spiritual. Part of this belief system also includes the idea that God is not necessarily a separate being but rather that there is something of the spirit of God in every part of nature and every living thing. This belief is the premise of the poem, ‘My Prayer’.

My Prayer by Henry David Thoreau


My Prayer Analysis

Stanza One

Line 1

Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf

Henry David Thoreau begins ‘My Prayer’ by acknowledging that it is a “pelf” or a prayer in which a human being acknowledges his own shortcomings and prays for strength. This is exactly what Thoreau does.


Line 2

Than that I may not disappoint myself,

Thoreau is most concerned with living up to his own expectations and the standards he had set for himself. He asks that he “may not disappoint himself”.


Line 3

That in my action I may soar as high

He then goes into detail about his specific expectations of himself and reveals that he intends to back his beliefs by actions. He wants his actions to “soar high”, to be his defining attribute.


Line 4

As I can now discern with this clear eye.

In line 4 of ‘My Prayer’, he wants his actions to be so obvious that he can “discern with this clear eye” that his actions are indeed reflecting his beliefs and spiritual life.


Stanza Two

Line 1

And next in value, which thy kindness lends,

At the start of the second stanza of ‘My Prayer’, Thoreau then reveals that he is making requests in order of importance when he says, “next in value” and then proceeds to request that he “may greatly disappoint [his] friends”. Thoreau was apparently aware that his beliefs were unpopular among his friends, and his prayer is that in his attempt to live up to his own standard, that he would not be afraid to disappoint his friends. He was willing to go against the grain to live out his beliefs.


Line 2

That I may greatly disappoint my friends,

Thoreau goes on to explain how his friends have a misconception about God. He explains that no matter how they “think or how that it may be”, they do not fully understand Thoreau’s relationship with God.


Line 3-4

Howe’er they think or hope that it may be,
They may not dream how thou’st distinguished me.

He reveals this when he claims that his friends “may not dream” of the ways in which God has “distinguished” him. In other words, they don’t understand the purpose for which God had set him apart.


Stanza Three

Line 1

That my weak hand may equal my firm faith

Thoreau shifts back to praying for strength for himself, acknowledging his human weakness. He asks that his “weak hands” may “equal [his] firm faith”. He clearly longs to live above the standard norm.


Line 2

And my life practice what my tongue saith

He also asks that he would not be a hypocritic, or one whose life looks very different from what his mouth speaks. This is why he prays that his “life practice what [his] tongue saith”.


Line 3

That my low conduct may not show

He acknowledges that he will have moments of weakness. He is human, after all. But he requests that in his moments of weakness, that his “low conduct would not show”.


Lines 4-5

Nor my relenting lines
That I thy purpose did not know

In lines 12-13 of ‘My Prayer’, he then acknowledges that he may not be fully aware of all that God requires. Even though he speaks in “relentless lines” or goes on and on about the spiritual,  it’s that there may have been a “purpose that [he] did not know”.


Line 6

Or overrated thy designs.

Then Thoreau ends ‘My Prayer’ with a surprising suggestion, that perhaps he has over-spiritualized everything, and for this, he also asks forgiveness. He reveals this when he says that there is a chance that he has even “overrated [God’s] designs”.

This prayer is revealing of Thoreau’s beliefs and his desire to live them out and to live up to his own standards, to not be intimated or held back by his friends, and to live humbly so as to be aware that he could be mistaken in areas of belief.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
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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