Much of our poetry has the very best manners, but no character.

What did Henry David Thoreau mean by:

Much of our poetry has the very best manners, but no character.


Henry David Thoreau’s quote, "Much of our poetry has the very best manners, but no character," is a critique of the literary world, but also holds a broader metaphorical meaning. Thoreau suggests that while many poems are technically proficient, adhering to rules and conventions of structure, rhyme, and meter – hence, having the "best manners" – they often lack a distinctive voice, perspective, or emotional depth, thereby lacking "character."

Thoreau is emphasizing the importance of authenticity, originality, and depth in creative works. He argues that it’s not enough for a poem to be well-structured and polite; it must also have its own unique identity and offer profound insights. In other words, poetry, like people, should be more than just surface-level politeness and should possess a strong, unique character.

In today’s world, Thoreau’s quote can be applied beyond poetry to any form of art or creative expression, including music, film, or visual art. In an era where content is mass-produced and often formulaic, Thoreau’s words remind us of the value of authenticity and originality. Just as a poem with the best manners but no character fails to leave a lasting impact, so too does a film that adheres strictly to Hollywood formulas without offering anything new or a song that follows the latest trends but lacks emotional depth.

In terms of personal development, Thoreau’s quote can be seen as a call to cultivate our unique character and not just conform to societal expectations or norms. It’s easy to behave with "the best manners," following rules and conventions, but it’s more challenging – and ultimately more rewarding – to develop a strong, authentic character. This might involve exploring our passions, standing up for our beliefs, or simply daring to be different. In the end, just as in poetry, it’s our character that makes us memorable and impactful.

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