Henry David Thoreau’s “Sympathy”

Provided by Raina K. Puels

Most think of Henry David Thoreau as an eccentric loner in the woods.  He was indeed eccentric, but he also had a large network of friends. In her 2017 biography of Thoreau, Laura D. Walls discusses his close friendships: “I love men with the same distinction that I love women—as if my friends were of some third sex” (237).  Thoreau had queer views of his friendships, which also extended into his attractions. In his letters and journals, “when Thoreau put into words his yearning for companionship, his pronouns were often male; when he was physically attracted to someone, they were often, but not always, male. But no evidence exists that he acted or felt like he could act on those attractions” (238).  There is also no evidence that he ever had a physical union with a woman. While Thoreau desired intellectual closeness, he had no interest in a traditional marriage (238). Instead, he sought a type of pure marriage to “beauty & art.” Walls suspects that if Thoreau were born at a different time, he may have become a monk, or another type of chaste religious figure. She also suspects Thoreau died a bisexual virgin (239).

In the summer of 1839, when Thoreau was 22, he wrote “Sympathy,” a poem about his love of a boy (Hoagland 473).  This boy was 11-year-old Edmund Quincy Sewall who stayed with the Thoreaus the summer that Thoreau crafted the poem (473).  After Edmund went home to Scituate with his mother, Thoreau wrote an entry in his journal that later became the poem: “I have… come into contact with a pure uncompromising spirit… Some persons carry about them the air and conviction and virtue” (474).  While it may seem unsavory, Thoreau felt such strong love for young Edmund, his poem and journal shows the chasteness of this inclination. “Sympathy” exemplifies Thoreau’s monasticism and use of male pronouns in his discussions of love.

Sympathy

Lately alas I knew a gentle boy,
Whose features all were cast in Virtue’s mould,
As one she had designed for Beauty’s toy,
But after manned him for her own strong-hold.
On every side he open was as day,
That you might see no lack of strength within,
For walls and ports do only serve alway
For a pretence to feebleness and sin.

Say not that Cćsar was victorious,
With toil and strife who stormed the House of Fame;
In other sense this youth was glorious,
Himself a kingdom wheresoe’er he came.

No strength went out to get him victory,
When all was income of its own accord;
For where he went none other was to see,
But all were parcel of their noble lord.

He forayed like the subtle breeze of summer,
That stilly shows fresh landscapes to the eyes,
And revolutions worked without a murmur,
Or rustling of a leaf beneath the skies.

So was I taken unawares by this,
I quite forgot my homage to confess;
Yet now am forced to know, though hard it is,
I might have loved him, had I loved him less.

Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,
A stern respect withheld us farther yet,
So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,
And less acquainted than when first we met.

We two were one while we did sympathize,
So could we not the simplest bargain drive;
And what avails it now that we are wise,
If absence doth this doubleness contrive?

Eternity may not the chance repeat,
But I must tread my single way alone,
In sad remembrance that we once did meet,
And know that bliss irrevocably gone.

The spheres henceforth my elegy shall sing,
For elegy has other subject none;
Each strain of music in my ears shall ring
Knell of departure from that other one.

Make haste and celebrate my tragedy;
With fitting strain resound ye woods and fields;
Sorrow is dearer in such case to me
Than all the joys other occasion yields.

Is’t then too late the damage to repair?
Distance, forsooth, from my weak grasp hath reft
The empty husk, and clutched the useless tare,
But in my hands the wheat and kernel left.

If I but love that virtue which he is,
Though it be scented in the morning air,
Still shall we be truest acquaintances,
Nor mortals know a sympathy more rare.


Hoagland, Clayton, and Henry Thoreau. “The Diary of Thoreau’s ‘Gentle Boy.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 4, 1955, pp. 473–489. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/362407.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Sympathy.” The Dial: a Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley, Vol. 1,     Weeks, Jordan,and Co., 1840, pp. 71. books.google.com/books?id=-ukAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA71&source=gbs_toc_r& cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Henry David Thoreau: A Life. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

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