Henry David Thoreau

(12 July 1817 – 6 May 1862 / Concord, Massachusetts)

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Conscience is instinct bred in the house,
Feeling and Thinking propagate the sin
By an unnatural breeding in and in.
I say, Turn it out doors,
Into the moors.
I love a life whose plot is simple,
And does not thicken with every pimple,
A soul so sound no sickly conscience binds it,
That makes the universe no worse than 't finds it.
I love an earnest soul,
Whose mighty joy and sorrow
Are not drowned in a bowl,
And brought to life to-morrow;
That lives one tragedy,
And not seventy;
A conscience worth keeping;
Laughing not weeping;
A conscience wise and steady,
And forever ready;
Not changing with events,
Dealing in compliments;
A conscience exercised about
Large things, where one may doubt.
I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestinated to be good,
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none;
Born to its own affairs,
Its own joys and own cares;
By whom the work which God begun
Is finished, and not undone;
Taken up where he left off,
Whether to worship or to scoff;
If not good, why then evil,
If not good god, good devil.
Goodness! you hypocrite, come out of that,
Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.
I have no patience towards
Such conscientious cowards.
Give me simple laboring folk,
Who love their work,
Whose virtue is song
To cheer God along.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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Comments about this poem (Conscience by Henry David Thoreau )

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  • Hsiaoshuang Chin (11/21/2012 9:37:00 AM)

    A poem of backbone and virtue, without all the incestous breedings of religion. But I don't quite understand the last line. (Report) Reply

  • Michael Harmon (11/21/2009 2:01:00 PM)

    I believe both Kevin Straw and Guybrush Threepwood have valid points. My two cents would be the following.

    Crudely-done didacticism is, well, crudely-done, and subject to rejection simply on that basis. Didacticism, however, need not, as in the above example, be so blatantly budgeoning, and need not, in itself, be detrimental.

    Here is some didacticism from the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 61) :

    A great nation is like a great man:
    When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
    Having realized it, he admits it.
    Having admitted it, he corrects it.
    He considers those who point out his faults
    as his most benevolent teachers.
    He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.

    Here is some from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter XIV. The Three Gunas) :

    Sattwa the shining
    Can show the Atman
    By its pure light:
    Yet sattwa will bind you
    To search for happiness,
    Longing for knowledge.

    Rajas the passionate
    Will make you thirsty
    For pleasure and possession:
    Rajas will bind you
    To hunger for action.

    Tamas the ignorant
    Bewilders all men:
    Tamas will bind you
    With bonds of delusion,
    Sluggishness, stupor.

    And here from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8) :

    To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
    A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
    A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

    And from The Koran(I believe this is from Verse 1, Surah: 14 –Ibrahim) :

    A good word is like a good tree whose root is firmly fixed and whose top is in the sky.

    To my mind, all the above excerpts are poetry, and didacticism done well, in other words, meant to enlighten and not to bludgeon. (Report) Reply

  • Guybrush Threepwood (11/21/2009 12:49:00 PM)

    I'm not going to defend this poem very seriously-Thoreau just wasn't that great of a poet-but damn, Kevin Straw. Throwin' Hitler out onto the table only three relevant comments in. THAT is impressive.

    And while I agree that the social conscience-the sense of what we may or may not do-is a result of existing within a somewhat organized society, I think what Mr. Thoreau here was trying to get at with that first line is that the conscience-the sense of what is beneficial and what is merely permissible-is instinct existing inside oneself from the moment of conception that is either defined or distorted within the household and scope of human experience.

    Or maybe I'm just projecting :) (Report) Reply

  • Kevin Straw (11/21/2009 5:55:00 AM)

    Hitler would enjoy this poem. Conscience is bred in the house? Of course it is. And which parent would not propagate in his or her offspring a conscience? A conscience - a sense of what we may or may not do - is inevitable in a social animal. I dislike this kind of didactic poetry - poetry should describe humanity, not preach to it. When poetry makes us argue with its propositions it ceases to be the complete thing. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie - 121 Points Indira Renganathan (11/21/2009 4:27:00 AM)

    The first line itself is catchy...and no line can be pretty skipped...and
    I love an earnest soul,
    Whose mighty joy and sorrow
    Are not drowned in a bowl,
    And brought to life to-morrow;
    That lives one tragedy,
    And not seventy;
    A conscience worth keeping;
    Laughing not weeping;
    A conscience wise and steady,
    And forever ready;
    Not changing with events,
    Dealing in compliments; '...
    these lines suit much the mood of women...in whole a gospel-poem...excellent with lots of soaring thanks (Report) Reply

  • Rookie - 156 Points Ramesh T A (11/21/2009 12:56:00 AM)

    A man of conscience indeed lives a simple life balancing both joy and sorrow without misled by feeling and thoughts bad in the world. Thoreau's view of living is wise enough to follow in life! (Report) Reply

  • Rookie - 156 Points Alex Y. (11/21/2005 10:21:00 AM)

    You are quite the poet. This is really amazing work. A long poem with a deep message. Excellent: D (Report) Reply

Read all 10 comments »

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