The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Greenleaf Whittier’s patriotic ballad “Barbara Frietchie” is one of the most popular poems ever published in American literature. Whittier first heard about the incident described in the poem in Frederick, Maryland, more than a year after the fact. Historical investigations have made problematic any claim the poem might have to authenticity; Whittier freely embellished the story of a courageous ninety-year-old woman who dared to wave the Union flag from her second-story window in the face of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson as his troops marched through the small Maryland town. The poem, which passionately validated the importance of the Union, was widely embraced as inspiration for a North weary of the long, bloody war.

Thus, along with Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain,” “Barbara Frietchie” affirms that poetry, occasioned by a specific event, can arouse strong public sentiment. After the war, a generation of schoolchildren memorized Whittier’s dramatic poem, its relative brevity (thirty couplets), its irresistible staccato rhythm, and its heavy masculine rhyme scheme making it ideal for recitation.

The poem can be divided into three sections: prologue/exposition (stanzas 1-8), complication/resolution (stanzas 9-25), and peroration (stanzas 26-30). The poem begins quietly. Whittier creates with spare but vivid details the countryside surrounding...

(The entire section is 533 words.)