John Greenleaf Whittier Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

John Greenleaf Whittier Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.

Abolitionist poems

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...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)