- John Greenleaf Whittier - America's "Quaker Poet" [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
John Greenleaf Whittier
by Long, William J.

The strange mixture of warrior and peace lover in Whittier has led to a strange misjudgment of his work. From the obscurity of a New England farm he emerged as the champion of the Abolitionist party, and for thirty tumultuous years his poems were as war cries. By such work was he judged as "the trumpeter of a cause," and the judgment stood between him and his audience when he sang not of a cause but of a country. Even at the present time most critics speak of Whittier as "the antislavery poet." Stedman, for example, focuses our attention on certain lyrics of reform which he calls "words wrung from the nation's heart"; but the plain fact is that only a small part of the nation approved these lyrics or took any interest in the poet who wrote them.

Such was Whittier on one side, a militant poet of reform, sending forth verses that had the brattle of trumpets and the waving of banners in them:

  Lift again the stately emblem on the Bay State's rusted shield,
  Give to Northern winds the Pine Tree on our banner's tattered field.
  Sons of men who sat in council with their Bibles round the board,
  Answering England's royal missive with a firm, "Thus saith the Lord!"
  Rise again for home and freedom! set the battle in array!
  What the fathers did of old time we their sons must do to-day.

On the other side he was a Friend, or Quaker, and the peaceful spirit of his people found expression in lyrics of faith that have no equal in our poetry. He was also a patriot to the core. He loved America with a profound love; her ideals, her traditions, her epic history were in his blood, and he glorified them in ballads and idyls that reflect the very spirit of brave Colonial days. To judge Whittier as a trumpeter, therefore, is to neglect all that is important in his work; for his reform poems merely awaken the dying echoes of party clamor, while his ballads and idyls belong to the whole American people, and his hymns of faith to the wider audience of humanity.


The span of Whittier's life was almost the span of the nineteenth century. He was born (1807) in the homestead of his ancestors at Haverhill, Massachusetts, and spent his formative years working in the fields by day, reading beside the open fire at night, and spending a few terms in a "deestrict" school presided over by teachers who came or went with the spring. His schooling was, therefore, of the scantiest kind; his real education came from a noble home, from his country's history, from his toil and outdoor life with its daily contact with nature. The love of home and of homely virtues, the glorification of manhood and womanhood, the pride of noble traditions, and always a background of meadow or woodland or sounding sea,--these were the subjects of Whittier's best verse, because these were the things he knew most intimately.

First Verses

It was a song of Burns that first turned Whittier to poetry; but hardly had he begun to write songs of his own when Garrison, the antislavery agitator, turned his thought from the peaceful farm to the clamoring world beyond. Attracted by certain verses (Whittier's sister Elizabeth had sent them secretly to Garrison's paper) the editor came over to see his contributor and found to his surprise a country lad who was in evident need of education. Instead of asking for more poetry, therefore, Garrison awakened the boy's ambition. For two terms he attended the Haverhill Academy, supporting himself meanwhile by making shoes. Then his labor was needed at home; but finding his health too delicate for farm work he chose other occupations and contributed manfully to the support of his family.

For several years thereafter Whittier was like a man trying to find himself. He did factory work; he edited newspapers; he showed a talent for political leadership; he made poems which he sold at a price to remind him of what he had once received for making shoes. While poetry and politics both called to him alluringly a crisis arose; Garrison summoned him; and with a sad heart, knowing that he left all hope of political or literary success behind, he went over to the Abolitionist party. That was in 1833, when Whittier was twenty-six years old. At that time the Abolitionists were detested in the North as well as in the South, and to join them was to become an outcast.

Storm and Stress

Then came the militant period of Whittier's life. He became editor of antislavery journals; he lectured in the cause; he was stoned for his utterances; his printing shop was burned by a mob. Meanwhile his poems were sounding abroad like trumpet blasts, making friends, making enemies. It was a passionate age, when political enemies were hated like Hessians, but Whittier was always chivalrous with his opponents. Read his "Randolph of Roanoke" for a specific example. His "Laus Deo" (1865), a chant of exultation written when he heard the bells ringing the news of the constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery, was the last poem of this period of storm and stress.

In the following year Whittier produced Snow-Bound, his masterpiece. Though he had been writing for half a century, he had never won either fame or money by his verse; but the publication of this beautiful idyl placed him in the front rank of American poets. Thereafter he was a national figure, and the magazines which once scorned his verses were now most eager to print them. So he made an end of the poverty which had been his portion since childhood.

Peaceful Years

For the remainder of his life he lived serenely at Amesbury, for the most part, in a modest house presided over by a relative. He wrote poetry now more carefully, for a wider audience, and every few years saw another little volume added to his store: Ballads of New England, Miriam and Other Poems, Hazel Blossoms, Poems of Nature, St. Gregory's Quest, At Sundown. When he died (1892) he was honored not so widely perhaps as Longfellow, but more deeply, as we honor those whose peace has been won through manful strife. Holmes, the ready poet of all occasions, expressed a formal but sincere judgment in the lines:

      Best loved and saintliest of our singing train,
        Earth's noblest tributes to thy name belong:
      A lifelong record closed without a stain,
        A blameless memory shrined in deathless song.

Earlier Works

[Footnote: Though we are concerned here with Whittier's poetry, we should at least mention certain of his prose works, such as Legends of New England, Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal and Old Portraits and Modern Sketches. The chief value of these is in their pictures of Colonial life.] In Whittier's poetry we note three distinct stages, and note also that he was on the wrong trail until he followed his own spirit. His earliest work was inspired by Burns, but this was of no consequence. Next he fell under the spell of Scott and wrote "Mogg Megone" and "The Bridal of Pennacook." These Indian romances in verse are too much influenced by Scott's border poems and also by sentimental novels of savage life, such as Mrs. Child's Hobomok; they do not ring true, and in this respect are like almost everything else in literature on the subject of the Indians.

Reform Poems

In Voices of Freedom (1849) and other poems inspired by the antislavery campaign Whittier for the first time came close to his own age. He was no longer an echo but a voice, a man's voice, shouting above a tumult. He spoke not for the nation but for a party; and it was inevitable that his reform lyrics should fall into neglect with the occasions that called them forth. They are interesting now not as poems but as sidelights on a critical period of our history. Their intensely passionate quality appears in "Faneuil Hall," "Song of the Free," "The Pine Tree," "Randolph of Roanoke" and "The Farewell of an Indian Slave Mother."

There is a fine swinging rhythm in these poems, in "Massachusetts to Virginia" especially, which recalls Macaulay's "Armada"; and two of them at least show astonishing power and vitality. One is "Laus Deo," to which we have referred in our story of the poet's life. The other is "Ichabod" (1850), written after the "Seventh of March Speech" of Webster, when that statesman seemed to have betrayed the men who elected and trusted him. Surprise, anger, scorn, indignation, sorrow,--all these emotions were loosed in a flood after Webster's speech; but Whittier waited till he had fused them into one emotion, and when his slow words fell at last they fell with the weight of judgment and the scorching of fire upon their victim. If words could kill a man, these surely are the words. "Ichabod" is the most powerful poem of its kind in our language; but it is fearfully unjust to Webster. Those who read it should read also "The Lost Occasion," written thirty years later, which Whittier placed next to "Ichabod" in the final edition of his poems. So he tried to right a wrong (unfortunately after the victim was dead) by offering generous tribute to the statesman he had once misjudged.

Ballads and American Idyls

Whittier's manly heart and his talent for flowing verse made him an excellent ballad writer; but his work in this field is so different from that of his predecessors that he came near to inventing a new type of poetry. Thus, many of the old ballads celebrate the bravery that mounts with fighting; but Whittier always lays emphasis on the higher quality that we call moral courage. "Barclay of Ury" will illustrate our criticism: the verse has a martial swing; the hero is a veteran who has known the lust of battle; but his courage now appears in self-mastery, in the ability to bear in silence the jeers of a mob. Again, the old ballad aims to tell a story, nothing else, and drives straight to its mark; but Whittier portrays the whole landscape and background of the action. He deals largely with Colonial life in New England, and his descriptions of place and people are unrivaled in our poetry. Read one of his typical ballads, "The Wreck of Rivermouth" or "The Witch's Daughter" or "The Garrison of Cape Ann" or "Skipper Ireson's Ride," and see how closely he identifies himself with the place and time of his story.

Patriotic Quality

There is one quality, however, in which our Quaker poet resembles the old ballad makers, namely, his intense patriotism, and this recalls the fact that ballads were the first histories, the first expression not only of brave deeds but of the national pride which the deeds symbolized. Though Whittier keeps himself modestly in the background, as a story teller ought to do, he can never quite repress the love of his native land or the quickened heartbeats that set his verse marching as if to the drums. This patriotism, though intense, was never intolerant but rather sympathetic with men of other lands, as appears in "The Pipes at Lucknow", a ballad dealing with a dramatic incident of the Sepoy Rebellion. The Scotsman who could read that ballad unmoved, without a kindling of the eye or a stirring of the heart, would be unworthy of his clan or country.

Even better than Whittier's ballads are certain narrative poems reflecting the life of simple people, to which we give the name of idyls. "Telling the Bees," "In School Days," "My Playmate," "Maud Muller," "The Barefoot Boy,"--there are no other American poems quite like these, none so tender, none written with such perfect sympathy. Some of them are like photographs; and the lens that gathered them was not a glass but a human heart. Others sing the emotion of love as only Whittier, the Galahad of poets, could have sung it,--as in this stanza from "A Sea Dream":

  Draw near, more near, forever dear!
    Where'er I rest or roam,
  Or in the city's crowded streets,
    Or by the blown sea foam,
    The thought of thee is home!


The best of Whittier's idyls is Snow-Bound (1866), into which he gathered a boy's tenderest memories. In naming this as the best poem in the language on the subject of home we do not offer a criticism but an invitation. Because all that is best in human life centers in the ideal of home, and because Whittier reflected that ideal in a beautiful way, Snow-Bound should be read if we read nothing else of American poetry. There is perhaps only one thing to prevent this idyl from becoming a universal poem: its natural setting can be appreciated only by those who live within the snow line, who have seen the white flakes gather and drift, confining every family to the circle of its own hearth fire in what Emerson calls "the tumultuous privacy of storm."

The plan of the poem is simplicity itself. It opens with a description of a snowstorm that thickens with the December night. The inmates of an old farmhouse gather about the open fire, and Whittier describes them one by one, how they looked to the boy (for Snow-Bound is a recollection of boyhood), and what stories they told to reveal their interests. The rest of the poem is a reverie, as of one no longer a boy, who looks into his fire and sees not the fire-pictures but those other scenes or portraits that are graved deep in every human heart.

Charm of Snow-Bound

To praise such a work is superfluous, and to criticize its artless sincerity is beyond our ability. Many good writers have explained the poem; yet still its deepest charm escapes analysis, perhaps because it has no name. The best criticism that the present writer ever heard on the subject came from a Habitant farmer in the Province of Quebec, a simple, unlettered man, who was a poet at heart but who would have been amazed had anyone told him so. His children, who were learning English literature through the happy medium of Evangeline and Snow-Bound, brought the latter poem home from school, and the old man would sit smoking his pipe and listening to the story. When they read of the winter scenes, of the fire roaring its defiance up the chimney-throat at the storm without,

  What matter how the night behaved?
  What matter how the north-wind raved?
  Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
  Could quench our hearth-fire's ruddy glow,--

then he would stir in his chair, make his pipe glow fiercely, and blow a cloud of smoke about his head. But in the following scene, with its memories of the dead and its immortal hope, he would sit very still, as if listening to exquisite music. When asked why he liked the poem his face lighted: "W'y I lak heem, M'sieu Whittier? I lak heem 'cause he speak de true. He know de storm, and de leetle cabane, and heart of de boy an' hees moder. Oui, oui, he know de man also."

Nature, home, the heart of a boy and a man and a mother,--the poet who can reflect such elemental matters so that the simple of earth understand and love their beauty deserves the critic's best tribute of silence.

Poems of Faith and Nature

Aside from the reform poems it is hard to group Whittier's works, which are all alike in that they portray familiar scenes against a natural background. In his Tent on the Beach (1867) he attempted a collection of tales in the manner of Longfellow's Wayside Inn, but of these only one or two ballads, such as "Abraham Davenport" and "The Wreck of Rivermouth," are now treasured. The best part of the book is the "Prelude," which pictures the poet among his friends and records his impressions of sky and sea and shore.

Two Views of Nature

The outdoor poems of Whittier are interesting, aside from their own beauty, as suggesting two poetic conceptions of nature which have little in common. The earlier regards nature as a mistress to be loved or a divinity to be worshiped for her own sake; she has her own laws or mercies, and man is but one of her creatures. The Anglo-Saxon scops viewed nature in this way; so did Bryant, in whose "Forest Hymn" is the feeling of primitive ages. Many modern poets (and novelists also, like Scott and Cooper) have outgrown this conception; they regard nature as a kind of stage for the drama of human life, which is all-important.

Whittier belongs to this later school; he portrays nature magnificently, but always as the background for some human incident, sad or tender or heroic, which appears to us more real because viewed in its natural setting. Note in "The Wreck of Rivermouth," for example, how the merry party in their sailboat, the mowers on the salt marshes, the "witch" mumbling her warning, the challenge of a careless girl, the skipper's fear, the river, the breeze, the laughing sea,--everything is exactly as it should be. It is this humanized view of the natural world which makes Whittier's ballads unique and which gives deeper meaning to his "Hampton Beach," "Among the Hills," "Trailing Arbutus," "The Vanishers" and other of his best nature poems.

Whittier's Creed

Our reading of Whittier should not end until we are familiar with "The Eternal Goodness," "Trust," "My Soul and I," "The Prayer of Agassiz" and a few more of his hymns of faith. Our appreciation of such hymns will be more sympathetic if we remember, first, that Whittier came of ancestors whose souls approved the opening proposition of the Declaration of Independence; and second, that he belonged to the Society of Friends, who believed that God revealed himself directly to every human soul (the "inner light" they called it), and that a man's primal responsibility was to God and his own conscience. The creed of Whittier may therefore be summarized in two articles: "I believe in the Divine love and in the equality of men." The latter article appears in all his poems; the former is crystallized in "The Eternal Goodness," a hymn so trustful and reverent that it might well be the evensong of humanity.

Characteristics of Whittier

One may summarize Whittier in the statement that he is the poet of the home and the hills, and of that freedom without which the home loses its chief joy and the hill its inspiration. In writing of such themes Whittier failed to win the highest honors of a poet; and the failure was due not to his lack of culture, as is sometimes alleged (for there is no other culture equal to right living), but rather to the stern conditions of his life, to his devotion to duty, to his struggle for liberty, to his lifelong purpose of helping men by his singing. Great poems are usually the result of seclusion, of aloofness, but Whittier was always a worker in the world.

A Natural Singer

His naturalness is perhaps his best poetic virtue. There is in his verse a spontaneous "singing" quality which leaves the impression that poetry was his native language. It is easy to understand why Burns first attracted him, for both poets were natural singers who remind us of what Bede wrote of Cdmon: "He learned not the art of poetry from men." Next to his spontaneity is his rare simplicity, his gift of speaking straight from a heart that never grew old. Sometimes his simplicity is as artless as that of a child, as in "Maud Muller"; generally it is noble, as in his modest "Proem" to Voices of Freedom; occasionally it is passionate, as in the exultant cry of "Laus Deo"; and at times it rises to the simplicity of pure art, as in "Telling the Bees." The last-named poem portrays an old Colonial custom which provided that when death came to a farmhouse the bees must be told and their hives draped in mourning. It portrays also, as a perfect, natural background, the path to Whittier's home and his sister's old-fashioned flower garden, in which the daffodils still bloom where she planted them long ago.

The Man and the Poet

That Whittier was not a great poet, as the critics assure us, may be frankly admitted. That he had elements of greatness is also without question; and precisely for this reason, because his power is so often manifest in noble or exquisite passages, there is disappointment in reading him when we stumble upon bad rimes, careless workmanship, mishandling of his native speech. Our experience here is probably like that of Whittier's friend Garrison. The latter had read certain poems that attracted him; he came quickly to see the poet; and out from under the barn, his clothes sprinkled with hayseed, crawled a shy country lad who explained bashfully that he had been hunting hens' nests. Anything could be forgiven after that; interest in the boy would surely temper criticism of the poet.

Even so our present criticism of Whittier's verse must include certain considerations of the man who wrote it: that he smacked of his native soil; that his education was scanty and hardly earned; that he used words as his father and mother used them, and was not ashamed of their rural accent. His own experience, moreover, had weathered him until he seemed part of a rugged landscape. He knew life, and he loved it. He had endured poverty, and glorified it. He had been farm hand, shoemaker, self-supporting student, editor of country newspapers, local politician, champion of slaves, worker for reform, defender of a hopeless cause that by the awful judgment of war became a winning cause. And always and everywhere he had been a man, one who did his duty as he saw it, spake truth as he believed it, and kept his conscience clean, his heart pure, his faith unshaken. All this was in his verse and ennobled even his faults, which were part of his plain humanity. As Longfellow was by study of European literatures the poet of books and culture, so Whittier was by experience the poet of life. The homely quality of his verse, which endears it to common men, is explained on the ground that he was nearer than any other American poet to the body and soul of his countrymen.


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