‘Tall Ambrosia’ by Henry David Thoreau is an eighteen line poem which is contained within one stanza of text. The poem does not conform to a particular pattern of rhyme but there are a number of places in which the poet has chosen to rhyme lines (either as full or slant rhymes). Once such instance is in the last two lines—rhyming with the end words, “rather” and “gather.” Additionally, a reader should take note of the connection between the words “perceive” and “weed,” with a long-e sound, as well as the repetition of the end word “gods.”
Summary of Tall Ambrosia
In the first section of this piece, the speaker begins by stating that the autumn season is about to begin. He can tell by the sight of the “Roman wormwood,” also known as, he says, “Ambrosia elatior.” It is the immortal food of the Greek gods.
The plants have sprinkled their “yellow dust over” the speaker’s shoes and he tracks it back into his house.
In the next section, the speaker describes his shoes on the floor in front of him. They are covered in yellow dust as well as evidence of moving through the countryside. This train of thought leads him to a meditation on the lives of those who never venture into the country. He dislikes this way of living and believes the men and women are punished by missing out on the experiences he has.
Analysis of Tall Ambrosia
Among the signs of autumn I perceive
The Roman wormwood (called by learned men
Ambrosia elatior, food for gods,—
For to impartial science the humblest weed
Is as immortal once as the proudest flower—)
Sprinkles its yellow dust over my shoes
As I cross the now neglected garden.
In the first stanza of ‘Tall Ambrosia’ the speaker begins by stating that it is “autumn.” This particular time of year is noted by a number of different elements that the speaker is able to point out in the landscape. These are signs which commonly appear in his surroundings and with which he has become accustomed throughout his life.
The first part of the landscape the speaker points out is the “Roman wormwood.” This is a common name often used to refer to Artemisia Pontiac, or small absinthe, as well as Ambrosia artemisiifolia, or common ragweed. These plants are not rare in the landscapes of America, particularly areas with which Thoreau was familiar.
In the next line, the speaker refers to the “Roman wormwood” by a third name, “Ambrosia elatior.” The first part of this designation, “ambrosia,” might be familiar to a reader. As will be described d in the next lines, ambrosia is the food or drink which filled the Greek gods. It is sometimes referred to as that which gave them their immortality and would do the same for any mortal who consumed it.
After this addition to the poem, it becomes clear the narrative is not going to be strictly descriptive of a change in the season. There is a magical quality to the writing.
The speaker continues to state that even the lowliest and most common of weeds is “as immortal once as the proudest flower” to “impartial science.” He wants to make clear that just because a plant is more or less common that fact should not designate its worth. A weed is as valuable to science as an immortal piece of ambrosia.
In the last two lines of this section, the speaker describes himself as walking through a field that contains the ambrosia. The path he makes through the field kicks up “yellow dust” which falls over his shoes. He speaks of this area he is passing through as a “neglected garden.” It was once a place of curated beauty but has fallen somewhat into disrepair.
—We trample under foot the food of gods
And spill their nectar in each drop of dew—
My honest shoes, fast friends that never stray
Far from my couch, thus powdered, countryfied,
Bearing many a mile the marks of their adventure,
In the next set of lines of ‘Tall Ambrosia’, the speaker continues to describe what it is like to walk through the field which contains the nectar of the gods. He seems somewhat perturbed and at the same time entranced by the fact that he can pass through these plants and “trample underfoot the food of the gods.” In this section, he refers not just to himself but to “We.” While this “We” is never fully defined it is likely that he speaks of his close companions, as well as humanity with its propensity to ignore the beauty in the natural world.
The speaker makes note of the fact that as he and every other person walks through the field the “nectar” is spilled in each “drop of dew” which falls to the ground. This is a somewhat distressing prospect as the plants are being destroyed, or at least disturbed, and their powerful contents wasted on the ground. Although he cares about this fact, the speaker is somewhat blasé about the whole process.
The next lines describe how his “shoes” are “honest” and “fast friends.” They remain alongside him, never moving very “Far from my couch.” His shoes, which stand-in for his way of being in the world, are not pretentious. They do not pretend to be, or have experienced, anything they have not. The shoes sit on the floor close by to where the speaker lives and they are “powdered” and covered with evidence of walking through the country. They “Bear…many a mile” in the marks which cover their sides. The speaker’s shoes are a record of everywhere he’s been.
At the post-house disgrace the Gallic gloss
Of those well dressed ones who no morning dew
Nor Roman wormwood ever have been through,
Who never walk but are transported rather—
For what old crime of theirs I do not gather.
In the final five lines, the speaker’s narrative takes on an additional element. He describes seeing groups of people, as well as single individuals, at a “post-house.” This is likely a reference to a kind of stable or inn which is frequented by travelers. These people, unlike the speaker himself, are not “countryfied.”
The men and women are covered in “Gallic gloss” or a sheen which proves they have never walked through “morning dew/ [or] Roman wormwood.” It seems as if the speaker is looking down on these types of people They have not lived as he has.
The travelers are “transported” through the world rather than walking through it and truly experiencing all there is to see. He sees this action, and this determined way of living, as a crime with the punishment being that they never set foot in a neglected garden or field.