Epitaph on the World

Henry David Thoreau is one of the most celebrated American authors and poets of his time. His ideas on Transcendentalism helped shape an entire genre of literature, becoming an inspiration to many. Thoreau used his writing to reach countless individuals, address critical issues and ideas of life, and explore his inner world. He valued the individual over the masses and understood the meaning of nature. Upon analyzing his writing, it's easy to see how it continues to reach readers even years after his death and is as relevant and timeless today as when first penned. “Epitaph on the World” (1840) is a poem that is elegantly written and carries with it an important message. Keep reading for the complete poem, an analysis, and more.

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Table of contents

    Epitaph on the World, portrait of writer Thoreau, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Henry David Thoreau

    “Epitaph on the World” At a Glance

    Here is a breakdown of the significant components of "Epitaph on the World."


    “Epitaph on the World”




    Henry David Thoreau


    Nine-line stanza

    Rhyme scheme


    Literary devices

    Personification, diction, alliteration






    The connection between humankind and the world


    Mankind can bring ruin to the world.

    "Epitaph on the World is a fixture of Transcendentalist literature.

    Transcendentalism was a movement of writers and philosophers in the nineteenth century. It was characterized by an idealistic system of thought that believed in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humankind, and the supremacy of insight and emotion over logic to reach a deeper meaning. Transcendentalist literature is one of the first movements of American literature and moved away from previously religious-focused writing. Other major figures in the movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott.

    “Epitaph on the World” Complete Poem

    Here is the poem “Epitaph on the World” by Henry David Thoreau in its entirety.

    Here lies the body of this world,

    Whose soul alas to hell is hurled.

    This golden youth long since was past,

    Its silver manhood went as fast,

    An iron age drew on at last;

    'Tis vain its character to tell,

    The several fates which it befell,

    What year it died, when 'twill arise,

    We only know that here it lies.

    When analyzing poetry, it is best to consume the poem line by line or look at it by focusing on individual literary devices one at a time. By understanding it in chunks, the entirety will become easier to digest.

    “Epitaph on the World” Summary

    Henry David Thoreau’s “Epitaph on the World” is a brief remembrance poem expressing ideas on the presumed death of the world. The poem is a mere nine lines long and written in loose iambic tetrameter. Three rhyming couplets and one rhyming tercet make up the poem. The closed rhyme scheme of AABBBCCDD adds to the somber mood by linking the poem's ideas together and mimicking a prayer-like feeling. The speaker begins the poem with familiar words spoken at a funeral, signaling to the reader that the world, once the source of all life, has itself died.

    An epitaph is typically a short text, usually inscribed on a tombstone, written in memory and honor of the deceased. It serves as a brief elegy.

    Imagined as an inscription on the grave of the world, the words the speaker uses reference back to the ages of men from antiquity.

    The Five Ages of Men is a story from the Greeks that refers to humankind’s lineage and holds that there have been, or will be, five stages or generations of humankind: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Heroes, and the Iron Age. The Golden Age speaks of humanity's beginning when people lived in an Edenic paradise, never knowing hunger, sickness, or pain. The Silver Age saw a time when Zeus came to power and made men inferior, forcing them to work, but they had blessed lives. The Bronze Age was one of war, where people were hardened and strong. The Age of Heroes was the age of the Iliad and Odyssey, where men were demigods and performed superhuman feats. Finally, the Iron Age was the name for the current age, in which the gods made men selfish and violent, suffering many ills and tragedies because of their lack of piety.

    The speaker continues to state how the Iron Age, the one mankind is currently in, came and went and seemingly brought on the world's end. The voice concludes by saying it is pointless to express the character of the Iron Age or what its fate was. Likewise, it is unknown when or if the world will exist again. The only thing known is that it has passed and currently lies dormant or dead.

    While referring to the Five Ages, the poem also uses the metallurgical references to double for the stages of a person's life. Gold stands for the time of youth, softness, and warmth. Silver speaks of the aging person, hair turning gray and growing weary after many hard years. Iron, of course, speaks to a person's final years when they are hard of heart from decades of hardship.

    Epitaph on the World, a gravestone where epitaphs are commonly inscribed, StudySmarterFig. 2- A gravestone where epitaphs are commonly inscribed. Flickr.

    “Epitaph on the World” Analysis

    For a deeper understanding of the meaning behind “Epitaph on the World,” take a look at the poem line by line.

    Thoreau opens the poem using lines traditionally inscribed on a tombstone.

    Here lies the body of this world,

    Whose soul alas to hell is hurled.

    (Lines 1-2)

    The phrase “Here lies the body” begins the extended metaphor within the poem and personifies the world.

    A metaphor compares two unlike things without using “like” or “as.”

    An extended metaphor goes on for longer than two lines or the entirety of the piece.

    Personification is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human things. In this case, the world is being personified as an entity with a body made of flesh that can die and be buried.

    By personifying the world, the speaker can establish an ending to the planet and help the audience understand that the death of the world is intricately linked to the actions of humankind. The metaphor which compares the world to a body that can rot and be buried establishes that damage can and has been done to harm the planet.

    According to the speaker, this damage is clearly manmade. The Western world was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Thick plumes of smoke from factories would blacken the sky and cause significant environmental damage. Meanwhile, swaths of forests were cut down to make room for an expanding population and to be used as energy for a growing economy. Thoreau saw all this as antithetical to the proper way of living and lamented how people were disengaging from the natural world.

    Additionally, the world has a “soul” that has been “hurled to hell” (line 2). The alliteration emphasizes and further shows the damage done to the world. The suffering does not end in the grave (with the death of one generation) but carries on beyond into the afterlife (as future generations must bear the burdens of past sins).

    Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a series of words near one another in poetry or prose. It helps to emphasize ideas and establish a rhythm to the language.

    Epitaph on the World image of planet earth StudySmarterFig. 3 - The world and humankind are interconnected for Transcendentalists. Flickr.

    Thoreau then references the earlier “golden” and “silver” ages of humankind the Greeks believed were superior to the age of iron. Each line of the tercet ends in perfect rhyme, with the words “past” (line 3), “fast” (line 4), and “last” (line 5). Thes three words establish how the ages of humankind flowed through the world, with the iron age leaving a lasting and damaging impact.

    This golden youth long since was past,

    Its silver manhood went as fast,

    An iron age drew on at last;

    (Lines 3-5)

    This extended metaphor also draws parallels to the stages of an individual's life, comparing the state of the world to that of an aged person full of bitterness and remorse.

    The next couplet uses diction to express a sense of hopelessness. Words like “vain” (line 6) and “befell” (line 7) indicate suffering almost too detrimental to catalog. To tell of the “several fates” (line 7) would be pointless. This sense of despondency continues to the final two lines of the poem.

    'Tis vain its character to tell,

    The several fates which it befell,

    (Lines 6-7)

    Here the diction is almost purposely vague, with the pronoun “it” meaning either the iron age of man or the world itself. The link between humankind and the world here can’t be delineated, and it is equally unclear when, or if, it will “arise” (line 8) again. The only definitive fact is that “here it lies” (line 9). This sense of finality concludes the poem with a somber mood while simultaneously showing that an ending can be both a conclusion and commencement of something new. There is the possibility of rebirth, but like all things in life, nothing is promised.

    What year it died, when 'twill arise,

    We only know that here it lies.

    (Lines 8-9)

    “Epitaph on the World” Meaning

    “Epitaph on the World” expresses some of Henry David Thoreau’s core beliefs. As a Transcendentalist, he held humankind’s connection to the earth and nature as central to our existence. Like other Transcendentalists, Thoreau believed in the importance of the individual and their experience in life and with nature. “Epitaph on the World” is a prophetic piece expressing his fear that humankind can and will ruin the beauty and peace of the world. Although the world can rise again, it is unknown if humans also have that capacity. Death, a verity in life, befalls all things, including the world itself.

    Epitaph on the World - Key takeaways

    • "Epitaph on the World" is a short nine-line poem published in 1840 by Henry David Thoreau.
    • "Epitaph on the World" creates a somber mood using diction, alliteration, and personification to show the interconnectedness between humankind and the world.
    • The poem references the Five Ages of Man from Greek antiquity.
    • As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau focuses this poem and his writing on elements of nature, the world, and the individual.
    • A major theme in "Epitaph on the World" is the relationship between humankind and the world.


    1. Fig. 1 -https://www.flickr.com/photos/40936370@N00/34696123265 "Henry David Thoreau, painted portrait _1090933" by Abode of Chaos is licensed under CC BY 2.0
    2. Fig. 2 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/10058483@N00/548845231 "Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Gravestone (1886-1969)" by puroticorico is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
    3. Fig. 3 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/53460575@N03/7304043550"Earth - Global Elevation Model with Satellite Imagery" by Kevin M. Gill is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Epitaph on the World

    Who wrote the poem "Epitaph on the World"? 

    The poem was written by Henry David Thoreau. 

    What is the poem "Epitaph on the World" about? 

    The poem "Epitaph on the World" is focused on the narrative voice reflecting on the death of the world and how the age of humankind brought it about.

    When was "Epitaph on the World" written? 

    "Epitaph on the World" was published in 1840. 

    What is the main theme in "Epitaph in the World"? 

    The main theme in "Epitaph on the World" is the connectedness between humankind and the world and how the actions of humans can affect the world. 

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