Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759

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.

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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 move dramatically to the same moral position against the Confederacy’s unnatural assertion of extremism, revolution, and rebellion. Frietchie’s assertion of the rightness of form is emblematically represented by the Union flag. Its return to a position of prominence, unchallenged by the passive rebel horde, represents Whittier’s affirmation of an ordered universe restored—the very winds that hold the flag aloft are “loyal” to its cause.

As the backdrop, nature itself provides the reassuring model of order in the emblem of the rich Maryland countryside that rings, “green-walled,” around the town. Its stately, orderly progressions are indicated by the poem’s movement from morning to evening; by the poem’s evocation of the seasons, specifically the movement into harvesting; and ultimately by the movement of both the main characters from life to death. Indeed, the order of the natural world is decidedly undisturbed by the ongoing war. It is sunny morning of a “pleasant” autumn day, the orchards bursting with life. That rightness of nature reassures that even amid the terrible chaos of war the universe will ultimately reassert order. In the closing stanzas the universe itself validates the flag and the order that it represents: The stars in the night sky correspond to the stars on the flag over Frietchie’s grave. Barbara Frietchie’s gesture, then, is not merely a political or military statement bound to its moment in history but rather a timeless moral judgment, an unambiguous assertion that the universe embraces order and will triumph over the threat implicit in chaos.

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