The Poetry of Whittier Essay - Critical Essays

John Greenleaf Whittier

Critical Evaluation

In the “Proem,” a poem chosen to introduce his collected works, Whittier scrutinized his poetic achievement and noted that he had never been able to emulate the great lyric beauty and deep philosophic insight of poets like Milton and Spenser. With characteristic honesty he analyzed his inability to echo their marvelous music:

The rigor of a frozen clime,The harshness of an untaught ear,The jarring words of one whoserhymeBeat often Labor’s hurried time,Or Duty’s rugged march through stormand strife, are here.

These sparse lines provide an outline for Whittier’s life. Reared in a nonconformist Quaker faith, he always retained the Quaker concept of the presence of the Inner Light in each individual and the belief in special brotherhood and equality. From his earliest years he experienced the “rigors” of exacting farm work, where only the strictest economy and frugality kept the Whittier farm above poverty. This was his education, for he had little formal schooling beyond two terms at a local academy. In these years Whittier was primarily a sectional romantic, a journalist poet who was nourished on the strange literary diet of the Bible, Burns, and Byron. His poetry was blatantly derivative, though his first book, LEGENDS OF NEW ENGLAND, handled native superstitions and folklore. Whittier’s second main phase, from 1833 to the 1860’s, was a period of reform activity and humanitarian interest. The intensity of his single-minded dedication to the Abolitionist cause effectively vetoed poetry and converted the aspiring young lyricist into a radical propagandist, politician, and part-time editor whose verses championed the rights of slaves and democratic principles. These years drew Whittier away from a love of poetry for its own sake, reforged his vapid sentimental lyricism into a powerful weapon for the oppressed, and strengthened his regard for moral action.

The remainder of Whittier’s life is aptly summed up in these autobiographical lines from “The Tent on the Beach”:

For while he wrought with strenuouswillThe work his hands had found todo,He heard the fitful music stillOf winds that out of dream-landblew.The common air was thick with dreams,—He told them to the toiling crowd;Such music as the woods and streamsSang in his ear he sang aloud;In still, shut bays, on windy capes,He heard the call of beckoningshapes,And, as the gray old shadows promptedhim,To homely moulds of rhyme he shapedtheir legends grim.

As his Abolitionist activities lessened, Whittier devoted more time to reworking the familiar ground of native legends and versifying the pent-up memories of his youth. By the 1850’s the poet again dominated and...

(The entire section is 1441 words.)