A Short Analysis of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Friendship’

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is not primarily remembered now as a poet, but as the author of Walden (1854), about his time living a few miles from his home in the woods of Massachusetts. But in his poem ‘Friendship’, Thoreau offers a powerful perspective on the relationship between love and friendship.

I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
‘Tween heaven and earth.

I only know it is, not how or why,
My greatest happiness;
However hard I try,
Not if I were to die,
Can I explain.

I fain would ask my friend how it can be,
But when the time arrives,
Then Love is more lovely
Than anything to me,
And so I’m dumb.

For if the truth were known, Love cannot speak,
But only thinks and does;
Though surely out ’twill leak
Without the help of Greek,
Or any tongue.

A man may love the truth and practise it,
Beauty he may admire,
And goodness not omit,
As much as may befit
To reverence.

But only when these three together meet,
As they always incline,
And make one soul the seat,
And favourite retreat,
Of loveliness;

When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates

And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love’s bands more tight,
Service he ne’er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;

In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move

Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter’s storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow’s pride,
For both are strong.

Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined

In five-line stanzas rhymed abaac, Henry David Thoreau offers a meditation on the nature, beauty, and power of friendship. In summary, when he thinks of love, Thoreau tells us that love is so vast as to be a whole world, linking the earthly to God. Love is the thing which makes him the most happy, though he couldn’t say why. Asking a friend about the nature of love is no good, since as soon as you try to put love into words, its power overwhelms you, says Thoreau. Love is not about what we say but rather our thoughts and actions: actions, if you like, speak louder than words when it comes to love. And the truth of its power will reach us, without our needing to articulate it in words. Love is when truth, beauty, and goodness combine in a sort of alternative holy trinity, meeting in one person; and this love is transformed into friendship when such a person meets another of like mind, who is willing to reciprocate these qualities to the other person. Friendship, embodied by two good friends, is like two sturdy oaks weathering a storm; they are able to withstand the winter storm because they stand together, their roots interlinked and entwined under the ground.

This final image is worth pondering: Thoreau seems to be implying that, just as the truth of love cannot be spoken, so the real strength of true friendship is out of sight, unseen, like those roots underground. Friendship is not about being seen to be someone’s friend, or at least not always: sometimes it is about those ‘little unremembered acts of kindness and of love’, as Wordsworth had put it in his ‘Tintern Abbey’.

In the last analysis, then, the power of love resides in thoughts and actions rather than in language; and the true value of friendship lies in being strong and dependable, even though the means of supporting friends are often out of sight, done for their own sake, rather than for any kudos or thanks.

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