The Poem

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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 Frederick. It is the morning of September 10, 1862. Amid the ravages of war, the Maryland countryside itself is bountiful with its fall harvest, the trees “fruited deep” and as fair as “the garden of the Lord.” Whittier abruptly introduces into this edenic setting the rebel soldiers heading into Frederick. Fresh from taking the federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, as part of general Robert E. Lee’s master strategy to take the war into the North, Stonewall Jackson’s division is on its way to rejoin Lee near Sharpsburg, Maryland. As the rebel “horde” marches through Frederick, they haul down whatever Union flags they see.

In the long second section Whittier recounts with tense economy the two central dramatic acts: Frietchie’s defiance and Jackson’s response. As the rebel troops approach, the elderly Frietchie sets her flag outside her attic window. When Jackson sees the flag, he orders his troops to bring it down in a volley of fire. When Frietchie instinctively snatches the falling flag and waves it “with royal will,” she enjoins them to shoot her but to spare the flag. Jackson, his “nobler nature” stirred, commands his troops not to disturb either the woman or the flag. For the rest of the day, the torn flag waves defiantly above the marching troops.

In a somber peroration Whittier provides the confrontation’s moral perspective. In keeping with the ballad genre he employs, Whittier does not indulge excessive emotionalism or didactic sermonizing. Rather, he ends with an eloquent image. In the year between the poem’s events and the poem’s publication, both Frietchie and Jackson have died, Frietchie presumably from old age and Jackson from friendly fire at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Although he permits a tear for Jackson, Whittier closes the poem with the stirring image of the Union flag, representing “light and law,” still flying proudly, albeit now over Frietchie’s humble grave.

Forms and Devices

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“Barbara Frietchie” is styled as a traditional folk ballad, a compact, rhythmic verse narrative, told impersonally by an omniscient voice, which recounts the courage of common people in a crisis. Whittier, who mastered the form by reading the poetry of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, self-consciously draws on that style to give this contemporary event importance and historic largeness. Because ballads were originally composed as songs...

(This entire section contains 303 words.)

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intended for public performance for (at best) a semi-literate audience, the conventions are deliberately accessible: The setting is recognizable and realistic, the characters act without complex psychological depth, the centering tension is unambiguously drawn between right and wrong, the dialogue is theatrical and heightens the suspense, and the lines are uncluttered by elevated diction or suggestive symbols. The story is related primarily for its dramatic appeal and its inspirational impact. Its steady four-beat-per-line rhythm, suggesting the heavy cadence of the marching soldiers, creates an unrelenting, irresistible forward movement.

Whittier draws heavily on established, largely British poetic conventions to create his ballad’s sonic effects. Hence, the poem has a clear respect for the rules of composition. It provides expected rhythms and anticipated beats (iambic tetrameter) and maintains a patterned rhyme scheme. It further deploys traditional language devices for manipulating the poem’s aural impact, including assonance, consonance, alliteration, the repetition of critical phrasing, inverted syntactical sequencing to create dramatic emphasis (particularly displacing prepositional phrases to enhance suspense), and synecdoche (using part of an image to represent the whole—for instance, the phrase “horse and foot” to represent the soldiers or Frietchie’s telling the soldiers to shoot “this old gray head”). Apart from such traditional devices, the poetic line is uncluttered by figurative language and is deliberately straightforward, reflecting both the ballad genre and Whittier’s own preference, drawn from his Quaker background, for unadorned diction.


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Kribbs, Jayne K. Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Leary, Lewis, and Sylvia Bowman. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

Pickard, Samuel T. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

Wagenknecht, Edward C. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Woodwell, Roland H. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography. Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the Whittier Homestead, 1985.