John Greenleaf Whittier American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1589

“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...

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“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 personal, but they rise to universality in his language of loss. No one can stop the cycling of the seasons or the deaths of loved ones or societal change. Memory alone—and the poet’s pen—can immortalize what was once and still is loved.

“Ichabod”

First published: 1850 (collected in The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, 1894)

Type of work: Poem

Abolitionist Whittier expresses his anger, sorrow, and pity over Daniel Webster’s support for the Missouri Compromise.

On March 7, 1850, New Hampshire senator Webster gave a noted speech in which he supported the political settlement known as the Missouri Compromise, by which new slave states could enter the Union. Whittier had been a supporter of Webster since the early 1830’s and was thunderstruck by his move, as were many abolitionists. In the National Anti-Slavery Standard, James Russell Lowell demanded rhetorically “Shall not the Recording Angel write Ichabod (inglorious one) after the name of this man in the great book of Doom?” Whittier adopted the biblical name as the title for his political denunciation of Webster but expressed his sorrow and anger in other biblical terms. “So fallen! so lost!” the poem opens, “the light withdrawn.” Webster is the fallen angel of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), his “bright soul driven, . . . From hope and heaven!” He has lost honor and his followers’ love, but Whittier counsels not “passion’s stormy rage,” “not scorn and wrath” but “pitying tears” and a “long lament” as the nation’s response. The disillusioned poet calls his fellows to treat Webster—who is never named—as one who is dead and to “pay the reverence of old days/ To his dead fame. . . .” He ends by referencing the drunken Noah in Genesis, whose sons approached his shameful nakedness walking “backward, with averted gaze” to cover the patriarch’s folly. By mentioning neither Webster nor his speech, Whittier universalizes his sense of betrayal in what many consider a classic American poetic political denunciation, also known as a philippic.

“Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl”

First published: 1866 (collected in Snow-Bound, 1866)

Type of work: Poem

The poet waxes nostalgic over a New England snowstorm and his now largely dead family’s experience of love and fellowship in its midst.

Generally considered Whittier’s masterpiece, “Snow-Bound” is dedicated to “the Household It Describes” and prefaced by a quotation from the Renaissance occultist Cornelius Agrippa on the powers of sunlight and firelight over “Spirits of Darkness,” and a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm.” Whittier wrote this work of high nostalgia shortly after the death of his beloved sister, Elizabeth, who had long taken care of him. This carefully crafted genre piece opens with a long, elegiac description of a December day in New England and the chores performed on his boyhood farm. The east wind brings a heavy snowstorm that roars on through the long night. The sunless morning reveals a transformed landscape of unfamiliar shapes and contours, and the call of “our father” to the “boys” (Whittier and his brother) to cut a path from house to barn. Whittier evokes both the shriek of “the mindless wind” and the silence of the usually babbling brook now encased in ice. With the first night comes the fire that transforms the tiny and isolated world inside the house. The gathered family with warmed bodies and hearts and mugs of hot cider bask in the glow, “What matter how the night behaved?” Whittier the narrator then indulges in a reflection on the past-ness of the scene:“with so much gone; . . . The voices of that hearth are still.” His family is largely dead and gone, but “Life is ever lord of Death,/ And Love can never lose its own!” In the poem’s second part, stories are told to “sleepy listeners as they lay,” by father, mother, uncle, aunt, and elder sister, now lately gone to the “holy peace of Paradise,” and subject of a second reflective interlude. A schoolteacher and an annoyingly religious woman appear and share the warmth, which lasts until the fire crumbles to embers and ash. In the third part, teamsters arrive carving a public path, a doctor calls for help, and the poet’s once snowbound world gives way to the world at large, best encapsulated in the newspaper with its tales of war and “the pulse of life that round us beats.” Whittier ends in an elegiac postlude calling for a pause to reflect in the midst of the bustle of a changing world.

“Among the Hills”

First published: 1869 (collected in Among the Hills, and Other Poems, 1869)

Type of work: Poem

A trip to the countryside reminds the poet of the civilizing value of rural life.

In his prelude, Whittier criticizes the New Englanders of his time as crippled prisoners of their own lack of vision, with starved spirits though they live in a rich land. Optimistically he calls them to reach out for the beauty and joy provided by God and to appreciate the beauty of nature that reflects the love of God. As the poem opens, summer’s long cloudy disposition gives way to sunshine and the natural beauties it reveals as a couple drives through the countryside to a farmhouse to purchase butter. Here the housewife tells her tale of how she came to the farm and convinced the crusty New Englander that he needed a wife and that it should be she: “And so the farmer found a wife.” He was thus transformed as a man both private and public, as his “love thus deepened to respect.” She too was transformed to a simpler life and outlook, now shunning “the follies, born/ Of fashion and convention.” The couple returns home as the sun sets. and the poet reflects on her story and how “To rugged farm-life came the gift/ To harmonize and soften.”

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