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In May of 1837, a single mother of three in her 40s named Lucy Jackson Brown was staying at her brother-in-law’s house in a small town outside of Boston called Concord. Having left her room with the window open in the heat of the day, she was surprised to discover on her return that a bunch of violets and sorrel, tied together with a string and wrapped in a piece of paper, had been tossed through her open window. Noticing something scrawled across the paper, she unfolded it to discover a remarkable poem:
By a chance bond together,
A bunch of violets without their roots,
And sorrel intermixed... (1-2, 7-8)
The author of the mysterious poem turned out to be a young Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), recently returned from Harvard University, full of potential but also uncertain about his future. Lucy Jackson Brown’s brother-in-law was none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who instantly recognized the young Thoreau’s brilliance and encouraged his writing and publication.1
“Sic Vita” was first published in The Dial in 1840, but like many of his poems, it would be inserted into later prose works, in this case his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). This book tells the story of a journey he took with his brother, John, who would tragically die of a tetanus infection in 1842.1 "Sic Vita" comes near the end of the book, as Thoreau begins to contemplate what it might mean to live "a purely sensuous life" in tune with nature (ideas he would later develop in Walden (1849) and "Walking" (1851).2
In a line often appended to the beginning of the poem, Thoreau then introduces the central ideas of “Sic Vita”: "It is but thin soil where we stand; I have felt my roots in a richer ere this. I have seen a bunch of violets in a glass vase, tied loosely with a straw, which reminded me of myself.”4
In context, the “thin soil” is our everyday experience of the world, which we typically take for granted and fail to see as beautiful. It is in those liminal moments of experiencing natural beauty that we catch a glimpse of the “richer” soil that we belong in, which is the “purely sensuous life”, or a life attuned to the beauty of reality described above. Thoreau then introduces the idea of his resemblance to a “bunch of violets”, which will be the central metaphor that will be introduced in the second stanza of “Sic Vita” before quoting the poem in its entirety:
I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather. (1-6)
The speaker of the poem sees himself as nothing more than a bunch of “vain strivings”, pointless attempts to fulfill desires that seem unrelated except for the fact that they happen to all be located in the same body. The harsh “weather” of the environment that the speaker finds himself in threatens to pull him apart entirely, meaning that even this minimal sense of self could be lost.
The second stanza equates the “parcel of vain strivings” with a bouquet of flowers:
A bunch of violets without their roots,
And sorrel intermixed,
Encircled by a wisp of straw
Once coiled about their shoots,
By which I’m fixed. (7-12)
The speaker now identifies “the law” as the only thing holding together the bundle of desires that he identifies with himself. The law is metaphorically represented as a piece of straw used to hold together the bouquet. It is not clear what “the law” refers to here. Is this a law of logic that stipulates that everything is identical with itself? Is it a law of society, which demands that we identify ourselves with our past actions and receive praise or blame for them? The speaker leaves the meaning of "the law" for the reader to contemplate.
The third stanza further extends the metaphor of self as flower(s):
A nosegay which Time clutched from out
Those fair Elysian fields,
With weeds and broken stems, in haste,
Doth make the rabble rout
The day he yields. (8-13)
Here the “nosegay”, another word for bouquet, is taken away from its “Elysian” or heavenly fields by “Time”. Maturity and aging are equated to a flower being hastily cut, along with a random assortment of weeds and stems snatched up along with it. The nosegay’s days are numbered after being extracted from the soil, just as the days of a human life are.
The syntax of this stanza, which is a single complex sentence with two relative clauses, can be read more clearly by omitting the first relative clause: “A nosegay [...] doth make the rabble rout / That waste the day he yields.” Realizing that his days are numbered just as the nosegay’s are, the “rabble” or common person who does not use their time wisely will “rout” or retreat from their time-wasting habits.
The fourth stanza continues to develop the idea of the brevity of the life of both flowers and human beings:
And here I bloom for a short hour unseen,
Drinking my juices up,
With no root in the land
To keep my branches green,
In a bare cup. (14-19)
This is a fairly straightforward description of a bunch of flowers in a vase, but in the context of the rest of the poem, we know that it is also meant to refer to a person’s life: we “bloom” for a short number of years in obscurity, seen only by friends and family. Just as the water in a vase sustains the flowers for some number of days, so do the things that physically and spiritually nourish us. But we, like the flowers cut out from their roots, are destined to die.
Stanza five contrasts the apparent beauty of flowers (and human beings) with the hard truth that they are dying:
Some tender buds were left upon my stem
In mimicry of life,
But ah! the children will not know,
Till time has withered them,
With which they’re rife. (20-25)
The “tender buds” indicating a potential for growth may deceive us into thinking that the flower will continue to grow, but in fact they are just remnants from its past and no longer have the ability to bloom. Humans also retain some of their beauty and apparent potential from childhood, but like the cut flowers these can also do nothing but wither. Children, still unaware of death, will be unable to see this until they are more mature, at which point they will also be in the same condition.
The sixth stanza turns away from the theme of mortality and death and towards the positive sides of putting cut flowers in a vase:
But now I see I was not plucked for nought,
And after in life’s vase
Of glass set while I might survive,
But by a kind hand brought
To a strange place. (26-31)
The flowers are not placed in a vase “for nought”, but are selected by a “kind hand” for their beauty and allowed to experience a new and "strange place" for the remainder of their lives. Human beings, likewise, should focus on the kindness of family and friends and the potential for new experiences while they are still alive.
The seventh and final stanza continues with this optimistic view:
That stock thus thinned will soon redeem its hours,
And by another year,
Such as God knows, with freer air,
More fruits and fairer flowers
While I droop here. (32-37)
By pruning, gardeners can let a greater number of flowers grow in the succeeding year. Likewise, human beings must die in order to make way for the future generation and all of the potential that it contains. The aging, dying flowers and people are contrasted with the great potential of future generations that their death will help bring about.
'Sic vita’ is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase, ‘Sic vita est hominum’. It translates to ‘Such is human life’, and is used to express resignation towards the outsized roles that chance, circumstance, and mortality play in human life.
Despite being in Latin, the phrase does not seem to be traceable to any Roman or classical author. It was a common saying in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, however, where Latin was the main language of learned communication.
The English poet Henry King also wrote a poem called “Sic Vita” in the mid-17th century. His poem compares the brevity of human life with natural phenomena such as shooting stars, the flight of birds, bubbles on water, the morning dew, and spring blossoms. Thoreau’s poem may be a conscious reference to King, as it shares the comparison of human life to natural events in the form of an elaborate metaphor, a common feature of 17th-century English poetry.3
In any case, “Sic vita” has the same meaning for Thoreau: human life is short, fragile, and vulnerable to random accidents and contingencies that are beyond our control.
The central ideas addressed in "Sic Vita" are selfhood, mortality, and hope.
A theme is the central idea or ideas that it addresses. It is distinct from the subject matter and may be implicit rather than stated directly.
In defining the self as no more than “a parcel of vain strivings tied / By a chance bond together” and equating this to a bunch of flowers, Thoreau casts doubt on the stability and permanence of human selfhood.
This picture of selfhood has precedents in the so-called bundle theory of the self developed by 18th-century Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume. According to this view, there is no stable self, only a bundle or random collection of perceptions, beliefs, and desires. The idea also has precedents in Buddhist and Hindu thought, which Thoreau was well-versed in.
“Sic Vita” is a meditation on death and what its inevitability means for human life. Comparing human life to flowers that have been cruelly and randomly cut from the soil and roots that sustain their life, Thoreau emphasizes how short the human lifespan is. This is not, however, an occasion for depression or despair, as death can also give our lives meaning.
Despite the inevitability of death and the seemingly arbitrary nature of circumstances that shape our lives, “Sic Vita” ends on a note of hope and optimism. Our limited time alive gives us a feeling of urgency not to waste the days that are allotted to us, to focus on the kindness of those around us, and to experience all that the world has to offer. We must also realize that our deaths are necessary in order for future generations to thrive. This implies that helping to ensure a bright future is a major part of what gives our lives meaning.
“Sic Vita” makes extensive use of figurative language such as metaphor and symbolism, as well as poetic devices such as rhyme, fixed meter, and enjambment. It also makes a number of allusions to earlier works.
Thoreau uses the metaphor that a human being is a bouquet of flowers as the central conceit of the poem. The metaphor extends across all seven stanzas and develops in unexpected ways: it begins by illustrating the instability of the self, followed by the inevitability of death and the preciousness of time, and finally to the beauty of life and hope in future generations.
A conceit is the elaborate use of figurative language, such as metaphor or simile, that is intended to be witty and surprising.
Thoreau chose a bouquet of violets and sorrel, a plant with small clover-like leaves, as the poem’s central conceit because of their symbolic qualities. Violets symbolize modesty, and sorrel symbolizes ill-timed wit.1 This is perhaps a reference to the poem’s origin as the shy, young Thoreau’s attempt to flirt with a woman twice his age. It also complements the brooding and somewhat melancholy tone of the poem’s opening stanzas, further emphasizing the fragility and unpredictability of life.
Symbolism is when an object or action stands for or represents something else, typically something abstract like an idea or process. Symbols that are so common that nearly anyone would recognize them include a rose to symbolize beauty, a fist to symbolize aggression, or a dove to symbolize peace.
The poem’s title, along with its use of an elaborate conceit, is likely an allusion to the Metaphysical poets of 17th century England. Henry King, who wrote a poem with the same title, was close friends with John Donne, a master of the use of conceit.
The third stanza of the poem also contains two allusions to classical Greek mythology: in line 1, time is personified as a person who cuts flowers. Chronos, the personification of time in ancient Greek mythology, is often depicted as a harvester who carries a scythe. Line 2 of the same stanza also references the “Elysian fields.” This was the ancient Greek term for heaven or paradise, which was thought of as an actual location, usually on an island.
Allusion is a reference to another work, author, or event in a text. It is often implicit, assuming that the reader will be familiar with a name or quotation.
“Sic Vita” makes regular use of end-rhyme in the following pattern:
A B C A C B
This unusual rhyme scheme has the interesting effect of both distinguishing the final two lines in each stanza by reversing the pattern that we would normally expect while also suggesting a connection between the beginning and end of the poem.
Meter is the term for any pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry.
The poem also has a fairly regular metrical pattern. The stress pattern is generally iambic, meaning that each line can be divided into two-syllable units where the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. The first line is always longer than the others (9 or 10 syllables), while the final two lines are the shortest (each fifth line has 4 or 5 syllables; each concluding line has only two syllables).
Together with the rhyme scheme, this contributes to the effect of the final two lines feeling like a separate couplet within each stanza. It also reflects the theme of mortality and the brevity of human life as each stanza rapidly tapers off to its conclusion.
One of Thoreau’s earliest poems, “Sic Vita” expresses his anxiety over his future and his identity as a young Harvard graduate recently returned to his somewhat small and parochial hometown. In doing so, it uses natural imagery to delve deep into the nature of human selfhood, mortality, and the meaning of life, prefiguring the themes and methods that would be found in the books and essays that would make Thoreau one of the defining figures in American literature.
The poem’s central conceit is that a human self resembles a bouquet of violets and sorrel (a clover-like grass). The self is composed of a bundle of desires just as the bouquet is composed of a bundle of violets, unified by the purely random fact that they happen to be next to each other and loosely bound together. Both the flowers and humans are snatched away from the immortality they desire, thrown into a world not of their choosing, subject to the ravishes of time and the whims of chance. Both of them will die after an insignificant period of time and will be gone forever.
That said, the similarities are not all so gloomy. There is a melancholic beauty in the wilting flowers and in the human being fated to die. The fact that their days are numbered adds more value to each passing one. It underscores the importance of emphasizing kindness and having new experiences in what little time is available. Finally, the death of both is necessary in order for the next generation, be it of flowers or of children, to flourish. We can take comfort in the knowledge that the passing of one life facilitates the beginning of a new one, with all of the potential for beauty and greatness that it contains.
1. Dassow Walls, L. Henry David Thoreau: A Life. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
2. Thoreau, H.D. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Ticknor and Fields, 1868.
3. Rumens, Carol. "Poem of the Week: Sic Vita by Henry David Thoreau." The Guardian, July 6, 2020.
4. Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Penguin, 1998.
5. Myerson, J. (editor). The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge UP, 1995.
"Sic Vita" is part of a Latin phrase, "Sic vita est hominum", which means 'Such is the life of man.' It is used to express sadness and resignation at the outsized roles that chance and mortality have on human life.
"Sic Vita" compares the speaker of the poem to a bouquet of violets and sorrel. At first this makes the speaker despair over the uncertainty of their identity and the brevity of their life, but by the end of the poem they become more hopeful.
Henry David Thoreau was an important member of the Transcendentalist movement. Much of his writing deals with importance of nature and the environment, and he is considered an early environmentalist. A vocal opponent of slavery, he also developed the idea of civil disobedience and wrote a number of important political essays. His best known works are the book Walden and the essay "Resistance to Civil Government."
"Sic Vita" was first published in the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, in 1840. A draft of it existed as early as 1837, however, and it was re-published in Thoreau's first book in 1849.
The main theme in "Sic Vita" is hope in the face of death and despair.
The poem deals with all of the following EXCEPT
mankind's destruction of the environment
The second stanza primarily serves to
compare the self to a bouquet of flowers
Which best describes the speaker's implication in lines 3-6 in stanza 2?
Their sense of identity is weak
In the fourth stanza, the speaker's tone is best described as
melancholy and contemplative
Stanza 3 makes use of all of the following literary devices EXCEPT
In context, "rout" (Stanza 3, line 4) most nearly means
The pronoun "them" (stanza 5, line 4) refers to
"The woe / With which they're rife" (stanza 5, lines 6-7) most likely refers to
The inevitability of death
In context, "But now I see I was not plucked for nought" is best understood to express the speaker's
optimism about the beauty and meaning of life
The phrase sic vita expresses
acceptance of the roles of chance and mortality in human life
Thoreau wrote "Sic Vita" as a
The last two stanzas are best understood as expressing that
beauty and hope give life meaning in the face of death.
All of the following events influenced Thoreau while writing "Sic Vita" EXCEPT
The death of his brother
Which of the following best describes the central conceit of the poem?
The speaker first despairs that individuals resemble a bouquet in that both have uncertain identities and a short lifespan, but then becomes hopeful after contemplating the kindness of others, having new experiences, and the potential of future generations.
The last two stanzas are best understood to suggest that
life is meaningful because of the possibility of having new experiences and the potential of future generations
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