Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1458
In the collected edition of his work, John Greenleaf Whittier decided to arrange his poems by topic, in ten categories, rather than present them in chronological order. He also suppressed many of the early verses that had proved embarrassing to him so that the supposedly complete 1894 edition of The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier is not really definitive, though it reflects the poet’s final intentions. This arrangement obscures Whittier’s development as a poet, but it does tell something about his major concerns and about the poetic forms in which he felt most comfortable. These include antislavery poems, songs of labor and reform, ballads, narratives and legends, nature poems, personal poems, historical poems, occasional verses, hymns and religious lyrics, and genre poems and country idylls.
From Whittier’s collected verse, perhaps a dozen or so titles are distinctive. These include “Ichabod,” “Massachusetts to Virginia,” “Barbara Frietchie,” “Telling the Bees,” “Laus Deo,” “The Trailing Arbutus,”“Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” “First-Day Thoughts,” and of course “Snow-Bound.” A few other selections should be mentioned—“In School-Days,” “The Barefoot Boy,” and “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”—simply because they are part of America’s popular culture.
Many of Whittier’s abolitionist poems are little more than crude propaganda, but with “Ichabod,” he produced a masterpiece of political satire and invective. Cast in terms of a prophetic rebuke, the poem is directed at Daniel Webster, whose “Seventh of March” speech in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law aroused the wrath and enmity of many Northern abolitionists, who accused him of selling out to slave interests. Whittier portrays Webster, in terms of bitter denunciation, as a leader who has betrayed his countrymen and extinguished the life of his soul. His audience would certainly have caught the disparaging reference to I Samuel 4:21, “And she named the child Ichabod, saying the glory is departed from Israel!” Webster, a contemporary “Ichabod” in his fall from glory, becomes the object of scorn and pity for his betrayal of the antislavery cause.
This same contentious tone is also evident in another antislavery poem, “Massachusetts to Virginia,” which contrasts the free strength of the North with the moral decadence brought about by slavery in the South. The poem recalls that both Commonwealth States had stood united in the War for Independence, and appeals to that sense of common fellowship in freedom. Though some passages are marred by stock declamatory phrases and excessive use of formal diction and hyperbole, the poem ably makes its point and ends with a ringing slogan, “No fetters in the Bay State,—No slaves upon our Land!”
To a staunch abolitionist, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865, was reason enough for an occasional poem, but Whittier’s “Laus Deo” (literally “praise God”) expresses his personal jubilation at seeing a lifetime’s work brought to completion. The poem describes the ringing of bells and firing of guns in Amesbury that accompanied the announcement that slavery had officially been abolished throughout the Union. The ten stanzas of trochaic tetrameter create a hymn of celebration and gratitude in which the Lord sanctions the righteousness of the Union cause.
On a more personal note, Whittier wrote many memorable verses in tribute to his Quaker faith, the finest of these perhaps being “First-Day Thoughts,” in which he evoked the quiet grace and deep spirituality of the Friends’ service. He captures the essence of Christian worship in the soul’s contemplation of its creator through “the still small voice” of silent meditation. This same note of profound spiritual depth and reverence for the inner life appears in his famous hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” which was adapted from the last six stanzas of “The Brewing of Soma.” This inner faith grew with age and led Rufus M. Jones to comment later that Whittier “grasped more steadily, felt more profoundly, and interpreted more adequately the essential aspects of the Quaker life and faith” than any other of his age.
Country idylls and genre poems
Whittier’s most lasting accomplishment, however, rests with his country idylls and genre poems, those set pieces and descriptive verses in which he evokes a memory of his childhood or presents an idealized view of the pleasures of rural life. In “The Trailing Arbutus,” for example, a glimpse of this early spring flower on an otherwise cold and bitter day becomes the occasion for a moment of natural rapture. A better poem, “Telling the Bees,” uses the New England custom of draping bee hives after a family death as a way of foreshadowing the narrator’s sorrow at the loss of his beloved Mary. This particular poem, occasioned by the death of the poet’s mother, contains some of his finest descriptive passages. Another genre poem, “In School-Days,” treats of bashful love and childhood regrets nostalgically remembered, while “The Barefoot Boy” presents a stilted and somewhat generalized picture of rural childhood: Only in the middle stanzas does the poem rise above platitudes to a realistic glimpse of the poet’s actual boyhood. With “Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” Whittier turned a New England legend into the material for a memorable folk ballad, although at the expense of historical veracity. The poem’s mock-heroic tone does not mask the cruelty of the incident, in which Old Floyd Ireson was “tarred and feathered and carried in a cart” by the women of Marblehead for allegedly failing to rescue the survivors of another sinking fishing vessel. However factually inaccurate, Whittier’s version of the legend captures the essential qualities of mob behavior in what one critic has called the most effective nineteenth century American ballad.
“Snow-Bound,” subtitled “A Winter Idyl,” is probably Whittier’s most lasting achievement. The founding of The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 had given him a steady market for his verse, and when the editor, James Russell Lowell, wrote to him in 1865 requesting a “Yankee pastoral,” Whittier responded with “Snow-Bound,” which was published in the February, 1866, issue. The epigrams from Agrippa von Nettesheim’s Occult Philosophy (1533) and Emerson’s “The Snow Storm” establish the parameters of the poem in what John B. Pickard has called the protective circle of the family and hearth against the ominous power of the winter storm. Through an extended narrative in four-beat rhymed couplets, Whittier recalls the self-sufficiency of his family and recounts their close-knit circle of domestic affection as seen through a week of enforced winter isolation. This theme is enhanced through a series of contrasts between light and dark, warmth and cold, indoors and outdoors, fire and snow. After taking the reader through the round of barnyard chores, the poet shifts his perspective indoors to describe the sitting room of the Whittier homestead. Part 2 of the poem begins with Whittier’s recollections of the tales and stories the family shared during their long evenings before the fire, with father, mother, uncle, aunt, schoolteacher, and another female guest each taking turns with the storytelling. The evening’s entertainment finally ends as the fire burns low in the hearth and each family member retires from the pleasant circle of light and warmth. Part 3 of the poem gradually shifts from the past back to the present, as the poet’s memories of “these Flemish pictures of old days” gradually fade; just as the fireplace logs had earlier faded to glowing embers covered with gray ash, so the poet will now gradually relinquish these recollections that have warmed “the hads of memory.” His concluding lines express the hope that these memories will touch other readers and uplift their hearts, like the fresh odors of newly cut meadows, or pond lilies’ fragrance on a summer breeze. The shift in season enforces the contrast between past and present, distancing Whittier from his family, most of whom had since died.
While he was not a major poet, Whittier learned early from Burns the value of the commonplace, and his best poetry reflects an affectionate understanding of New England country life. If his muse flew no higher than popular and occasional verse, at least he wrote well of what he knew best—the customs and folkways of Yankee farming; the spiritual resources of his Quaker faith, which taught him to place spiritual concerns over material needs; and the history and legends of Essex County. His most accomplished poems look ahead to Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, who would further probe the diminished world of the New England farm and village. Whittier stands directly in this tradition. His reputation has held better than those of the other Fireside poets, and he will continue to be read for his grasp of several essential truths: the value of family affections, the importance of firm moral character, and the simple attractions of country life.