Write a note on Thoreau’s prose style as is evident in his essay Civil Disobedience.


Thoreau’s prose style has some remarkable characteristics. Elucidate.


Thoreau’s style grew out of his devotion to truth. Discuss,


Thoreau’s prose style has some prominent features which make it quite distinctive. Discuss.


JosbdAnswer: Emerson remarked about Thoreau that he was a speaker and actor of truth. Thoreau gave sincere expression to the thoughts and feelings in his essay Civil Disobedience. His essay is the outcome of his absolute conviction, so the style that he has employed in the essay is fresh, original and vigorous. The style has simplicity and purity. He rewrote endlessly trying to be precise and simple. He observed: “Sentences which are expansive, towards which so many volumes, so much of life went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; which a man might sell his grounds and castles to build.” Writing like the one we have in Civil Disobedience is vascular and there is gusto in it.

Thoreau gave a conversational tone to his style, as he was conscious of the audience he was writing for. He said that style is an outgrowth of character. According to Emerson, his style has “oaken strength”. Words flow fluently and spontaneously because his emotions are steady and his thoughts are clear. The one great rule of composition, as Thoreau practiced it, is “to speak the truth”. Because of his commitment to truth, there is vividness in the words employed. The words are primarily sensory. They communicate the vivid impressions of the world of man he saw. These are some out-of-the-way words and yet they are not ostentatious. Thoreau uses the best possible words. One of his devices is the use of root words. His deep interest in language and etymology made him use this device to such an extent that it results in a freshness which sometimes is shocking, and at times, bordering on a pun.

Thoreau’s style has epigrammatic force. His sentences are terse and pithy, and a great deal of meaning is packed into a sentence. “A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to the clay, and stop a hole to keep the wind away.” “We should be men first and subjects afterwards.” Another fine example is— “Absolutely speaking, the more money the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.” These sentences are loaded with meaning beyond its apparent scope.


His sentences are very often balanced, and weigh antithetical meaning as if on scales. “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines. He who gives himself entirely to his fellowmen appears to them useless and selfish, but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.” Examples of such balanced and antithetical sentences are scattered throughout his essay Civil Disobedience.

Allusion also abounds in this essay. Mathiessen has observed that Thoreau’s real strength lies precisely in his recreation of basic myth, in his role as the protagonist in a great cyclic ritual drama. As a writer, Thoreau belongs to a great stream of American tradition, the tradition of the myth and non-realist writers. There are numerous allusions and references to varied works. In Civil Disobedience we have references from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when the essayist says—

“A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to the clay” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away”.

This is a reference to Hamlet. In Hamlet we read—

“Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”

There is also a reference to Shakespeare’s King John. We also find many quotations in Civil Disobedience, such as the quotations from Paley’s book “Duty of Submission to Civil Government”—

“that so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer….”

Metaphors and personifications are galore. The personifications in the sentence, “Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice, that may consist with wrong-doing”, is remarkable in its effectiveness. We have metaphors, “after the first blush of sin, comes its indifference.” “The State met me in behalf of the Church,” “their friendship was for summer weather only”.

Thoreau’s style is vigorously aphoristic, and as such there are many sentences which have been quoted through decades. They are pregnant with meaning, profoundly suggestive, vividly picturesque and logical— “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” The sentences are minted and thinking here is intuitive— “the State not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divide, the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.” Sometimes, they reveal startling wit through striking paradox. The only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor”, he said of prison.


His prose is “purer, stronger, richer, and closer to a genuine life rhythm, than any one of his contemporaries. In his best phrasings the model is the hermit thrush. The intricate phrasings and rhythms flow with pure and spiritual beauty of its song and with its perfect unity. Thoreau employs puns, internal rhymes and other tricks_ “Life is not as bad as you are,” “the standing army is only an arm of the standing government.” Alliteration is used in a subtle way to give a musical quality— “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines.” There is a pun in the title. It implies disobedience of civil authority and also a civil or a courteous disobedience.

Thoreau’s prose is highly distinctive. It derives its life from his personal convictions which he carried out in action. It represents all that Thoreau was as a man, a thinker, and a practical, pragmatic man. It embodies that Thoreau was a speaker and actor of the truth. There are analogies, puns, figures of speech, epigrams, quotations, antithesis, personifications and carping statements. So, James Russell Lowell writes about Thoreau’s style— “Thoreau had caught his English at its lining source, among the poets and prose-writers of its best days; his literature was extensive not recondite; his quotations are always nuggets of the purest ore: these are sentences of his as perfect as anything in the language, thoughts as clearly crystallized; his meta hors and images are always fresh from the soil.”