John Greenleaf Whittier Critical Essays

John Greenleaf Whittier American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Who cares for the opinion of the twentieth century? Not I, for one.” Whittier was often ambivalent about his poetry, remaining unconvinced of its quality and genuinely surprised at its success. While all of Whittier’s poetry may well be considered highly personal, its ultimate sources are the greater environments that enveloped and inspired him. In his youth, these included rural New England, with its distinctive lore, history, and geography, as well as God and the divine presence in humans and nature. His early works were often derivative, reflecting biblical cadences as well as the lyrics of Burns and the poetry of Byronic Romanticism. Many found ready readers in the newspapers of his day, however, and this popularity reinforced his initial impulses. The results were often unpolished and naïve, sometimes painfully crippled by his lack of discipline and aversion to revision.

His best-known works of the 1830’s and 1840’s were shaped by his ever-deeper involvement in antislavery politics. Their tone is intense and sincere, embodying the righteous, but rarely self-righteous, anger and indignation of the abolitionist and reformer. “Moral beauty” took pride of place to natural beauty. In “The Reformer” he admits that the betterment of society demands sacrifices, even of things held dear. American slavery offended Whittier on every level—spiritual, political, intellectual, emotional—and his abolitionist poetry employs every rhetorical stance and technique. The early “Hunters of Men” (1835) asks ironically, if somewhat clumsily, “What right have they [black people] here in the home of the White/ Shadowed o’er by our banner of Freedom and Right?” In the later and often anthologized “Massachusetts to Virginia” (1843) Whittier angered Southerners with his strident championing of Northern moral rectitude over Southern acceptance of moral evil. “No slave-hunt in our borders,—no pirate on our strand!/ No fetters in the Bay State,—no slave upon our land!” With “Ichabod” (1850) and its dirge for tainted New Hampshire senator Webster, Whittier hit a high point and entered the mature phase of his poetry.

Retirement from the political arena in the 1850’s revived Whittier’s rural muse and returned him to his old sources of inspiration. While his political activities had satisfied one side of his Quaker piety—the search for social justice and human equality—he now turned rather more spiritual. This often expressed itself in nostalgic works that mourned the passage of time and folkways in the face of the greater forces of nature and national growth. Many times he harnessed his keen powers of observation (though he was color-blind) and description to simple and lyrical tales of times gone by and deep joys lost in the passage. In “Telling the Bees” (1858) Whittier presents his characteristic use of local color and custom as backdrop to a sudden realization of personal loss. After several years he visits the rural residence of an old flame: “There is the house, with the gate red-barred,/ And the poplars tall;/ And the barn’s brown length, and the cattle-yard,/ And the white horns tossing above the wall.” As he proceeds, he notes that the beehive is covered: a local way of indicating a death in the family. At first, certain it is the grandmother who died, he soon discovers it is his young friend.

In his masterpiece “Snow-Bound,” Whittier harnesses a scene from his youth—perhaps actual, perhaps composite, perhaps fictional—for a Romantic meditation on the value of family love and affection amid nature’s cruelest season. He interlaces scenes of family activity, of work and leisure, with reflections on his own aging and the deaths of most of the characters. Long passages linger on the frozen scenery, the comfortable hearthside, and old tales told to pass the time. His specifics are regional and even...

(The entire section is 1589 words.)