Write a note on Thoreau’s prose style from Civil Disobedience.

American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is a New England Transcendentalist and author of ‘Civil Disobedience.’ He is unique in his style of essay writing. In ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Thoreau says that a higher law than civil law demands the individual’s obedience. Now we will see in what style he composed his essay ‘Civil Disobedience.’

More Notes: Civil Disobedience

Thoreau has a conversational tone to his style, as he is aware of the audience, he is writing for. He says that his style is an expression of his character. According to Emerson, his style has “oaken strength.” The words flow fluently and spontaneously as his emotions are steady and his thoughts clear. An excellent rule for composing writings, as practiced by Thoreau, is to “tell the truth.” Because of his commitment to truth, there is vividness in his words. 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 flashy. Thoreau uses the best possible terms. One of his devices is the use of root words. 

Thoreau’s style has epigrammatic force. His sentences are blunt and sharp and contain a lot of meaning in one sentence. “A wise man will only be useful as a man and will not submit to the clay and stop a hole from keeping the wind away.” “We should be men first and subjects afterward.” 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 their apparent scope.

More Notes: Henry David Thoreau

The allusion also abounds in this essay. 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 from keeping the wind away.

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 their effectiveness. We have metaphors, “after the first blush of sin comes to its indifference.” “The State met me on behalf of the Church,” and “their friendship was for summer weather only.”

Thoreau’s style is strongly aphoristic, and many similar sentences have been quoted over the decades. His prose is “purer, stronger, richer, and closer to a real-life rhythm than any of his contemporaries. 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 polite disobedience.
In conclusion, Thoreau’s prose is highly unique. It derives its life from his personal beliefs, which he carried out in action. It represents all that Thoreau was as a man, a thinker, and, a practical 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.

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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