Barbara Frietchie Themes
by John Greenleaf Whittier

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It is tempting to pigeonhole “Barbara Frietchie” as a dated historical piece, its labored rhythm and insistent rhyming distracting to the modern ear, its sentimentality and unabashed defense of the Union non-involving to a contemporary audience. Clearly, the poem does not demand sophisticated analysis as much as public recitation. It further presumes a public role for the poet that in the contemporary era poets seldom perform. Yet “Barbara Frietchie” is more than recitable propaganda. For a contemporary reader the poem is a passionate assertion of the conservative virtue of order that dominated British neoclassical thought in the eighteenth century—indeed, Frietchie’s formidable age grounds her in the earlier century.

To make its point the poem juxtaposes three emblems. Unlike symbols, which invite interpretive, often creative analysis, emblems are vivid pictorial images that directly correspond to a clear abstract principle and are intended for instruction. Here Whittier deploys the natural world itself, emblem of the universal principle of order; the flag, emblem not only of the social and political construct called the Union but also of the same universal principle of order as expressed by human endeavor; and the guns of the rebel army, the emblem of disorder, the dangerous assertion of anarchy that, in neoclassical thought, has represented since Lucifer’s rebellion a dire threat to order. The Civil War then is not merely a political, military, economic, or cultural act—it is also a moral act, specifically a violation of a universal principle of order.

Thus, in the temerity of Frietchie’s action, Whittier, a Quaker and a pacifist, is not sanctioning the Union fight. He was deeply disturbed by the violence of the war. This poem is no stirring call to arms and is strikingly nonviolent, centering as it does on shots that are not fired. Rather, Whittier sanctions the Union cause: the restoration of order. The invading rebel troops are clearly out of place not only in the Northern state of Maryland but also in the natural world itself. They are “famished” and “dust-brown” amid the vibrant autumnal abundance. Further, amid such fertility, they destroy. They haul down flags and riddle Frietchie’s flag with a terrific blast. Those violations are in Whittier’s moral vision far graver offenses than any battle casualty, directed as they are against the visible emblem of order.

The turning point comes in Frietchie’s often-quoted couplet : “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head/ But spare your country’s flag.” The key is the second-person possessive pronoun. In this lexical gesture, in its way far more defiant than waving the flag, the old woman reminds the rebels that their treasonous assertion of separation from the Union is a violation of form. More to the point, their rebellion is seen as a temporary disruption that the moral universe, itself governed by a principle of order, will never sanction. Jackson orders his men to hold fire not because Frietchie is an unarmed civilian but because she is right. Barbara Frietchie and Stonewall Jackson thus...

(The entire section is 759 words.)