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July 13, 2018

Poetry Friday--Henry David Thoreau

On July 12, 1817, New England writer, Henry David Thoreau was born. Happy 201st birthday, Henry!

For today I have an original poem written in response to one by Thoreau that appears in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, self-published in 1849. Thoreau subsequently revised the book, but it was not republished until several years after his death in 1862. The poem is found in the chapter, "Wednesday," and is untitled, but in later anthologies it appears as part of a longer poem with the name, "The Fisher's Boy." Here is the untitled poem:
My life is like a stroll upon the beach,
   As near the ocean’s edge as I can go,
My tardy steps its waves sometimes o’erreach,
   Sometimes I stay to let them overflow.

My sole employment 't is, and scrupulous care,
   To place my gains beyond the reach of tides,
Each smoother pebble, and each shell more rare,
   Which ocean kindly to my hand confides.

I have but few companions on the shore,
   They scorn the strand who sail upon the sea,
Yet oft I think the ocean they’ve sailed o’er
   Is deeper known upon the strand to me.

The middle sea contains no crimson dulse,
   Its deeper waves cast up no pearls to view,
Along the shore my hand is on its pulse,
   And I converse with many a shipwrecked crew.

Here's my response:
A Stroll upon the Beach

A vessel broken.
Its innards
of cargo and crew strewn
across the strand.

In the village, word spreads.

It is a grisly sight--
a shipwreck
with bodies battered
and bruised,

soon to be carrion.

Townsfolk with skills
of carpentry,
or, undertaking, are

Man-size boxes readied.

Those who need to
feed their children
efficiently pry nails from
cargo boxes

to spirit goods away.

Before souls of the departed
flee, I'm here
gathering dulse for my larder.
Boxes for my fire.

And, stories for safekeeping.

© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.

Thoreau was acquainted with shipwrecks having seen and written about them on Cape Cod and Long Island, NY. He traveled to Long Island in July, 1850, to view the wreck of the Elizabeth in hopes of finding the bodies of writer and editor, Margaret Fuller, and her family. The bodies of neither Fuller nor her husband were found, but that of their young son was recovered.

[Three years ago, Harvard University acquired the notes that Thoreau took at the scene of the shipwreck. I wonder if Thoreau's notes will soon be transcribed and be made available online? I'm curious to see how the actual notes compare to a work of historical fiction, Miss Fuller, by April Bernard, in which the fictional Thoreau finds a cache of Fuller's letters. Miss Fuller was published in 2012. You may be interested in reading it.]

The Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted today by Sylvia at Poetry for Children.


  1. Thanks for this oceanside pair, Diane. I love that your response is inspired by the birthday boy, but is stylistically your own.

  2. Oh, wow. This line...."place my gains beyond the reach of tides" and then yours.."gathering dulse for my larder.
    Boxes for my fire.

    And, stories for safekeepin"
    Just stunning and quite a gorgeous pairing Thoreau's poem and your response. I wish you much more time on the strand finding those rare and rarer gems.

    1. On Tuesday, I went to the beach and found some cool swimming things that I've never seen before. I have no idea what they are. I need to go back to the beach real soon--one day isn't enough.

  3. It's all about perspective, isn't it, Diane? Despite the bodies strewn, survival takes a lead, too. I have never considered those who live near that find ships wrecked & what can be found, and then those kindnesses to bury the dead. Thoreau was plain spoken but clear about his beliefs, "deeper known upon the strand to me". Thanks for all.

    1. There's so much we don't know, or have never given a thought to. We are often stuck in our 2018 bubble.

  4. Stories! Yes, stories! I love your response, Diane. Thank you.

    1. Stories are what separate us from the creatures.

  5. "I'm here
    gathering dulse for my larder"
    Not quite the same, but as a child it seemed so...living near the shore, we'd stroll the beaches and find much to scavenge. I would take spatula, spoon, and cracked cup to add to my collection of flat stones and shells filled with seaweed salad to make my kitchen on the ledges. And I would wonder how these things came to wash up on shore. Thanks for bringing memories to the fore with both Thoreau's and your words.

  6. Well, I didn't even know what dulse was! (Though now I do...) The best treasure trove we ever scavenged were the beaches on Cape York. It was amazing (and at times alarming) the things that washed up there. (Unbroken glass light bulbs, even.)

    1. I had a good time learning about dulse. It's even used in making beer!

  7. Wonderful tribute to Thoreau AND the ocean! Fascinating to think about his notes becoming available so many years later too. I assume you took these gorgeous photographs too!

    1. Thanks, Sylvia! Yes, I took the pictures in Ogunquit, Maine. I love it there!

  8. What a fascinating post! Thank you!

  9. I like your line,
    "to spirit goods away."
    and how matter-of-factly you continue. You've both spun sea stories in different colors–thanks Diane.

    1. Mine strikes me as a slate grey color--the day after a major storm, but not one that has been followed by bright sun.

  10. Happy birthday, Thoreau! I'm sure he would appreciate your poem in response to his. I can't imagine coming upon the remains of a shipwreck--what a heartbreaking sight.

  11. Yes, stories for safekeeping! Love your response.