Archives: Henry David Thoreau

Poetry Friday: First Snow

Linda Baie hosts Poetry Friday this week at her wonderful blog, Teacher Dance. Be sure to check out the winter proverb in the blog header.

Happy Poetry Friday, friends. As I write this post on Thursday afternoon, we are expecting our first snow of the winter season.

I went looking for a “winter walk” poem (preferably, with dog), and instead landed on Henry David Thoreau’s essay “A Winter Walk.”

As an exercise, I took Section 4 (featuring a baying dog) and adapted it into poetic lines. Since I’ve been working on a prose novel for some months, thinking about phrasing and line breaks was a good work out for my flabby poetry muscles. It also helped me to engage more deeply with Thoreau’s gorgeous language as I broke it down into lines, paying close attention to sound and meaning. Many of us tend to focus on visual images when we write, but the sense of sound — and how it is brightened by the cold — is on Thoreau’s mind here.

As a winter baby, I especially love the final lines of this section. A walk on a cold day is, for me, “an elixir to the lungs, and not so much¬†a frozen mist as a crystallized¬†midsummer haze, refined and purified by cold.”

Have you ever tried adapting a piece of prose by another author into a poem? What did you learn? I wonder if this this exercise would work well in the classroom.


From “A Winter Walk,” by Henry David Thoreau
Full text at American Transcendentalism Web

We hear the sound of wood-chopping
at the farmers’ doors,
far over the frozen earth,
the baying of the house-dog,
and the distant clarion of the cock,
though the thin and frosty air
conveys only the finer particles
of sound to our ears,
with short and sweet vibrations,
as the waves subside soonest
on the purest and lightest liquids,
in which gross substances
sink to the bottom.
They come clear and bell-like,
and from a greater distance in the horizon,
as if there were fewer impediments
than in summer
to make them faint and ragged.

The ground is sonorous, like seasoned wood,
and even the ordinary rural sounds
are melodious, and the jingling
of the ice on the trees is sweet and liquid.
There is the least possible moisture
in the atmosphere, all being dried up
or congealed, and it is of such extreme tenuity
and elasticity that it becomes
a source of delight.

The withdrawn and tense sky
seems groined like the aisles of a cathedral,
and the polished air sparkles
as if there were crystals of ice floating in it.
As they who have resided in Greenland tell us
that when it freezes “the sea smokes
like burning turf-land, and a fog or mist arises,
called frost-smoke,” which “cutting smoke
frequently raises blisters on the face and hands,
and is very pernicious to the health.”
But this pure, stinging cold
is an elixir to the lungs, and not so much
a frozen mist as a crystallized
midsummer haze, refined and purified by cold.

A winter walk with Sam, 2012. Photo by J. Shovan