‘The Thaw’ by Henry David Thoreau is a ten-line poem that follows a specific rhyme scheme throughout its short lines. The rhyming pattern of ‘The Thaw,’ is as follows: abcdcdefef. Additionally, the poet has made a number of interesting choices when it comes to word use, especially in the first few lines.
Thoreau has structured this poem with a somewhat unusual rhyming pattern which puts emphasis on the two outlying end words found at the end of the first and second lines. The end word of line number two, “flowed,” has been chosen as a transitional moment. It does not rhyme with the end word which proceeds it, nor does it perfectly rhyme with that which follows it. It can be considered as a half, or slant rhyme, that helps the reader move into the body of the poem.
The first line, though, is the most interesting. Thoreau’s first line ends with the word, “tears,” and unlike “flowed” it does not come close to rhyming with any of the following words. Instead, he has chosen to repeat the word, “tears” at the beginning of the second line. This moves the reader from the hyphenated ending of the first line to the transitional second line with its slant rhyme ending. This is not the last time that the poet collects together rhyming words that do not come at the end of phrases. For example, in the fourth line, Thoreau chose to use, “thaw,” which incidentally rhymes with “saw” in the first line.
The poem begins with the speaker meditating on the place he would like to fill in the processes of the earth. He can see the sun acting upon the face of the planet, attempting to dry the rivers, filling the lands with warmth, and envies their close relationship. He values the planet so much that he wants to be a true part of it. He would like to interact as the elements do, melting down and flowing through and into the “pores of nature.”
In the second half of the poem, the speaker has come to terms with the fact that this will never be the case. He knows that he is only a small part in a much larger picture. He cannot play the kind of active role he wishes for.
Analysis of The Thaw
I saw the civil sun drying earth’s tears —
Her tears of joy that only faster flowed,
Fain would I stretch me by the highway side,
To thaw and trickle with the melting snow,
That mingled soul and body with the tide,
I too may through the pores of nature flow.
Thoreau’s speaker begins this piece by addressing his surroundings. He does not accomplish this by providing the reader with a perfect setting. One will never come to understand where or when exactly this speaker was or why he was there in the first place. The only things that become clear are his spiritual and emotional intentions towards the world and a general understanding of the importance he places on nature. With this in mind, it is likely that the speaker is Thoreau himself. The Thaw espouses the basic tenants of the Transcendental belief system to which Thoreau was devoted.
It is important to note that the speaker is retelling something that happened in the past. He is remembering a time that he “saw” the sun and felt the emotions he describes. As previously stated, the first line and many which follow, address the setting. The speaker was somewhere outdoors, he could see the sun from where he was and was moved by what he saw. He interpreted the sun as having intention, it had and has its own agency which allows it to act on the earth. In this instance the sun was acting “civil[y],” it was attempting to “dry” the tears of the earth, but was unable to. No matter its power, it cannot touch the earth’s “tears of joy.”
The speaker is describing the interaction between the heat of the sun and the flowing rivers of the earth. The sun may bear down with all its heat, with all the best intentions, but the water only “faster flowed.” The earth is overflowing with joy and it’s pouring out in the form of rivers.
The next line of The Thaw brings the speaker physically into space. He was looking at the scene around him and wishing that he could become a part of it. He states that “Fain” he would stretch out along the “highway side.” He would willingly, without hesitation, dedicate himself to the earth as the sun has done. The speaker wished and wishes that he could be as much a part of the process as the sun and earth are.
The next lines clarify his desire. He wants to be part of the melting and running of water that covers the planet. He wants to “thaw” and “trickle” as the earth does. If he could, he would melt himself down and send himself through the “pores of nature,” so much does he desire an integral place in the world.
But I alas nor tinkle can nor fume,
One jot to forward the great work of Time,
‘Tis mine to hearken while these ply the loom,
So shall my silence with their music chime.
The second half of The Thaw begins with a turn, there is a change in the speaker’s tone as he comes to terms with the fact that he will never mean to the sun what the earth does or vice versa. His tone becomes more resigned and less fanciful and introspective. He begins this section by stating that he knows he will never “tinkle [or] fume” as the elements of the earth do. The speaker will never be a true part of the processes of the earth.
He knows that he is only one very small piece in a very large system. The speaker is able to see himself as being “One jot” that helps to “forward…Time.” He is one force acting on the present, nothing more. It is his fate to “hearken while these ply the loom.” The speaker must stand back and watch the elements work, as if on a loom, shaping the earth. He can take no active part in the process.
The final line of The Thaw concludes the speaker’s resigned contemplations. He will stand in silence while “their music chime.” He is nothing; he makes no sound, and does not contribute noticeably to the world he lives in.