Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3401
SOURCE: "Whittier the Poet," in John Greenleaf Whittier, The Macmillan Company, 1907, pp. 150-70.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1902, Higginson discusses the influence of religion and of moral and philosophical issues on Whittier's distinctive American style.]
In . . . considering Whittier's more general claims as a poet, we must accept Lord Bacon's fine definition of poetry that "It hath something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do." In this noble discrimination,—which one wonders not to have been cited among the rather inadequate arguments to prove that Lord Bacon was the real Shakespeare,—we have the key, so far as there is any, for the change from the boy Whittier, with his commonplace early rhymes, into the man who reached the sublime anthem of "My Soul and I." He also was "hurried into sublimity."
In the case of [Oliver Wendell] Holmes, it is a very common remark that his prose, especially "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," will outlast his poems, except perhaps "The Chambered Nautilus." No one can make any similar suggestion in regard to Whittier, whose best poetry wholly surpasses his best prose, in respect to grasp and permanence. It is, indeed, rather surprising to see how much of his prose he has thought it best to preserve, and by how little literary distinction it is marked. Earnestness and sound sense, it always has; and it always throws its stress on the side of manly sympathy and human progress, but more than this cannot be said. His few attempts at fiction are without marked life, and the little poems interspersed in them are better than the prose, which is rarely the case with authors. Much of this prose is simply in the line of reformatory journalism, and does not bear the test of the bound volume. Even in his narratives of real experience there is nothing to be compared with [James Russell] Lowell's "Moosehead Journal," or in general literary merit with his "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners." On the other hand, Whittier escapes the pitfalls or tiresome side-paths into which both Lowell and Holmes were sometimes tempted; he may be prosaic, but never through levity, as sometimes happened to Lowell, or through some scientific whim, as in case of Holmes; and though his prose never has, on the literary side, the affluence of [Henry Wadsworth Long fellow's] Hyperion, it never shows the comparative poverty of [Longfellow's novel] "Kavanagh." It is, nevertheless, as a whole, so far inferior to his poems, that it is best at this day to give our chief attention to these.
No one can dwell much on Whittier without recognising him as the distinctively American poet of familiar life. More than any other he reaches the actual existence of the people, up to the time of his death. He could say of himself what Lowell said dramatically only, "We draw our lineage from the oppressed." Compared with him Longfellow, Holmes, and even Lowell, seem the poets of a class; Whittier alone is near the people; setting apart Emerson, who inhabited a world of his own, "so near and yet so far." His whole position was indeed characteristic of American society; had he lived in England, he would always have been, at his highest, in the position of some Corn-Law Rhymer, some Poet of the People; or at best, in the often degrading position of his favourite Burns himself, whereas in his own country this external difference was practically forgotten. Having gone thus far in fitting out this modest poet, nature gave to him, more directly than to either of the others, the lyric gift—a naturalness of song and flow, increasing with years and reaching where neither of the others attained. A few of Longfellow's poems have this, but Whittier it pervades; and beginning like Burns, with the very simplest form, the verse of four short lines, he gradually trained himself, like Burns, to more varied or at least to statelier measures.
Burns was undoubtedly his literary master in verse and Milton in prose. He said of Burns to Mrs. Fields, "He lives, next to Shakespeare, in the heart of humanity."1 His contentment in simple measures was undoubtedly a bequest from this poet and was carried even farther, while his efforts were more continuous in execution and higher in tone. On the other hand, he drew from Milton his long prose sentences and his tendency to the florid rather than the terse. His conversation was terse enough, but not his written style. He said to Mrs. Fields: "Milton's prose has long been my favourite reading. My whole life has felt the influence of his writings."2 He once wrote to Fields that Allingham, after Tennyson, was his favourite among modern British poets. I do not remember him as quoting Browning or speaking of him. This may, however, have been an accident. . . .
It was a natural result of his reticent habit and retired life that his maturer poems impress us, as we dwell upon them, with more sense of surprise as to their origin and shaping than exists in the case of any of his compeers, save only the almost equally reticent Emerson. In Longfellow's memoirs, in Lowell's letters, we see them discussing their purposes with friends, accepting suggestion and correction, while Whittier's poems come always with surprise, and even Mr. Pickard's careful labours add little to our knowledge. Mrs. Claflin and Mrs. Fields give us little as to the actual origins of his poems. I have never felt this deficiency more than in sitting in his house, once or twice, since his death, and observing the scantiness of even his library. Occasional glimpses in his notes help us a very little, as for instance what he says in the preface to his [short story collection] Child Life in Prose, published in 1873, as to his early sources of inspiration:—
It is possible that the language and thought of some portions of the book may be considered beyond the comprehension of the class for which it is intended. Admitting that there may be truth in the objection, I believe, with Coventry Patmore in his preface to a child's book, that the charm of such a volume is increased rather than lessened by the surmised existence of an unknown element of power, meaning, and beauty. I well remember how, at a very early age, the solemn organ-roll of Gray's "Elegy" and the lyric sweep and pathos of Cowper's "Lament for the Royal George" moved and fascinated me with a sense of mystery and power felt rather than understood. "A spirit passed before my face, but the form thereof was not discerned." Freighted with unguessed meanings, these poems spake to me, in an unknown tongue, indeed, but like the wind in the pines or the waves on the beach, awakening faint echoes and responses, and vaguely prophesying of wonders yet to be revealed.
He was the Tyrtaeus or leading bard of the greatest moral movement of the age; and he probably gained in all ways from the strong tonic of the antislavery agitation. This gave a training in directness, simplicity, genuineness; it taught him to shorten his sword and to produce strong effects by common means. It made him permanently high-minded also, and placed him, as he himself always said, above the perils and temptations of a merely literary career. Though always careful in his work, and a good critic of the work of others, he usually talked by preference upon subjects not literary—politics, social science, the rights of labour. He would speak at times, if skilfully led up to it, about his poems, and was sometimes, though rarely, known to repeat them aloud; but his own personality was never a favourite theme with him, and one could easily fancy him as going to sleep, like La Fontaine, at the performance of his own opera.
In his antislavery poetry he was always simple, always free from that excess or over-elaborateness of metaphor to be seen sometimes in Lowell. On the other hand he does not equal Lowell in the occasional condensation of vigorous thought into great general maxims. Lowell's "Verses suggested by the Present Crisis" followed not long after Whittier's "Massachusetts to Virginia," and, being printed anonymously, was at first attributed to the same author. Whittier's poems had even more lyric fire and produced an immediate impression even greater, but it touched universal principles less broadly, and is therefore now rarely quoted, while Lowell's
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne,
is immortal on the lips of successive orators.
Brought up at a period when Friends disapproved of music, Whittier had no early training in this direction, and perhaps no natural endowment. He wrote in a letter of 1882,—"I don't know anything of music, not one tune from another." This at once defined the limits of his verse, and restricted him to the very simplest strains. He wrote mostly in the four line ballad metre, which he often made not only very effective, but actually melodious. That he had a certain amount of natural ear is shown by his use of proper names, in which, after his early period of Indian experiments had passed, he rarely erred. In one of his very best poems, "My Playmate," a large part of the effectiveness comes from the name of the locality:—
The dark pines sing on Ramoth hill
The slow song of the sea.
He felt his own deficiency in regard to music, and had little faith in his own ear, the result being that even if he made a happy stroke in the way of sound, he was apt to distrust it at the suggestion of some prosaic friend with a foot rule, who convinced him that he was taking a dangerous liberty. Thus, in "The New Wife and the Old," in describing the night sounds, he finally closed with—
And the great sea waves below,
Pulse o' the midnight beating slow.
This "pulse o' the midnight" was an unusual rhythmic felicity for him, but, on somebody's counting the syllables, he tamely submitted, substituting
Like the night's pulse, beating slow,
which is spondaic and heavy; but he afterward restored the better line. In the same way, when he sang of the shoemakers in the very best of his Songs of Labour, he originally wrote:—
Thy songs, Hans Sachs, are living yet,
In strong and hearty German,
And Canning's craft and Gifford's wit,
And the rare good sense of Sherman.
Under similar pressure of criticism he was induced to substitute
And patriot fame of Sherman,
and this time he did not repent. It is painful to think what would have become of the liquid measure of Coleridge's "Christable" had some tiresome acquaintance, possibly "a person on business from Porlock," insisted on thus putting that poem in the stocks.
It shows the essential breadth which lay beneath the religious training of the Society of Friends, even in its most conservative wing, that Whittier, not knowing a note of music, should have contributed more hymns to the hymn-book than any other poet of his time, although this is in many cases through the manipulation of others, which furnished results quite unexpected to him. In a collection of sixty-six hymns prepared for the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, more were taken from Whittier's poems than from any other author, these being nine in all. The volume edited by Longfellow and Johnson, called Hymns of the Spirit (1864), has twenty-two from Whittier; the Unitarian Hymn and Tune Book of 1868, has seven, and Dr. Martineau's Hymns of Praise has seven. As has elsewhere been stated, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin D. Mead reported, after attending many popular meetings in England, in 1901, that they heard Whittier and Longfellow quoted and sung more freely than any other poets.
It is especially to be noticed that in Whittier's poems of the sea there is a salt breath, a vigorous companionship—perhaps because he was born and bred near it—not to be found in either of his companion authors. There is doubtless a dramatic movement, an onward sweep in Longfellow's "Wreck of the Hesperus" and "Sir Humphrey Gilbert" such as Whittier never quite attained, and the same may be true of the quiet, emotional touch in Longfellow's "The Fire of Driftwood"; nor was there ever produced in America, perhaps, any merely meditative poem of the sea so thoughtful and so perfect in execution as Holmes's "The Chambered Nautilus." Among American poets less known, Brownlee Brown's "Thalatta" and Helen Jackson's "Spoken" were respectively beyond him in their different directions. But for the daily atmosphere and life, not so much of the sea as of the seaside, for the companionship of the sailor, the touch that makes the ocean like a larger and more sympathetic human being to those who dwell within its very sound, Whittier stands before them all; he is simply a companion to the sailor, as he is to the farmer and the hunter; and he weaves out of the life of each a poetry such as its actual child hardly knows. The "Tent on the Beach" will always keep us nearer to the actual life of salt water than can anything by Whittier's companion poets.
Probably no poet was ever more surprised by the success of a new book than was Whittier by that of this poem about which, as he wrote to a friend, he had great misgivings, as it was prepared under especial disadvantages. He was amazed when he saw in the Boston Transcript that a first edition of ten thousand copies had been printed, and thought it "an awful swindle" upon the public that a thousand copies a day should have been sold. This made more striking the fact that he put into it, perhaps, the best bit of self-delineation he ever accomplished in the following lines:—
And one there was, a dreamer born,
Who, with a mission to fulfil,
Had left the Muses' haunts to turn
The crank of an opinion mill,
Making his rustic reed of song
A weapon in the war with Wrong,
Yoking his fancy to the breaking plough
That beam-deep turned the soil for truth to spring and grow.
Too quiet seemed the man to ride
The winged Hippogriff, Reform;
Was his a voice from side to side
To pierce the tumult of the storm?
A silent, shy, peace-loving man,
He seemed no fiery partisan
To hold his way against the public frown,
The ban of Church and State, the fierce mob's bounding down.
For while he wrought with strenuous will
The work his hands had found to do,
He heard the fitful music still
Of winds that out of dreadland blew;
The din about him could not drown
What the strange voices whispered down;
Along his task-field weird processions swept,
The visionary pomp of stately phantoms stepped.
The uncertainty of an author's judgment of his own books was never better illustrated than by the fact that Whittier's poem "Mabel Martin" first published under the name of "The Witch's Daughter" in the National Era for 1857—erroneously described by Mr. Pickard as first published in 1866—was his greatest immediate financial success. It was somewhat enlarged as "Mabel Martin" in 1877, and he received for it $1000 at the first annual payment. Mr. Pickard pronounces it "charming," but I suspect that it is rarely copied, and hardly ever quoted—perhaps because the three-line measure is unfavourable to Whittier's style or to the public tastes. The absence of rhyme from one line in each three-line verse is not compensated by any advantage, while the four-line verse of the dedication of the whole work to the memory of his mother is very attractive.
He has defects of execution which are easily apparent. His poems, even to the latest, are apt to be too long, and to be laden with a superfluous moral, and come dangerously near to meriting the criticism of D'Alembert on Richardson's long-winded words, once so lauded: "Nature is a good thing, but do not bore us with it (non pas à l'ennui)." Whittier did not actually reach the point of ennui, but came very near it. As for his rhymes, though not so bad as those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they were, in his early years, bad enough. Mr. Linton, from the English point of view, or from any other, was justified in protesting against such rhymes as worn and turn, joins and pines, faults and revolts, flood and Hood, even and Devon, heaven and forgiven.3 We can easily find in addition, mateless and greatness, pearl and marl, women and trimming, scamper and Hampshire; some of all this list, it must be remembered, being mere archaisms or localisms, and all tending in Whittier's case, as in Mrs. Browning's, to entire disappearance after middle life. No one complains of the rhymes in "Sonnets from the Portuguese."
Even when Whittier uses a mispronunciation or makes a slip in grammar, it has the effect of oversight or of whim, rather than of ignorance. Thus he commonly accents the word "romance" on the first syllable, as in—
Young Romance raised his dreamy eyes;
while at other times he places the stress more correctly on the last, as where he writes—
Where Tasso sang, let young Romance and Love.4
In summing up the results of Whittier's twin career as poet and as file-leader, it may be safely said that his early career of reformer made him permanently high-minded, and placed him above the perils and temptations of a merely literary career. This he himself recognised from the first, and wrote it clearly and musically in a poem printed at the very height of conflict (1847), more than ten years before the Civil War. He took this poem as the prelude to a volume published ten years later, and again while revising his poems for a permanent edition in 1892. Unlike many of his earlier compositions, it is reprinted by him without the change of a syllable.
I love the old melodious lays
Which softly melt the ages through,
The songs of Spenser's golden days,
Arcadian Sidney's silvery phrase,
Sprinkling our noon of time with freshest morning dew.
Yet vainly in my quiet hours
To breathe their marvellous notes I try;
I feel them, as the leaves and flowers
In silence feel the dewy showers,
And drink with glad still lips the blessing of the sky.
The rigour of a frozen clime,
The harshness of an untaught ear,
The jarring words of one whose rhyme
Beat often Labour's hurried time
On Duty's rugged march through storm and strife, are here.
Of mystic beauty, dreamy grace,
No rounded art the lack supplies;
Unskilled the subtler lines to trace
Or softer shades of Nature's face.
I view her common forms with unanointed eyes.
Nor mine the seer-like power to show
The secrets of the heart and mind;
To drop the plummet-line below
Our common world of joy and woe,
A more intense despair or brighter hope to find.
Yet here at least an earnest sense
Of human right and weal is shown,
A hate of tyranny intense
And hearty in its vehemence
As if my brother's pain and sorrow were my own.
Freedom! if to me belong
Nor mighty Milton's gift divine,
Nor Marvell's wit and graceful song,
Still, with a love as deep and strong
As theirs, I lay, like them, my best gifts on thy shrine.
It is well to close this chapter with these words he wrote, at the Asquam House, in 1882, on the death of Longfellow, in a copy of the latter's poems, belonging to my sister:—
Hushed now the sweet consoling tongue
Of him whose lyre the Muses strung;
His last low swan-song had been sung!
His last! And ours, dear friend, is near;
As clouds that rake the mountains here,
We too shall pass and disappear,
Yet howsoever changed or tost,
Not even a wreath of mist is lost,
No atom can itself exhaust.
So shall the soul's superior force
Live on and run its endless course
In God's unlimited universe.
And we, whose brief reflections seem
To fade like clouds from lake and stream,
Shall brighten in a holier beam.
1 Fields's Whittier, p. 51.
2 Fields's Whittier, p. 41.
3 Linton's Whittier, p. 167.
4Poetical Works, IV. 38.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
John Greenleaf Whittier 1807-1892
American poet, journalist, essayist, editor, and hymn writer.
A noted abolitionist and social reformer, Whittier is chiefly remembered today for his poetry. In his most popular works, he used rural and biblical imagery to describe nineteenth-century New England life. With the favorable reception of poems such as Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (1866), Whittier joined the ranks of such other enduring American poets as William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Whittier's reputation has suffered in the twentieth century because of the didacticism and dated nature of his works; his significant role in American literary history, however, is still acknowledged today.
Whittier was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, to Quaker parents. Though he had little formal education, he studied the Bible and the works of John Milton, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Robert Burns. He was particularly impressed by the Scottish poet Burns, whose beautiful descriptions of rural farm scenes resonated strongly with the New England youth. Physically frail, Whittier was unsuited for farm work and dreamed of becoming a poet. In 1826 his sister Elizabeth anonymously sent his poem "The Exile's Departure" to the Newburyport Free Press. The poem so impressed editor and noted social reformer William Lloyd Garrison that he encouraged Whittier to contribute more of his work. He also helped Whittier attain his first literary position as editor of the political magazine the American Manufacturer, in 1829. A year later Whittier became editor of the widely read New England Weekly Review. Soon he published his first collection of tales and poems, Legends of New England in Prose and Verse (1831). Forced to resign his editorial responsibilities due to ill health and his father's death, Whittier returned to Haverhill in 1832. Influenced again by his mentor Garrison, Whittier wrote the first of many antislavery tracts, an essay entitled Justice and Expediency; or, Slavery Considered with a View to Its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition (1833). Aware that his abolitionist stance might jeopardize popular reception of his poetry, Whittier nevertheless chose to devote himself to what he considered a just and noble cause. For nearly twelve years he concentrated exclusively on abolitionist issues in his essays, prose, and poetry, while working for the Anti-Slavery Society. Whittier also worked for social change through political channels, campaigning extensively for candidates who proposed legislative answers to anti-slavery issues. ("Ichabod" , considered one of Whittier's final abolitionist poems, reflected his shock and anger at the decision by his personal friend, the politician Daniel Webster, to support a compromise with Southern slaveholders.) In 1843, while continuing to work for abolition, Whittier resumed a more mainstream literary career, taking his themes primarily from everyday New England life. He continued examining these themes in his poetry and autobiographical sketches throughout the rest of his poetical career. He also contributed hymns to several popular hymnals. He reached his literary apex in 1866 with the publication of his most successful ballad, Snow-Bound. This work helped Whittier achieve renown as a literary figure. Snow-Bound was both a critical and a financial success, enabling its author to live comfortably until his death in 1892.
The poetry and prose of Whittier's early years clearly reflect his social concerns and commitment to abolitionism, expressed in his pamphlet Justice and Expediency. The poems of these years, such as those published in Poems (1838), were generally propaganda pieces. With the publication of Lays of My Home, and Other Poems (1843), Whittier achieved a better-received balance of poetry and polemics, translating his social concerns into themes of regional pride, brotherly love, and religious ideals. Whittier employed New England imagery in his only novel, Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1849). This work, in the form of a fictional journal, depicts life in the New England colonies through the eyes of a young English girl. In the following years Whittier composed many of his ballads, which show an increasing disengagement from political themes in favor of New England imagery, autobiographical sketches, and Quaker philosophy. The founding of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 provided Whittier with a wide reading audience. Some of his finest poetic achievements were first published in the Atlantic during these years, including "Skipper Arisen's Ride" and "Telling the Bees" (1857). Whittier also wrote Snow-Bound, widely considered his best work, during this period. This poem, a nostalgic description of family interactions while snowbound by an unexpected winter storm, encapsulates Whittier's love of family, New England, and the past. The poem's emotional depth is thought to have derived from Whittier's grief over the deaths of his mother and sister. Today the work is considered as a precursor to the pastoral poems of such twentieth-century poets as Robert Frost.
Critical appraisal of Whittier's work has passed through several phases over the years. His early critics, through the end of the Civil War, expressed admiration for the emotional impact and polemical effectiveness of his verse but pointed to numerous technical flaws, such as clumsy prose and faulty rhyme schemes. James Russell Lowell commended Whittier's boldness and sincerity, yet never considered him a first-rate poet. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe called Whittier a "fine versifier," but would not include his name in the ranks of premier American poets. However, Whittier was a popular and respected writer, especially following the publication of Snow-Bound. The overwhelming popularity of this poem marked the beginning of the second phase of critical reaction, which lasted until the 1920s. During this period Whittier was esteemed as one of America's most admired literary figures. His personal life, described as saintly by biographers of the time, became inseparable from the evaluation of his work. His death prompted an outpouring of loving remembrances and fond memorials, few of which objectively assessed the quality of his work. Attitudes towards Whittier's poetry changed considerably beginning in the late 1920s, when critics took him to task for being overly moralistic and sentimental. Most commentators agreed, however, on his importance as a social reformer. His work subsequently received little critical attention until the 1950s, when interest in his poetry saw a modest revival. Many modern critics, such as John B. Pickard, consider the poet a paradoxical blend of success and failure and maintain that he should be remembered as a significant historical figure rather than for his contributions to literature. His early works survive mainly as historical documents that represent a turbulent era in American history, but a few of his best-loved pieces, such as Snow-Bound, endure as nostalgic pastorals and continue to be studied today. Recent critics tend to concur with Whittier's own appraisal of his place in history: "I am not one of the master singers and don't pose as one. By the grace of God, I am only what I am and don't wish to pass for more."
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9608
SOURCE: "Whittier Criticism Over the Years," in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. C, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 159-82.
[In the following excerpt, the author contrasts the backgrounds and biases of various Whittier critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]
From time to time it is interesting as well as profitable to review the course of the critical fortunes of our writers and to compare the evaluations of their contemporaries with those of a later generation. Such an examination is particularly interesting in the case of a writer like John Greenleaf Whittier, who enjoyed great popular acclaim.
The period of about one hundred and twenty years of Whittier criticism covered by this survey falls neatly in two parts divided roughly by Whittier's death at the turn of the century. The criticism in the first period has two disadvantages which that of the second does not have to face. When an author is still writing, the critic has only part of his ultimate production with which to deal. Furthermore, he is aware of the author himself, alive, responsive, and, in some part, influential as a personal force. This force, in the case of Whittier, was obviously much more powerful than is the case with many writers. Death probably makes it easier for the critic to be more objective. In addition, death generally terminates abruptly the likelihood that more material will have to be considered, making it possible for the critic to deal with the work as a whole. Taine suggested that the key to understanding an artist was his nationality, his times, and his environment. If we add to these the characteristic of temperament, we shall have a fairly complete set of criteria, which may be applied profitably both to the poet and to his critics.
In 1842 the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold, tireless anthologizer, literateur, champion of American writers, and infamous executor of Poe's literary remains, published the first edition of his Poets and Poetry of America, a monumental work and a mine of literary history devoted principally to biographical and bibliographical comment on the numerous poets whose works were included in the sizable tome. He felt that many of Whittier's best poems dealt with the slavery question, that they showed a manly vigor of thought and language, and a true spirit of liberty. Ironically enough, not one of the twelve poems by Whittier included in the collection dealt with the category Griswold felt represented Whittier's best verse, that devoted to the slavery question. In this volume, by comparison to Whittier, Longfellow had eleven poems and four pages; Whittier had twelve poems and twenty pages. Mogg Megone was included in its entirety. The eleventh edition, of 1853, was revised to include nine poems; but the number of pages dropped to eighteen through the omission of Mogg. Longfellow, in this edition, was allotted eight pages and fourteen poems. There were further revised editions, the final one brought up to date by R. H. Stoddard in 1873. The only change in the Whittier selections over the years, however, was the addition in 1855 of the poem "Randolph of Roanoke". This same edition paid tribute to the unusual vigor of invective and the honesty and courage of the Abolition poems. Boldness and energy are considered Whittier's chief characteristics; tenderness and grace are almost as important. Love for and faith in the republican form of government is needed to elevate the national character and literature; and Whittier provided them in good measure, according to the anthologist.
Whittier had published eight volumes of verse in the ten years between 1831, the date of his first book, and 1840, the date of Moll Pitcher and the Minstrel Girl; and though there must have been many reviews and notices in the newspapers and magazines of the day, the first review I have come across is of his volume, Lays of My Home and Other Poems, published in 1843. Strangely enough it appeared, of all places, in the Southern Quarterly Review;1 and it is interesting for several reasons. The author states that the quality of Whittier's verse is "respectable" only and that "the sin of mediocrity lies at his doors." He is granted a "tolerable smoothness of flow" and "occasional energy of expression." However, his verses are "wondrously frigid." The reviewer goes on to say:
He [Whittier] is called the Quaker poet, and his poetry is the very pink of broad brimism. It lacks very equally, tenderness and felicity. Its chief or only, merits are plain good sense, general correctness, and a very fair and commendable appreciation of morals and propriety. Beyond this, the volume is a blank. It possesses neither originality nor warmth—unless, indeed, when the author falls into a fury (as he does with Virginia) and for no better reason than we can see, but because our very excellent senior sister thought proper to adopt certain measures to prevent philanthropic persons from the Bay State—Quakers, in all probability—from stealing and carrying back the slaves which they (or their ancestors) had previously sold her. This situation irritates Whittier and lets him show feeling, otherwise wanting in his poetry.
This critic was obviously shocked by the volume. He tells his readers that he was aware of the weakness critics have for exaggeration, and that he had allowed for the tendency of every Northerner to think every New England duckling a swan. But even making these concessions, he had expected, without knowing Whittier's work at first hand, that he was a true poet to some degree. But after reading the volume being reviewed, he realizes his error. Whittier does make verses that are not bad as verses go, but they lack "glow or inspiration" in any degree. Whittier's rhyme is good enough, but it is "frigid, very monotonous, and very commonplace."
The partisan quality of this review is quite obvious and is both understandable and typical of the general tendency of the Southern reviewers whenever the subject of slavery was involved. In addition, it seems to reveal the resentment that writers from both the South and West seemed to feel in response to a real or fancied note of superiority they detected on the part of the writers from the Northeast. It is interesting to note that these same writers of the Northeast had the same sensitiveness towards their literary brothers in Great Britain.
The next review,2 of Voices of Freedom, published in 1846, did not appear until 1848; and the old problem of obscurity was very much in evidence. The reviewer praises the simple, sincere music of old and contrasts it with the unintelligibility of the present, allying Whittier with the former. The question that has been debated since Aristotle, whether the object of poetry is pleasure or knowledge, is also still alive in this review. In vigorous language, the writer commends Whittier for realizing that pleasure and instruction are possible at the same time, comments on the powers of literature to mould readers' actions for good or evil, and regrets that the devil seems to have a corner on the best literature at the present. More hopefully, he notes that even in France and among periodical readers, more substance is being demanded. He continues, "God be thanked that in this our free America we have at least one poet who seems thus to have understood the proper use of the 'gift and faculty divine.'" Unfortunately Whittier is not as well known as he deserves to be, and it is not strange that he does not find his way into the drawing rooms of our substantial citizens. He is too earnest, too loving, too full of tenderness for this class, which wants highly colored and artificial emotion. A mother who would weep to hear her daughter sing a ballad of love's despair in some distant land would be ashamed to hear her sing Whittier's "Farewell of a Slave Mother to Her Daughter Sold into Southern Bondage." Whittier's language is commended as vigorous, intelligible, truth-telling, and as chosen from the vital vocabulary of the heart. He is an example to other poets of the need to return to the matter-of-fact world which has ample subjects for poetry. Whittier deserves the highest praise because he deals with the shame and the glory of the real world rather than with the escape world of wishful thinking.
In 1849 a notable event in the history of Whittier publication occurred.3 B. B. Mussey of Boston, possibly influenced by his enthusiasm in the cause of abolition and his desire to pay tribute to one of the cause's most ardent and effective workers, published an illustrated edition of Whittier's poems, including all previously printed poems and a single new one. More notable even than the publication of the volume was the fact that, in spite of the hostility of the South, the commercial interests of the North, and the indifference of the devotees of escapist romance, the volume became a best seller, the only one of Whittier's to be so honored, in spite of the great popularity of the later Snowbound. The fact that the sales were surprising to the publisher and that he had a strong sense of justice is shown by the fact that he paid Whittier considerably more than required by their agreement, giving him $500.00 for the copyright and a percentage of the sales.
It was this best seller of Whittier's that was reviewed in 1849 by a "Middle States" man, the editor of Littell's Living Age.4 He speaks of having occasionally taken a poem of Whittier's from the newspapers and reprinted it in the magazine. On the other hand, many admirable ones were not chosen because of the fact that they were too strongly partisan to please some of the magazine's readers. Though Whittier is an ardent abolitionist, the editor does not find him malicious in his advocacy and wishes that the South had not condemned him out of hand as merely an abolitionist, for he has many other voices that the South could listen to and enjoy. The editor also reprints a notice of the volume from the New York Albion, which finds, contrary to the preceding view, that Whittier exhibits "vindictive intolerance." On the other hand, he is vigorous and original—qualities sadly lacking in current poetry. Paralleling the previous review, the critic refers disparagingly to the sentimental "Rosa Matilda school" as being so widespread that Whittier's "earnest, thoughtful, powerful" writing is all the more admirable and striking by contrast. He lacks "grace and finished liveliness" but makes up for it by bold simplicity. His rough appearance hides nobility. Though Whittier has a front rank as a poet, his vengeful intolerance as a lecturer carries over into some of his poetry and disfigures it. Refusing to illustrate by quotation Whittier's passion on the slavery issue and his lack of skill as a versifier, the reviewer concludes his notice by quoting several stanzas from "Proem," his choice as the best poem in the volume, a memorable and highly finished poem in its alliteration, harmony, and metaphor.
This article highlights two of the barriers that Whittier faced early in his poetic career: the first was the fact that his abolition poems closed the minds of many readers, particularly in the South, to any of his other works, which they either did not know of or refused to read; secondly, the readers of romantic escape literature that was full of sugarplums, sentimental tears, and terror, rejected his treatment of everyday themes in a language simple, earnest, and earthy.
The most important piece of criticism resulting from the publication of the 1849 Poems was a long review article in the Universalist Quarterly Review by Henry Ballou, 2d.5 As a considered judgment, he accorded Whittier a position as one of the two foremost American poets, Bryant being the other, if the better part of his work is used to judge him, although there are several others superior to him if technical excellence is the only basis. Here Whittier is occasionally lax. He does not fail for lack of ability, as the better work shows. This failure, whatever its reason, is regrettable; for he is a true poet with the eye, heart, and imagination more than any other American. The writer goes on to say that he knows of no other American who has
the perfect truthfulness of conception that lies under his imaginative coloring together with his warm unaffected geniality of spirit, tempered with just enough of pensiveness to give it a romantic charm, and all brought out in so natural a freshness of expression and imagery. We say this only of the better class of his poems, for there is great inequality among them.
This lack of consistent quality is one of the most persistent charges made by the critics against Whittier throughout the years. Occasionally, Ballou suggests, the Quaker poet is too passionate, especially in the anti-slavery poems. What is meant seems to be that his feelings as a man run away with his control as an artist. Whittier's earnestness is prominent; and though he deals in sentiment, this quality of earnestness keeps him from being sentimental. He is particularly American in his "taste and manner" as well as his range. In his descriptions, there is a sense of naturalness and vitality that is not present in more analytical poets. Whittier's characters too have the air of reality and vitality; and more important, they are healthy and natural, no matter how unusual. One cannot help but wonder if this is an implied criticism of Poe and his morbid preoccupations. Although the reader is often surprised at the contrast between the Whittier of anger and passionate protest in the anti-slavery poems and the kindliness and geniality in others, Ballou feels that these are but two different manifestations of the same feeling of affection. Many of the poems are failures; yet the better ones "scattered the living coals of truth upon the nation's naked heart." However they may be regarded later, they did the work of the moment. The article concludes with the further suggestion that more care in technique and more concentration at the expense of nonessentials would make a great improvement on an already excellent product.
To do it justice, the next notice must be quoted in full, as no summary or paraphrase could be adequate:
Mr. Whittier has some of the elements of a true poet, but his poems, though often marked by strength and tenderness, are our abomination. He is a Quaker, an infidel, an abolitionist, a philanthropist, a peace man, a Red Republican, a non-resistant, a revolutionist, all characters we hold in horror and detestation, and his poems are the echo of himself. God gave him noble gifts, every one of which he has used to undermine faith, to eradicate loyalty, to break down authority, and to establish the reign of anarchy, and all under the gentle mask of promoting love and good will, diffusing the Christian spirit, and defending the sacred cause of liberty. He approaches us in the gentle and winning form of an angel of light, and yet whether he means it or not, it is only to rob us of all that renders life worth possessing. If he believes himself doing the will of God, he is the most perfect dupe of the Evil One the Devil has ever been able to make. He is silly enough, after having denounced Pious the Ninth in the most savage manner, and canonized the assassins and ruffians who founded the Roman Republic, to think that he can pass with Catholics as not being their enemy, because, forsooth, he favored the Irish rebellion! Whoever denounces our Church or its illustrious chief is our enemy and we would much sooner hold the man who should seek to deprive us of life to be our friend, than the one who should undertake to deprive us of our religion. With this estimate of Mr. Whittier how can we praise his poems, or commend them to the public.6
The foregoing was taken from Brownson's Quarterly Review and was written six years after the editor's conversion to Catholicism. His pilgrimage, as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. characterizes it in his biography of Brownson, had taken him from Calvinistic Presbyterianism into the pulpit of a Unitarian church and charter membership in the Transcendental Club, on to socialism and an attempt to found a Workingman's Party, and ultimately—and not without its logic—into the Catholic Church. It was from this position, not without its logic too, that the preceding article was written, illustrating, as it does, the problem of writing objective literary criticism when strong personal feelings and beliefs are involved. It is ironic and, from the point of view of the literary historian, regrettable that Brownson really did not review the book, the title of which was Songs of Labor and Other Poems. For in these poems, popular though they were and praised by many critics, Whittier did not come to grips with the industrial revolution of his day and the problems of the working man, which Brownson himself had analyzed and penetrated so farsightedly.
In the first treatment of Whittier by the British press that I have come across, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine for February, 1855, had an article on the American poets Alice Carey, T. B. Read, Lowell, Holmes, and Whittier.7 The author, who had saved Whittier for last, found that he had run out of space and had to dismiss him in a brief paragraph. He gently chides Whittier for referring to Watts' unmelodious psalms in The Bridal of Pennacook, the preface of which he feels is written in about the most unmusical blank verse ever penned. He further suggests that Whittier writes too much, but finds the poetry has vigor and feeling and appreciates it profoundly. He concludes the remarks with a further apology for the scanty treatment and a "kindly Godspeed."
Later in the year, the Irish Quarterly Review8 in an article dealing with Whittier, Poe, Lowell, Read, and Willis, treated Whittier first and dealt quite thoroughly with him in a very high-flown style indeed. Whittier mirrors the grandeur of his country in majestic verse. The power and ambition of the people are reflected in his "nervous, ringing language." And there is all the "bold, lofty, and free aspirations of her statesmen, which in the unbending and devoted love of freedom, breathes through his work like the sighing of the wind through a forest of his native pine trees." Whittier is especially and foremost the American poet. Like Cooper, he sings of the land and the Indians; but particularly he concerns himself with what he conceives as the spirit of America, the ideas and the beliefs that have made her great and unique in commerce, morality, and philosophy. His work often lacks polish and concentration, but these are minor faults when compared with his vigor and noble simplicity. Yet all is not unvarnished praise, for Whittier is still a man of greater promise than performance. To fulfill that promise he must root out sectarian bitterness that will inevitably damage the reputation of anyone who supports it, in view of the inevitable direction America will take in this respect. One cannot help feeling that the author's prediction in history was not more discriminating than his enthusiastic approval of Whittier's poetry, especially when he held up The Bridal of Pennacook and Mogg Megone as among the most effective pieces. Yet this preference is understandable in view of the interest that the Europeans showed in almost any material dealing with the Indians or native American subjects. Many of the shorter poems are said to have "great descriptive beauty, dramatic incident and coloring, among which may be mentioned his fine lines on the Merrimac. . . ." The article concludes, "Freedom converts us if Whittier is an example of its effects in its gush of words, its vivid images, and its patriotism." This article is typical of a certain type of review from across the water, with its enthusiasm for the revolutionary and democratic experiment, an enthusiasm which was especially strong in Ireland for obvious reasons.
In a delightfully frank review of Home Ballads in the North British Review9 for 1861, the author immediately strikes a note that is familiar to readers of Whittier when he says that with poetry, as with wine and friends, we cling to the familiar as we get older, though we realize that it is not absolutely better but only seems so to us. The result is a reluctance to read new poets and a subsequent injustice to those such as Whittier, who is a true poet with a tone that is native, wild and original. Far from being one of the current crop of poetic imitators who can toss off a clever likeness of whatever style is popular at the moment, he writes because he has to; and the music of his ideas and diction is as important a part of poetry as is "philosophy, theology, and the general omniscience of today's work." Whittier is preferred to all the rest of the moderns, and the only consolation for not having read him sooner is the fact that he has written a great deal that the reviewer has to look forward to. His best poems are the least ambitious. "The Witch's Daughter" is a lovely and moving tale; "Skipper Ireson's Ride," "Telling the Bees," "My Playmate," and the "Red River Voyager" are better than "Trinitas" and "The Preacher," though all have power and poetry in them.
In 1885, E. C. Stedman published his Poets of America, one of the first attempts to come to grips with the American poets and with the tradition of American literature as a unity. Analyzing Whittier, Stedman feels that he is preëminently the embodiment of the typical American qualities of the period, "domesticity, piety, freedom, loyalty to country and land." He goes on to speak of Whittier as the uncrowned laureate, the people's poet, full of faith, temperance, charity, virtue, democracy, a believer in the value of labor, freedom, and earnestness; and passionate in reform and having faith in its effectiveness. Whittier is more of a New England poet than a national one, may not appeal to all times and races, and probably will not influence later poets. However, he is the "singer of a significant time and people." His defects are numerous, according to Stedman; he lacks a sense of the moral duty the artist owes to his craft. His carelessness and occupation with other concerns, especially in the early works, is very apparent. After 1860 when he devoted himself to his poetry, considerable improvement is noticeable. His best work deals with country matters; Snowbound is his masterpiece. His slavery poems are the poorest; but his religious poetry evidences deep faith, a quality to which all times can respond.10 Stedman probably represents the first critical treatment of Whittier from a strictly aesthetic point of view.
An Englishman, R. E. Prothero, writing in Longman's Magazine in 1886,11 has some rather penetrating remarks to make on Whittier. He points out that, though Whittier was of the time and place that produced what was later to be called the New England Renaissance, he was without university training and was neither a Boston Brahmin nor a Transcendentalist. Yet he created a world of his own out of his personal circumstances. He was American in his subjects, settings, imagery, religion, politics, and in the practical nature of his poetry. Of the two periods of his work, the earlier reform period provides poetry that is still able to stir emotions, though, on the whole, it is repetitious, verbose, rhetorical, and piously excessive in its exhortation and ejaculation. The later poetry is much better. Whittier's descriptive powers are always great, fresh, and simple but not deep. He is a genuine story teller, though "mystic beauty, dreamy grace, rounded art, lofty imagination, are not his gifts."
As the century drew to a close, the criticism became increasingly elegiac; and at the same time, with Whittier's work obviously completed, the problem of fixing his position in American letters was seriously taken in hand. In 1887 F. H. Underwood, consul at Glasgow for several years, contributed, among many services for American literature, a series of papers on American authors to the magazine Good Words.12 In the article on Whittier, he held "The Barefoot Boy" and Snowbound to be the best existing pictures of New England farm life and people, equal to Burns' "Cotter's Saturday Night." As a descriptive poet of nature, Whittier was particularly blessed by his native place. In his idylls, ballads, and narratives, he is the chief of the American poets, as no other is as close to the common people and so without intellectual pretensions that might separate him from them. There is no one in the United States "whose native poetical genius exceeds Whittier's." I suppose Underwood, who knew all the New England poets intimately, was thinking chiefly of Whittier's lack of education and cultural background when he refers to "native genius."
Whittier's death, in 1892, occasioned a number of articles, both in America and abroad. The Nation13 pointed out that Whittier the man was characteristic of America in that there was "nothing to keep him from full identification with the most cultivated class, yet he was always able to remain in full sympathy with the least cultivated. In this respect he was more typically national than other bards." Of the three areas of his fame, his position as the poet of abolition and the creator of the New England legend is felt to be unique. His religious themes he shares with others. Lack of musical training is blamed for his limitations to the simplest forms of prosody. However, his natural ear for melody is apparent in his ballads. He is sometimes too diffuse and rambling; but in the anti-slavery poems and his later works, this tendency is curbed in favor of simplicity and directness. He soon outgrew his provincialism, and errors in grammar and pronunciation seem to the writer to be not the result of ignorance but of whim. Often to his detriment, he introduces direct and obvious moralizing that would be better left inherent in the structure of the poem itself. His birth placed him as one of the people; in this he is unlike most of the other New England greats. His Quaker background of oppression in the early New England period made him particularly sensitive to injustice and sympathetic to the downtrodden.
John V. Cheney, writing in the Chataquan14 for December, 1892, sounds the democratic trumpet loudly. Contrary to the consensus, he finds that the anti-slavery poems by no means represent a waste of talent. They were needed, and Whittier was peculiarly fitted to write them. The Songs of Labor are unique and as such should be valued. Though Whittier is lacking the highest genius and is a bit "bald, crude, narrow, careless, he has sincerity, simplicity, sinew, enthusiasm, spontaneity, and directness." He is not only a representative American poet but one who is as sure as any to endure. Of the two widely read poets in America, Whittier—not Longfellow—attracts the sturdy class, the common man. Whittier's common sense, pith, and vigor is more effective than Long-fellow's greater art. As a lyricist, Whittier is a master of pathos and is second only to Longfellow as a story teller. His Snowbound and Lowell's Bigelow Papers hold first place in American Literature.
T. Cuthbert Hadden has an article in the British Gentleman's Magazine for October, 1892,15 and says, ". . . if we cannot call him great, we can at least call him good." He then goes on to praise Whittier with discrimination. In speaking of the Voices of Freedom poems, he points out that they are powerful, if not always poetic, expressions of impassioned pleading and burning denunciation. Whittier's verses rank high among the world's satirical and critical poetry. He wrote much and should be judged only by his best, not by his mediocre work. His musical charm, lyrical passion, concentrated and exquisite expression of high poetical feeling are equal to anything which American poetry has produced. His character poems are excellent, individual, and graphic. The ballads are full of charm, pathos, and freshness. In them he did for America what Scott did for his country; the hymns are permanently fixed in English hymnology, and there is a religious feeling present in all of his poetry as in Cowper. The work is earnest and genuine, if not great, and will last.
In the Westminster Review16 for January, 1893, there appeared an article whose author compared Whittier and Burns, his teacher. Inferior to Burns in "a certain farcical and virile sense of humor . . . and gentle hearted as he ever showed himself to his fellow creatures, he had not the exquisite sympathy with the animal race which distinguished his predecessor." Only once did Whittier reach the very highest quality possible in poetry. Amusingly, the title of that piece which the writer feels to be the height of Whittier's poetic perfection appeared, with a very appropriate misspelling, as "Skipper Treson's Ride." This poem, along with "Barbara Fritchie," is destined to survive in the anthology of the New World. The writer goes on to suggest that, though Whittier is inferior to Longfellow in "constructive faculty" in prosody and diction, he had all of Longfellow's gentle qualities and equaled him in the ballad, there being no better in this form among the American poets. The lack of intellectuality is considered unusual in such a fine poet, being apparent in his spontaneity, in his way of looking at life, and in his style. Whittier knew foreign literatures but did not assimilate them in the highest sense to make them a part of his art. It is his sincerity that frequently results in poetry superior to that of those who are technically better and who seem to have more intelligence.
The London Quarterly Review17 in 1893 commented on the difficulty of fixing Whittier's permanent place in literature so close upon his death because of his tremendous popularity both as man and poet. In the last resort, however, his feeling for and expression of the universal elements in man are considered most important in establishing his place. The anti-slavery poetry that so much of his present fame rests upon will not be permanent. Voices of Freedom is mostly verse rather than poetry; yet "Barbara Fritchie" is spirited and should survive. "Ichabod" is cited as a fine example of occasional lyric. The writer also makes a point that is too often overlooked, it seems to me. He suggests that, because a specific name and occasion is associated with a particular poem, the feeling often persists that it lacks the universality or generalized application that is necessary if poetry is going to survive the immediate moment. He further points out that, though neither Webster nor the cause he represented concern us now, men we love and trust will from time to time betray us. Although it is hard to judge Whittier by strictly literary standards because he was such a personal force and because he wrote so much that is not excellent, his pictures of New England will live. In Snowbound, "Among the Hills," and in the shorter lyrics and ballads, he has preserved vividly and movingly a way of life that is fast disappearing.
As a mere man of letters, Whittier could hardly sustain a comparison with his compeers. He lacks the artist soul of Longfellow, the wit and fancy of Holmes, the keen satire and wide culture of Lowell; but there is an intensity of conviction, a white heat of enthusiasm, a trumpet note of courage and faith that cannot be paralleled in the works of his contemporaries.
The writer concludes that Whittier may live through his life and its influence. However, this critic fails to observe, when he sets up the division between Whittier's powerful feelings and the more cultivated and urbane qualities of his fellow poets, that frequently this feeling is given perfectly adequate artistic expression. His implication seems to be that it is a thing apart, one that is somehow a hindrance to poetic expression, as well it may be if not properly controlled, as in some of the anti-slavery poems.
In an article in Lippincott's Magazine for June, 1899,18 R. H. Stoddard confirmed for the most part judgments expressed twenty-five years earlier, spoke of the great amount of material that had been written about Whittier, indicated he had read most of it without being much edified, and went on to state his distrust of contemporary opinion, a conclusion which this paper clearly refutes. Standing firmly with the historical critics, Stoddard pointed out that understanding of a poet required a knowledge of his life, background, and times, and that this was especially true in the case of Whittier. No American poet, he suggests, had so much to overcome by way of background as Whittier. It is interesting to note that when Stoddard objects to the quantity of Whittier's abolition verse, which he does not consider poetry, the editor inserted a conciliatory note, pointing out that many readers will not agree with this judgment. The Voices of Freedom Stoddard finds hasty, overlong in many cases, though spirited, vigorous, and rhetorical. His opinion of the Indian poems is that, while they do contain vivid and fine descriptions, they are not worthy of the telling as stories; nor are the characters any more than stock Indians of romance. He feels it to have been an advantage that Whittier read in the period, however; for this reading resulted in his interest in Colonial subjects and traditions that gave us "Cassandra Southwick," "The Exiles," and other poems of Colonial days. His temperament and background led him to deal principally with those aspects of injustice and cruelty that disfigure the New England Puritan past. As the years passed, a more romantic and tender note became dominant in Whittier's poetry. Immediately after this comment, Stoddard speaks of Whittier as the laureate of labor, without realizing how his judgment of Whittier as increasingly romantic reveals both his own romanticism and Whittier's in the treatment of the labor poems. Stoddard gives them high praise and calls them spirited, picturesque, natural, and native. Critical of the ethical element in Whittier's poetry, he concludes, "Submission to his feelings was greater than . . . to his gifts, of which he caught a glimpse in some of his early ballads, which he discovered in Songs of Labor, and of which he had full possession when he wrote 'The Barefoot Boy,' 'Maud Muller,' 'Telling the Bees,' and Snowbound." These and "Barbara Fritchie," "Skipper Ireson," and a few others are most American. Stoddard regrets there were not more of such poems and feels that Whittier will be read as Chaucer and Burns now are by students of social history as well as of literature.
In looking back over the criticism of the nineteenth century, one sees certain features clearly. Even during the period toward the close of the century when, by longevity and the impact of a strong and appealing personality, Whittier was certainly one of the most beloved of American poets, his contemporaries were aware of and implied, even when they did not actually state, the fact that his was not a major talent. Secondly, as the nation grew physically and in its complexity, it became increasingly evident that Whittier was more a poet of New England than of America. Thirdly, the poems of abolition, though popular, were in most cases recognized as inferior in spite of the fact that some of them rose to the level of poetry. Whittier's freshness, simplicity, earnestness, and sincerity are mentioned again and again; and the didactic element is increasingly criticized as the century draws to a close. One of the most interesting features of the criticism from across the water is its generosity and also its enthusiasm over Indians and native themes. Again there is little disagreement as to Whittier's carelessness and lack of range in form. Surprisingly Whittier's religious poetry, though mentioned frequently, does not receive the praise one would expect from the nineteenth century.
In the early years of the twentieth century, interest in Whittier held up quite well; and numerous articles were published. In 1907, Bliss Perry wrote an article titled "Whittier for Today" in the Atlantic.19 He devotes a good deal of the article to Whittier's abolition activity and its influence on his poetry, finding, contrary to the generally held views, that it was not detrimental to the poet's art and that Whittier, more than either Byron or Wordsworth, influenced men's feelings and actions. In the process of the slavery struggle, he grew from a facile rhymer to a master of political poetry. There was no other like him in American literary history. "He found," Perry says, "in that absolute surrender to the claims of humanity the inspiration which transformed him into a poet." Like Byron, Whittier became a master of passionate declamation that was accepted without question as poetry by his age. A later age is apt to feel that it is mere oratory or pamphleteering; yet many of these efforts are more than that. Analyze Whittier, Perry suggests, and there is the ideal political poet, with a Quaker faith, an abstract love of justice, a warm sympathy and loyalty, a keen knowledge of the men of the times, a practical political eye, a simple, racy, and fervent speech,—and above all—courage. Perry points out how difficult it is even half a century later to recapture the overwhelming sense of opposition that Whittier had to face. Even fifteen years after his death, Perry feels that his audience is a thing of the past and has changed as definitely as his erstwhile neighbors have disappeared. There is a certain rusticity that, while it may endear him to many, makes him more local than Burns. His physical limitations, color blindness and tone deafness, were severe. His passion was always moral passion; and even in his religious verse, his range was narrow and unoriginal. Perry concludes by standing firm on the proposition that there are two questions about which Whittier is always and forever right. The first is his insistence that there should not and must not be any race issue; we are all brothers. The second is that of international peace. Over fifty years have intervened to try and prove Perry wrong, but never has his insistence on these fundamental truths of Whittier's been more apparent or important than today.
In 1921 Percy H. Boynton20 entered one of the few disclaimers to Whittier's position as a nature poet by suggesting that he was too close to nature as an unsuccessful farmer. And by 1925 in a volume called Poets of America, Clement Wood could dismiss Whittier in a single sentence: "As a poet, Whittier was a hardheaded Quaker; his flight brushed the ground."21
John Erskine and W. P. Trent, editing a volume called Great Writers of America, published in London in 1929,22 try to assess Whittier in terms of world literature. They note that patriotic lyrics like "Barbara Fritchie" impressed the world and feel that it is as a poet of human freedom that Whittier must live if his reputation is to last. He wrote some good descriptive poetry of New England but not enough to hold his place. "He generally manages to attain a fair level of excellence. But on the whole, he displayed no great strength of intellect or of imagination, and little of that marked individuality of temperament which .. . is the chief mark of genius." His only realm of true mastery is in the anti-slavery poems.
His hold upon unsophisticated readers who are docile to tradition and full of patriotism has doubtless continued fairly strong, and the teaching of American literature in the schools will undoubtedly help to maintain his reputation; but one is left wondering how the sophisticated public of two generations hence will regard him.
In 1931 Henry S. Canby was able to ignore Whittier in his Classic Americans,23 although he included Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman.
Winfield Scott,24 a poet of note himself, in an article subtitled "A New Consideration of Whittier's Poetry," written in 1933, suggests that Whittier's best poetry came after the Civil War, beginning with Snowbound which fixed his eminent position as a poet in the hearts of a public that had already canonized him as a man. Among the reasons for his success as a poet is his intimate relationship to the life of the land and men, rather than through books, as was the case with Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes. Whittier often fell into the trap of nineteenth-century sentimentality, although he knew the dangers it presented. Among the abolition poems, "Laus Deo," "Ichabod," and attacks on hypocrisy were memorable. His success in the later poems involves nostalgia brought on by sadness, ill health, and loss of loved ones. These circumstances, Scott feels, caused him to turn to the past, whose people and land he loved. He shows a power of description of nature, sincere love, simplicity and directness. The swiftness of the pictures he was able to paint made his ballads succeed better than any others. "Mabel Martin," "Kathleen," "The Countess," "Dead Feast of the Kol Folk," "The Brewing of Soma," and "Skipper Ireson's Ride" are among the best. His characters are not often successful, the exception being "Abraham Davenport," which Scott sees as a forerunner of Robinson's character sketches. The use, particularly in the schools, of the more popular pieces like "Barbara Fritchie" and "School Days" has done Whittier a disservice, when there are things like "The Last Walk in Autumn," "Abraham Davenport," "What the Birds Said," and "The Henchman." Scott suggests that the confusion of morality with art is still with us, causing the critics to neglect Whittier's religious verse, which includes some of the best hymns in American literature. His qualities may be summed up as descriptive accuracy, preciseness, and simplicity. Directness of ideas is present in the best work. His range of verse structure was limited, but within its limitations, skillful. His chief weakness Scott sees as a restriction of subject matter. He did not ride Milton's soaring Pegasus but the "farm wagon and buckboard of verse." In his search for materials, he dealt with labor before Whitman and with the New England past before Hawthorne. "All of it [his verse] is instinct with his honesty and his integrity; much of it shows his clearsightedness; the precious part of it is an American inheritance."
In 1937 Desmond Powell,25 although judging Whittier as a minor and sectional poet whose descriptions rely considerably on the reader's local familiarity, did believe that Whittier had written poetry that would live. His weaknesses are seen as numerous. He wrote jogging verse, lacked concentration and the critical faculty, tacked morals on his poems, accepted the popular taste, and relied on the statement of a truth rather than its embodiment in a poem. Adapting his nature descriptions to the limitations of his red-green color blindness, Whittier, Powell suggests, etched rather than painted scenes. Snowbound is artistry in black and white, as a consequence. One may be forgiven for wondering how in winter it could have been anything else. The fact that Whittier was unable to transmute the abolition experiences into poetry is explained, Powell feels, in the poem "Amy Wentworth." This failure was one of the intellect; for Whittier was a bad critic, accepting the function of art to be mere escape and leaving himself little scope in which to work this vein. He never realized that this theory failed to explain the great poetry that he admired most. His stories are poor, not because he lacked the narrative gift, but because he did not bother with character, which he could do well as Snowbound proves. The feelings of hate and scorn in the abolition poems were weakened by this theory of art as escape. Other passions were killed by it, too. The impression one ultimately receives from Whittier's work is not that he lacked passion but that he subdued it; for he is the warmest poet in the whole New England group. Sentimentality was not the cause of failure in many poems; they were merely bad poems. "Telling the Bees" is sentimental, but it achieves success because it is a good poem; we believe in it. Whittier became the poet of friendship and tenderness through this flight from stronger emotions. He is a poet of anthology scraps and would benefit from careful and drastic editing. As an example, Powell brings two stanzas together from "The Henchman" and quite rightly calls the result a perfect lyric.
Oh, proud and calm!—she cannot know
Where'er she goes with her I go.
Oh, cold and fair!—she cannot guess
I kneel to share her hound's caress!
The hound and I are on her trail;
The wind and I uplift her veil;
As if a calm, cold moon she were
And I the tide, I follow her.
Powell goes on to say that Whittier's humor is often neglected. "My Old Schoolmaster," excerpts from "A New England Legend," and "The Double Headed Snake," are cited as examples. There is naturalism too, for Whittier knew that rural life was not always idyllic, though that is the way he presented it most often. In the "Prelude" to Among the Hills and in "The Preacher," he presented the starkness of New England farm life.
Plaintive and rather appealing in its call to fling back the years, is the plea of W. Harvey-Jellie in the Dalhousie Review26 for April, 1939. He suggests that poetry is being read again but that it is eternal shame to America that she is neglecting Whittier. Who is read today? Millay, Frost, Benet, Teasdale, Masters, Lindsay, Sandburg, Robinson, Dickinson, and MacLeish is the answer. Whittier is scarcely read at all: our age with its fears, Harvey-Jellie says, is foreign to that of Whittier with its calm faith. It is as mystic, in spite of his other fine poetry, that Whittier is greatest. "The Eternal Goodness," "My Triumph," "My Soul and I," and "The Mirror" are among his best poems, according to Harvey-Jellie. Poetry, with the possible exception of Frost's is downright objective if not materialistic, and the ". . . barrier must be raised high against a suicidal national drift toward a soulless secularism. Back to Whittier!" is Mr. Harvey-Jellie's clarion call. This approach is perhaps explained when we learn that Mr. Harvey-Jellie is Professor of Hebrew at Presbyterian College in Montreal.
The most recent treatments of Whittier have appeared in 1957, when Howard Mumford Jones27 wrote for the one hundred and fiftieth Whittier anniversary an article, "Whittier Reconsidered," published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, and in 1959, when the same journal published Hyatt Waggoner's "What I Had I Gave: Another Look at Whittier."28
Jones suggests that Whittier's fate illustrates the changing values on the literary scene during the last half century. He says, "When Whittier died in 1892, there was small doubt that his was a major voice. Today it is a real question whether he is read at all except by children and students." On the contrary, it seems to me that the criticism already reviewed indicates that Whittier's contemporaries did not consider him a major poet. It is true, however, as Jones points out, that on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth no critics were interested in him as they are in Whitman. No historian is concerned with placing him in the intellectual development of the country. Few scholars are at work on the text, unpublished material, or biography. Rather whimsically Mr. Jones notes that Whittier used to have four cards assigned to him in the Parker Brothers' game of "Authors;" for the record, he still does; and the poems on those four cards are Snowbound, "The Eternal Goodness," "Laus Deo," and "Among the Hills." Their choice of poems is excellent. According to Jones, the abolition verse sounds like ranting, if it is not the genuine article, because Whittier failed to distinguish between having to write a poem and having a poem to write. This is one of his weaknesses; didacticism is another. Jones attributes this preachiness to the times that demanded it and to his experience as a newspaper poet and editor. Nevertheless, in spite of his faults, there is a small but permanent core of poetry in Whittier's nature poems, in his rare treatment of character, and in the poems of faith. He is honest in his response to nature and here anticipates Robert Frost. In this vein Snowbound is successful, but the subtitle should not be forgotten; the poem is an idyll. The poems of character are not "Maud Muller" and "Barbara Fritchie" but "Rabbi Ishmael" and—best of all—"Abraham Davenport." In his poems of faith, "Our Master" is perfect.
Hyatt Waggoner suggests, after reading the complete poems from cover to cover, that Whittier wrote about twenty-five poems which "are still very pleasurable to read and rewarding as poetry." Though he may be largely unread today, Whittier wrote enough good poetry to fill several volumes such as today's poets hang their reputations on. He is almost the exact counterpart of what the modern poets have taught us to like, and his own taste reveals his weakness. He loved the didactic. His admiration of Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" is a case in point. His contemporaries read him as a religious poet, and we must do so too. However, he is best when he is not explicitly religious; he is also best in the reform poems when he is strongly religious. In other words, when he writes of things seen and felt as resulting from faith, of love, and a sense of justice out of faith, then he is excellent. Invective out of this sort of feeling is also fine. "Clerical Oppressors," "Official Piety," "The Gallows," "Lines on the Portrait of a Celebrated Publisher," "Letter from a Missionary," and "On a Prayer Book" are all examples. The best of these propaganda poems are not dated, for they present the fight for right and justice, freedom and brotherhood, and the vision of God's holy city on earth that is always pertinent. Whittier is not sentimental in his view of nature, for nature is never better than man. His faith in progress dates him, but it was God's progress, not man's. He distrusted the symbol, the talisman of the modern poet; but when fervor took hold of him as in some of the anti-slavery poems, an adequate symbol came to hand. Indeed, we should go on reading and teaching him. In two areas he never failed with emotions, ideas, and symbols: first, with the religious demands of conscience and, secondly, in the experiences of childhood. Snowbound is his best poem. Waggoner concludes by saying,
I think we should decide that what he had was no major poetic talent, and the talent he had was weakened a good deal of the time by an outlook that made him distrust symbolization, but what he had was well worth the giving. Not just American life but American poetry too is richer because he lived and wrote.
Having surveyed a representative selection from over one hundred years of Whittier criticism, one can come to a number of conclusions. Relatively few of the nineteenth-century critics deal with Whittier's prose, and none from the twentieth do so. His prose style was generally felt to be clear, fresh, and pleasant, capable of effective nature descriptions and narrative force. The Southern Literary Messenger, in spite of its rejection of Whittier because of his abolition sentiments and activities, was the most generous of all in its praise, holding him to be, next to Hawthorne, America's most polished writer of prose. His geniality and humor are remarked from time to time; but his sense of justice, love of humanity, and sincerity are most frequently noted. None of the British articles refer to any of the prose works. Ironically, the most effective and interesting volume of prose, Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal, the one prose work that perhaps really deserves to live as of more than scholarly interest, was not even noticed on its publication in any of the prominent journals.
As for the poetry, the general characteristics are often mentioned. Simplicity, directness, clarity, vigor, passion, sincerity, manliness, tenderness, melody, and imagery are all recognized and praised. He is outstanding as a nature poet and as a poet of human justice. Lack of careful planning occasionally results in faulty proportion and unity. Haste, rather than lack of ability, seems to cause faulty versification and rhyme from time to time. Objections to strong partisanship are raised, sometimes on the grounds of his position itself, and at other times because it is felt to weaken his art. The Southern Quarterly Review, in the most critical American reaction, very ungraciously rejects any claims for Whittier above mediocrity and curiously finds him frigid and lacking in tenderness. He is recognized as American to the marrow, though of that minority group concerned with justice, freedom, idealistic reform, and humanity, which has set the tone for the most admirable American vision, as opposed to American expediency and the materialism of the bustling and "sharp" Yankee variety.
In England, two general tendencies appear regarding Whittier first as an especially American poet and admirable, and second as an American and abolitionist, hence detestable and without merit as a poet. The Athenaeum represents the first point of view; Blackwood's, the only periodical to deny him any poetic ability, the second. A few American notices point out this cleavage in which the conservative and wealthy Americans reject Whittier as too radical, violent, and rude.
The difficulty of judging Whittier's passionate abolition verse as art is recognized by Ballou, who points out, however, that it did the intended job effectively by arousing the conscience of the North. The Irish Quarterly Review was very gaudy in its praise of Whittier as the American poet, revealing the physical grandeur of the country itself and singing and teaching the ideas and ideals that have made America both great and a democratic beacon for the rest of the world. Yet even this writer feels that Whittier is more a poet of promises than fulfillment as yet. Brownson presents the best example of criticism influenced by other factors than the work of the artist.
When the general tenor of the nineteenth-century material is assessed, in spite of the few extravagant claims, usually in partisan periodicals whose editors were friends and for which Whittier wrote, and a very few violently severe criticisms, Whittier is recognized as a poet who is not entitled to a place in the front ranks, in spite of admirable qualities as a man, champion of human rights, and poet. This consensus is remarkably close to today's judgment and speaks well for the perspicacity of the nineteenth-century critics when they were dealing with a person and forms they understood; indeed, Whittier's very understandability, in a day when obscurity was complained of, was a cause for praise. This opinion is supported by the fact that Whittier was not, a few claims to the contrary, nearly as popular and widely discussed in England as he was in America, probably because of the quality of his verse and his position as an advocate for a cause. Aside from Blackwood's violent rejection of him as poet and the Irish Quarterly Review's extreme admiration of his Americanism, the English notices are quite similar to the American, although they were fewer.
The twentieth-century critics, in spite of the variety of their tone, generally agree as to the scope of Whittier's talent and the areas in which it was successful. Even more important than this conclusion is the fact that, with few and obvious exceptions, these judgments are merely supplemental rather than counter to those of the nineteenth century, quite contrary to the popular belief, which held that Whittier was highly overrated by his contemporaries. The nineteenth-century critical opinion is particularly interesting because Whittier was so tremendously popular in his own day, because the American critics were accused of puffing their own, because Whittier's work was not completed when many of the critics judged him, and because these critics did not have the advantage of the longer perspective that the later critics enjoyed.
1Southern Quarterly Review, IV (October 1843), 516-519.
2New Englander, VI (January 1848), 58-66.
3 For the story of this publication, see: C. M. Taylor, "The 1849 Best Seller," Bulletin of the Friends Historical Association, XXXVIII (Spring 1949), 36-37.
4Littell's Living Age, XX (13 Jan. 1849), 94-95.
5Universalist Quarterly Review, VI (April 1849), 142-160.
6Brownson's Quarterly Review, VII (October 1850), 540.
7Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, XXII (February 1855), 104.
8Irish Quarterly Review, V (September 1855), 561-590.
9North British Review, XXXIV (February 1861), 210-217.
10 E. C. Stedman, Poets of America (Boston, 1885), pp. 93-107.
11Longman's Magazine, IX (December 1886), 182-189.
12 F. H. Underwood, "John Greenleaf Whittier," Good Words, XXVIII (1887), 30-34.
13Nation, LV (September 1892), 199-200.
14 John V. Cheney, "Whittier," Chatauquan, XVI (December 1892), 299-306.
15 T. Cuthbert Hadden, "The Quaker Poet," Gentleman's Magazine, XLIX (October 1892), 408-417.
16Westminster Review, CXXXIX (January 1893), 7-11.
17London Quarterly Review, LXXIX (January 1893), 224-244.
18 R. H. Stoddard, "John Greenleaf Whittier," Lippincott's Magazine, VII (March 1898), 808-816.
19 Bliss Perry, "Whittier for Today," Atlantic, (December 1907), 851-859.
20 P. H. Boynton, American Poetry (New York, 1921), pp. 646-648.
21 W. Wood, Poets of America (New York, 1925), p. 11.
22 John Erskine and W. P. Trent, Great Writers of America (London, 1929), pp. 147-149.
23 H. S. Canby, Classic Americans (New York, 1931).
24 Winfield Scott, "Poetry in America: A New Consideration of Whittier's Verse," New England Quarterly, VII (June 1933), 258-275.
25 Desmond Powell, "Whittier," American Literature, IX (November 1937), 335-342.
26 W. Harvey-Jellie, "A Forgotten Poet," Dalhousie Review, XIX (April 1939), 91-100.
27 Howard Mumford Jones, "Whittier Reconsidered," Essex Institute Historical Collections, XCIII (October 1957), 231-246.
28 Hyatt H. Waggoner, "What I Had I Gave," Essex Institute Historical Collections, XCV (January 1959), 32-40.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324
"The Exile's Departure" (poetry) 1826; published in newspaper Newburyport Free Press
Legends of New England in Prose and Verse (stories and poetry) 1831
Moll Pitcher and the Minstrel Girl (poetry) 1832; revised, 1840
Justice and Expediency; or, Slavery Considered with a View to Its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition (essay) 1833
Mogg Megone (poetry) 1836
Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, Between the Years 1830 and 1838 (poetry) 1837; also published as Poems [revised edition] 1838
Lays of My Home, and Other Poems (poetry) 1843
The Stranger in Lowell (criticism) 1845
Voices of Freedom (poetry and essays) 1846
The Supernaturalism of New-England (poetry and prose) 1847
Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay (novel) 1849
*Old Portraits and Modern Sketches (poetry and biographical sketches) 1850
Songs of Labor, and Other Poems (poetry) 1850
The Chapel of the Hermit, and Other Poems (poetry) 1853
Literary Recreations and Miscellanies (prose) 1854
**The Panorama, and Other Poems (poetry) 1856
The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. 2 vols. (poetry) 1857
†Home Ballads and Poems (ballads and poetry) 1860
In War-Time, and Other Poems (poetry) 1863
Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (poetry) 1866
The Tent on the Beach, and Other Poems (poetry) 1867
Among the Hills, and Other Poems (poetry) 1868
Ballads of New-England (ballads) 1870
Child-Life: A Collection of Poems [editor; with Lucy Larcom] (poetry) 1872
The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, and Other Poems (poetry) 1872
Child Life in Prose [editor; with Lucy Larcom] (short stories) 1874
The Complete Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. 1 vols. (poetry, legends, essays, tales, biographical sketches, and historical sketches) 1876
‡The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier. 5 vols. (poems, ballads, legends, essays, tales, biographical sketches, historical sketches, and criticism) 1888-9
At Sundown (poetry) 1890
The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (poetry) 1894
Whittier on Writers and Writing: The Uncollected Critical Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier (criticism) 1950
The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (letters) 1975
*This work includes the poem "Ichabod."
**This work includes the poem "Maud Muller" and "Barbara Frietchie."
†This work includes the poem "Skipper Ireson's Ride."
‡This work also includes poetry written by Elizabeth H. Whittier.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3881
SOURCE: "The Growth of Whittier's Mind—Three Phases," in Emerson Society Quarterly, Vol. 50, 1968, First Quarter, pp. 119-26.
[In the following excerpt, Clark traces the development of Whittier's themes from an early taste for "localistic sensationalism" through his championship of abolition to a broad concern for human welfare.]
After one has analyzed Whittier's individual poems or fragments of his work, it is well to view him briefly in complete profile as a kind of man against the sky. Broadly speaking, he seems to have had three successive centers of emphasis—I say emphasis because there are of course minor exceptions which do not seriously invalidate this interpretation.
Up to 1833 Whittier was primarily concerned with the literary aspects of the sensational, the lurid, or the colorfully superstitious, usually approached from a localistic angle. The type is represented in "The Demon's Cave" (1831) in which he says there is in this actual New Hampshire cave "something to romance dear" since it is associated with "the restless phantoms of murdered men," the ghostly gibber and the demon's yell, although such superstitions have now passed "away at the glance of truth." Mary Pray's A Study of Whittier's Apprenticeship (1930) printed 109 of these early poems, and others have been printed by W. M. Merrill in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, XCI (1955), pp. 128-154. A glance at the titles in T. F. Currier's invaluable Bibliography of John Greenleaf Whittier (1937) will give one an idea of his cultivation, as in his Preface to Legends of New England (1831), of a "new" consciousness that "New England is rich in traditionary lore—a thousand associations of superstition and manly daring and romantic adventure are connected with her green hills and her pleasant rivers." Such psychological "associationalism" of aesthetic feeling and actual historic places was in this period widespread, especially in the revered North American Review from 1815 on, as R. E. Streeter has shown.
Five of Whittier's early associates encouraged him in the trend suggested. Thus Joshua Coffin encouraged the boy's interest in local traditions and introduced him at the age of fourteen to the work of Burns who taught him to see the romance underlying the commonplace. A. W. Thayer urged him to continue his education and to write for publication. New Hampshire's Robert Dinsmoor (on whom Whittier wrote an appreciative essay) taught him that New England scenes could provide Yankee pastorals just as well as Scotland. And in editing the work of J. G. Brainard in 1832 Whittier centers his long Introduction on the fact that he "prefers the lowliest blossom of Yankee-land" to far-away exotics. "New England is full of Romance; and her writers would do well to follow the example of Brainard. The great forest which our fathers penetrated—the red men—their struggle and their disappearance—the Powwow and the War-dance—the savage inroad and the English sally—the tale of superstition, and the scenes of Witchcraft,—all these are rich materials of poetry." (This Introduction and about seventy other literary comments are reprinted in Whittier on Writers and Writings, ed. E. H. Cady and H. H. Clark, 1950.) The superstitions and witchcraft of Whittier's native state were made to seem suitable for poetic treatment by the fact that (as he said in reviews of Scott and his "Demonology and Witchcraft") such a famous author had showed a "bias" toward "the marvellous and the praeternatural" aroused by "Highland superstition." In his review of Scott's follower, Whittier's "old favorite Cooper" and his Wept, dealing with a New England Indian, Cooper is critical of improbabilities and of the "females," but he praises Cooper's sea novels for "rich and rare entertainment" as well as the earlier volumes of the Leatherstocking Series, celebrating manly daring and hair-breadth escapes in the localized forests. (See Cady and Clark, pp. 26-28).
If up to 1833 Whittier tended to emphasize localistic sensationalism of one kind or another, from 18331 to 1857 he tended to emphasize outward reformism or abolition which after 1843 shaded into a concern for more general brotherhood and mankind's common humanity as opposed to extremism. His reformism was a response to five influences. Garrison and other humanitarians fired Whittier's imagination as he dramatized his turn from the selfish quest of literary fame to a defiance (in the poem "Ego") of "ermined robe and saintly gown" to the kind of "glorious martyrdom" for the rights of the lowly which he attributed to Garrison in his early (1833) poetic tribute. Especially important as an influence was Whittier's ancestral Quaker faith in equality and brotherhood and the stress on charity of heart associated with John Woolman whose work Whittier edited with a long eulogistic introduction. Milton and Puritan "defenders of English liberty, sowers of the seed, the fruits of which we are now reaping," (Prose Works, I, 288) were strong influences. (Milton of the great prose tracts such as Areopagitica came closest, Whittier said, to representing his ideal man at this time.) As one who believed in relying on persuasion and on ballots rather than on bullets, Whittier cherished the natural-rights tradition of Jefferson. In his prose tract, "Justice and Expediency" (1833), Whittier responded to the Yankee spirit of practical expediency in arguing that free men, sure of the fruits of their own labor, will have an incentive to work harder than slaves will. And finally British abolitionists and the visits of their spokesmen such as George Thompson helped to inspire Whittier in his crusade.
Three poems may be cited as representing various phases of his abolitionism. Perry Miller2 was much impressed by his poem "Toussaint L'Ouverture" in Whittier's crisis year, 1833, which illustrates the way in which his earlier romantic sensationalism erupts in an abolitionist poem: "this phantasmagoric vision of the rebellion in Haiti . . . is stark violence, massacre, and, in the climax, rape of the white planter's wife by the black demon" driven to desperation. "The sexual passion, the fire, the volcano, erupt into a terminology of orgiastic destruction." "A Sabbath Scene" tells how Whittier's "brain took fire" when a clergyman, trying to help enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, ordered his Deacon to use the actual physical "holy tome" to trip and capture a trembling slave girl who sought to escape to the supposed sanctuary of a Christian church. Temporarily at least Whittier preferred to turn from such an abuse of the Scriptures to follow the guidance of God's word "interpreted by Nature." Less melodramatic is "Massachusetts to Virginia" which recalls how the latter's statesmen such as Patrick Henry joined northern revolutionists to achieve freedom from Britain; devoted to the traditions of their First Families, Jefferson's Virginians are in this poem taunted with having become "False to their fathers' memory, false to the faith they loved." "Proem" (1847-49) was written as a comprehensive introduction to all Whittier's abolition poems. In this he modestly claims he is unable to approach the "rounded art" and "mystic beauty, dreamy grace" of poets such as Spenser and Sidney whom he loves, but he will celebrate "our common world of joy and woe" and will lay his poems on the shrine of Freedom which he loves as ardently as did Milton.3 Elsewhere Whittier said (in "The Training," 1845) that "Milton approaches nearly to my conception of a true hero" as "the stern old republican," and "Milton's prose has long been my favorite reading. My whole life has felt the influence of his writings" (quoted in Pickard's Life, II, 506). Perhaps Whittier's most enduring and timely contribution to our political life is embodied in his editorial in the Essex Gazette for June 18, 1836, entitled "Freedom of the Press" claiming the right of dissent. (Governor Everett tried to get the legislature of Massachusetts to penalize spokesmen of abolition.) "We will yield to no laws whatever of our freedom of opinion, and the constitutional right of expressing that opinion. We are for giving Truth full play. We believe with Milton in his noble defence of the freedom of the Press." He argued that if the South managed to throttle freedom of expression and dissent, the South would enslave all white men as well as negroes, and would stagnate.
During the 1850's in poems such as "Wordsworth" Whittier holds that one can "read the world aright" who can "in its common forms discern / A beauty and a harmony," that one (like himself) whose ear is "pained / By strife of sect and party noise" finds especially welcome Wordsworth's "brook-like murmur . . . of nature's simple joys." (John Pickard and C. B. Williams have described the "schism" after 1843 within the abolitionist group and the split between the followers of Garrison and of Whittier. See Pickard, NEQ, XXXVII, 1964, 250-254; and Williams, NEQ, XXV, 1952, 248-254.) In "Proem" (1849) Whittier had coupled his reformist following of Milton in devoting his poems to liberty with his concern with "our common world of joy and woe." And in his "Dedication to Songs of Labor" (1850) he turns from "youth's enchanted forest" of his first period to "after-thoughts" associated with "life's autumnal lea" as he says that in his poems he seeks to "gladden duty's ways" by celebrating "the unsung beauty hid beneath life's common things." He tries to awaken not so much the reformist's unrest as "a manlier spirit of content," remembering that Christ was content to be "a poor man toiling with the poor, / In labor, as in prayer, fulfilling the same law." Remember, then, that Whittier's second period (as C. B. Williams helpfully suggests) has two phases—his Garrisonian abolition and concern with helping the helpless slave-labor, and (especially after 1843) an organic concern with the idea that "the strong hand makes strong the working brain" (cf. Thoreau) and a concern with the sanative "common things" and a manlier spirit of content with the life of the common man.
Taken as a whole, Whittier's prose essays in Old Portraits and Modern Sketches and Literary Recreations have two implications. First, wishing to give his personal reformism a broader basis, he tried to provide it with a broader temporal perspective by celebrating various now revered spokesmen of the Revolution of the seventeenth-century Puritans. Paradoxically, while he appeared to be dealing with the seventeenth-century Past, he singles out those spokesmen of the past who were iconoclasts, who pioneered in leading a revolt against bondage to throne and altar. But Whittier insists that Past, Present and Future are one, centered in the Now. Second, while Whittier's primary concern at the start in his prose portraits may have been a quest for examples of reformism, the heroic figures of the seventeenth century as he studied them led him to see that for the most part they stressed the inwardness of evil and sought to make men not masterless but selfmastered. (Milton who in the Second Sonnet on the Detraction said of his more radical opponents, license they mean when they cry liberty, for who loves that must first be wise and good, having overcome individual temptations.)
Let us now turn to Whittier's dominant emphases during his third period, during the last thirty-five years of his life, from 1857 when Mordell (p. 178) says "the work of Whittier as the poet of freedom and the singer of the oppressed really ended." (I should prefer to say that he transcended his institutional reformism by including4 it in a more proportionate synthesis involving the inward as well as the outward, organically related.)
As in "Skipper Ireson's Ride" on a rail while being externally tarred and feathered by the angry women whose husbands and brothers and sons the skipper had deserted, he turns in 1857 to the idea of the individual's inward conscience. Note the anguished cry of the physically tormented skipper to his persecutors:
What is the shame that clothes the skin (i.e., tar)
To the nameless horror that lives within?
In his essay of 1862 introducing "Dora Greenwell" he hopes that "In the chaos of civil strife and the shadow of mourning which rests over the land, the contemplation of 'things unseen which are external' might not be unwelcome; . . . when the foundations of human confidence [in physical warfare] are shaken, and the trust in men proves vain, there might be glad listeners to a voice calling from the outward and the temporal to the inward and the spiritual" (VII, 303). In his many hymns such as "The Eternal Goodness" (1865-66) he acknowledges that past sages cannot paint too darkly the guilt and sin of which he as an individual is conscious "within." (For similar emphasis on the cause and cure of suffering as essentially within rather than outside the individual, see the Cambridge Edition of his poems, pp. 424; 433; 436; 438; 442; 448; 458; 460; 466.)
Institutional reform seemed impotent in the face of such afflictions as the death of his beloved mother in 1857, his two sisters in 1860 and 1864, and his own failing health at this time. He was also conscious of the fact that such masters as Milton and Emerson and Lowell had eventually turned from external reformism to a concern with inwardness. In 1870 he concluded, "The true life of a nation is in its personal morality, and no excellence of constitution and laws can avail much if the people lack purity and integrity" (VII, 432. See also VII, 228, where he says that "Unsupported by a more practical education, higher aims, and a deeper sense of the responsibilities of life and duty, it [women's exercise of the ballot] is not likely to prove a blessing [as a "remedy for all the evils"] in her hands any more than in man's." See also quote in S. T. Pickard's Life, II, 742, and VII, 356). Regardless of "outward" aids, he has become convinced that "no man his brother can redeem." In his long eulogy of Woolman he agrees with the Quaker sage that "all the varied growths of evil had their underlying root in human [individual] selfishness" (VII, 357). "There is something in the doctrine of total depravity and regeneration. We are born selfish. The discipline of [one's inward] life develops the higher qualities of character. . . . It is the [free-willed] conquering of innate selfish propensities that makes the saint; and the giving up unduly to impulses that in their origin are necessary to the preservation of life that makes the saint" (quoted in Pickard's Life, II, 629; see also VII, 232, 234). Whittier concluded that if the wrong-doer humbly repents breaking God's benign laws, such remorse may help to make evil educative, much as Milton did in his doctrine of the "fortunate fall" (PL, XII, 473-478).
During this period after 1857 Whittier urges that the Inner Light or the individual's intuition should be tested by a socially-mediated tradition such as that embodied in the Bible: The two revelations should test and reinforce one another. His "Pennsylvania Pilgrim" (1872) "read the Bible by the Inner Light." However, Whittier emphasized those aspects of his ancestral faith which accorded with other and older religious sects and he hoped that Catholics and Puritans and the Hindus would eventually come to understand that they were worshipping in the light of elemental truths at one5 altar, just as he concluded that time is only an illusion, that past, present, and future are one.
"The Last Walk in Autumn" (1857) also illustrates Whittier's turn from the "dreams" of his earlier concern with either the luridly romantic or with Utopian reform to a concern with poetic imagination which can find the universal in humble particulars, his work now being devoted to "the home and hearth" as in Snowbound (1867). "The beauty which old Greece or Rome / Sung, painted, wrought, lies close at home" and is discoverable by the imaginative "eye and ear / In all our daily walks" as well as in communion with his American friends Emerson (II, 105-112), Bayard Taylor, and Charles Sumner. He will now as a poet devote himself (in proceeding from kin to kind) to New England's "equal village schools," the "freeman's vote," religious freedom, her laborers' right to the rewards of their own efforts, and the "old home-bred virtues."
In place of his "hate of tyranny intense" and the tendency of the propagandist toward one-sidedness, Whittier in "The Problem" (1877) dividing management and labor argues that essentially "The interests of the rich man and the poor / Are one and same, inseparable evermore" and partisans of one or the other in their extremist panaceas offer but "catch-words of the blind / Leaders of the blind. / Solution there is none / Save in the Golden Rule of Christ alone," save in mediation and a peaceful recognition of the just claims of both sides in the controversy. Just as he regarded the Scripture as "a rule, not the rule of faith and practice," so Whittier urged his Quaker friends to find "no occasion to renew the disastrous quarrel of religion with science" (VII, 362) which men such as Swedenborg had used to show that objects in the "world of sense [are] only types and symbols of the world of spirit" (VII, 362). He also praised science as an agent of truth which had outmoded the cruel belief in witches. He praised the reverent Agassiz who was capable of prayer. Indeed, Whittier derived reinforcement for his doctrine of charity as based on the scientific or Newtonian doctrine that "in the outward world all things [such as the planets] do mutually operate upon and affect each other; and that it is by the energy of this [centrifugal and centripetal balanced] principle that our solid earth is supported, and the heavenly bodies are made to keep the rhythmic harmonies of this creation." He had faith that "a law akin to this physical law had been ordained for the moral world," sanctioning social coherence and mutual charity drawing individuals together (V, 91). Like Thoreau, however, Whittier was sceptical of "poor Etzler" as a mere technologist who prophesied the coming of a "paradisiacal state by the sole agency of outward mechanics" (V, 353). (Whittier's over-all view of science deserves much more investigation.)
If in "The Sabbath Scene" the spokesmen of slavery had invoked the sanction of the Bible and consequently Whittier had briefly preferred to rely on outward nature rather than the Bible, his more characteristic later view is embodied in "Andrew Rykman's Prayer" (1864-65) where he concluded that all the external things of nature tend to "fluctuate and flow." In "A Summer Pilgrimage" (1883) he was confident that "Beyond this masquerade of shape and color, light and shade, / And dawn and set, dull wax and wane, / Eternal verities remain."
During Whittier's last period he repeatedly emphasized the idea that "in judging of my fellow-men, I can see no other standard than which our Lord and Master has given us, 'By their fruits ye shall know them.' The only orthodoxy that I am especially interested in is that of life and practice." (Quoted by Pickard, Life, I, 265.)
In "The Last Walk in Autumn," in Snowbound and especially in "The Pennsylvania Pilgrim" Whittier does not so much discard his earlier two emphases as he transcended them by including them in a larger synthesis. Thus in the latter poem, which the poet prized as among his best (Pickard's Life, II, 575-576), the groundwork is obviously localistic, the colonial Quaker's life being set in Pennsylvania. The prose preface uses his benign life (in which Lewis Leary finds the central figure to be that of sowing seeds which flower in reform) as an example of the way in which Quaker influence "has been felt through two centuries in the amelioration of penal severities, the abolition of slavery, the reform of the erring, the relief of the poor and the suffering—felt, in brief, in every step of human progress." But of course the primary emphasis is on the individual (Pastorius) who read the Bible—was respectful of a socially-mediated tradition—by the Inner Light, by a reverent psychological awareness and responsiveness. If in the second period, Whittier's emphasis seems to have been essentially horizontal—man's concern with his fellow-men as in "The Poor Voter on Election Day" (1848-52)—his emphasis in the third period is predominantly vertical, the Christian concern (cf. "Trinitas") for drawing one's fellowmen together being given deeper organic meaning by allegiance to the deity associated with perfection. In other words, as individuals are persuaded to approach the deity, to be responsive to the Inner Light, they will necessarily be drawn closer together in brotherhood.
In his final period Whittier increasingly deplored the divisions of sectarianism, and sought common ground between all sects devoted to the good of all predicated on making individuals not masterless but self-mastered. The extent to which his simple but not naive religious views have entered into the main stream of diverse religious groups is attested by the fact that nearly one hundred hymns have been extracted from poems (as Mr. Currier has shown in his Bibliography, p. 597). These hymns (some seventeen of which are still printed in standard Hymnals even in 1968) belie the claim of our avant-garde critics that Whittier is dead, since hundreds of thousands sing his hymns of tolerance and mercy who do not notice the poet's name.
His simple dependence on the individual's inner light safeguarded by traditional wisdom lends itself reasonably well to the uses of those who are not so much concerned with antiquarian historical facts about Christ as a person or about ritualism as with a recognition that one may think of the deity as revealed within the individual psychologically whenever he is aware of an impulse toward what generations of men have agreed to call goodness. Such an elementary belief is not likely to be outmoded.
1 S. T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston, 1894, p. 131, says "There was a sudden, even startling change in the character of Whittier's poetry, when he made up his mind to champion the cause of the slave," beginning (Albert Mordell thinks) when in 1832 he met Garrison and read his abolitionist propaganda. Byron, whom Whittier associated with the Greek quest of freedom, appears to have served as a kind of bridge between Whittier's two periods, leading him to glorify Garrison as venturing close to "glorious martyrdom" as he braved "the dagger's point."
2 Miller, "John Greenleaf Whittier: The Conscience in Poetry," Harvard Review, II (1964), 8-24. (This is the first printing of an address at Swarthmore in 1957.) The most detailed account of Whittier's reformist period is found in Albert Mordell's Quaker Militant (Boston, 1933), although the book as a whole reflects some Marxian and Freudian biases. Mordell concludes that the ardor of Whittier's "hate of tyranny intense" places him on a level with our very greatest writers whom he identifies as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, and much above other American authors. On Whittier's political interests see also C. B. Williams, "Whittier's Relation to Garrison and the 'Liberator'," NEQ, XXV (1952), 248-255, and J. B. Pickard, "Whittier and the Abolition Schism of 1840," NEQ, XXXVII (1964), 250-254. See the bifurcated comments on Byron in the Cady-Clark volume, pp. 38-40, 93-103 and passim. Much as Whittier the moralist deplored Byron's licentiousness and impiousness, he could not help concluding in 1831 "We admire—we amost worship—the sublimity of Byron's genius," (pp. 70-71) for "no nobler heart" exists among the "laurel'd bards," and "he was the master spirit of his time" (p. 40).
3 In a doctoral dissertation I was privileged to direct, Lester Zimmerman (Milton's American Reputation to 1900, 1949) has brought together Whittier's many quotations from and tributes to Milton as the spokesman of freedom (pp. 247-280).
4 See quote in Pickard's Life, II, 513 and VII, 147, where he denies any "low esteem of his anti-slavery labors."
5 See V, 113-114; VII, 353; V, 310; Mordell's quotation, 297-298; and the quotation in Pickard's Life, II, 632.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
Currier, Thomas Franklin. A Bibliography of John Greenleaf Whittier. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937, 16 p.
Bibliography prepared by the early twentieth century's leading Whittier scholar.
Von Frank, Albert J. Whittier: A Comprehensive Annotative Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1976, 273 p.
Considered one of the most complete Whittier bibliographies.
Whittier, John Greenleaf. The Complete Poetical Works of Whittier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1894, 542 p.
Includes an annotated bibliography with biographical sketch and introduction written by Whittier.
Pickard, Samuel T. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., Riverside Press, 1894.
The "official" biography sanctioned by Whittier before his death. Although Pickard's biography greatly romanticizes Whittier's political motivation, the work is still considered a standard source for its broad survey of Whittier's letters and memoirs.
Pollard, John A. John Greenleaf Whittier: Friend of Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., Riverside Press, 1949, 615 p.
A lengthy biography of Whittier which provides several helpful appendices. Pollard includes a bibliography as well as extensive notes concerning Whittier's lineage.
Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, 262 p.
Describes Whittier in terms of various paradoxes that Wagenknecht believes to have shaped the poet's life, politics, and poetry.
Boynton, H. W. "John Greenleaf Whittier: An Appreciation, Apropos of the Poet's Centenary." Putnam's Monthly III, No. 3 (December 1907): 274-80.
Suggests that Whittier be remembered and commended not for the quality of his poems, but for his song-like descriptions of nature and sentimental themes.
Budick, E. Miller. "The Immortalizing Power of Imagination: A Reading of Whittier's Snow-Bound." Emerson Society Quarterly 31, No. 2 (2nd Quarter, 1985): 89-99.
Discusses how Whittier comes to terms with the problem of mortality in Snow-Bound.
Carey, George G. "Whittier's Roots in a Folk Culture." Essex Institute Historical Collections CIV, No. 1 (January 1968): 3-18.
Places Whittier and his poetry in the context of New England story-telling and folk traditions.
Kribbs, Jayne K. Introduction to Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier, pp. xiii-xl. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980.
Provides a brief biography of Whittier's personal and literary life as well as an introduction to nineteenth- and twentieth-century critical reception of his works.
Leary, Lewis. "A Note on Whittier's Margaret Smith." Emerson Society Quarterly 50 (1st Quarter, 1968): 75-8.
Describes Whittier's one novel as a "minor classic" and praises its celebration of the human spirit.
McEuen, Kathryn Anderson. "Whittier's Rhymes." American Speech XX, No. 1 (February 1945): 51-7.
By placing Whittier's rhymes in the context of regional New England pronunciation, refutes critics who label his rhyming "faulty."
Meek, Frederick M. "Whittier the Religious Man." Emerson Society Quarterly 50 (1st Quarter, 1968): 86-92.
Examines the deep religious roots of Whittier's life and the influence of his religious poetry on American literature and society.
Pickard, John B. "Whittier's Abolitionist Poetry." Emerson Society Quarterly 50 (1st Quarter, 1968): 105-15.
Suggests new ways of approaching Whittier's abolitionist poetry in terms of its artistic merit, rather than its biographical and historical significance.
Smythe, Daniel W. "Whittier and the New Critics." Emerson Society Quarterly 50 (1st Quarter, 1968): 22-6.
Defends Whittier's poetical skills against dismissive comments by proponents of the "New Criticism," a theoretical approach to literature, popular in the early twentieth century, that maintained works of literature or other artwork should be evaluated without reference to their historical, social, or biographical environments.
Additional coverage of Whittier's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 1; and Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640-1865.
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SOURCE: "Whittier," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXIX, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 98-133.
[Poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel All the King's Men. In the following excerpt, he relates Whitter's maturation as a poet to his work as a journalist and political propagandist.]
When Whittier, at the age of twenty-six, came to knock "Pegasus on the head", the creature he laid low was, indeed, not much better than the tanner's superannuated donkey. In giving up his poetry he gave up very little. Looking back on the work he had done up to that time, we can see little achievement and less promise of growth. He had the knack, as he put it in "The Nervous Man", for making rhymes "as mechanically as a mason piles one brick above another", but nothing that he wrote had the inwardness, the organic quality, of poetry. The stuff, in brief, lacked content, and it lacked style. Even when he was able to strike out poetic phrases, images, or effects, he was not able to organize a poem; his poems usually began anywhere and ended when the author got tired. If occasionally we see a poem begin with a real sense of poetry, the poetry gets quickly lost in some abstract idea. Even a poem as late as "The Last Walk in Autumn" (1857) suffers in this way. It opens with a fine stanza like this:
O'er the bare woods, whose outstretched hands
Plead with the leaden heavens in vain,
I see beyond the valley lands,
The sea's long level dim with rain,
Around me, all things, stark and dumb,
Seem praying for the snows to come,
And for the summer bloom and greenness, gone,
With winter's sunset lights and dazzling morn atone.
But after five stanzas, the poem dies and the abstractions take over for some score of stanzas.
For a poet of natural sensibility, subtlety, and depth to dedicate his work to propaganda would probably result in a coarsening of style and a blunting of effects, for the essence of propaganda is to refuse qualifications and complexity. But Whittier had, by 1833, shown little sensibility, subtlety, or depth, and his style was coarse to a degree. He had nothing to lose, and stood to gain certain things. To be effective, propaganda, if it is to be more than random vituperation, has to make a point, and the point has to be held in view from the start; the piece has to show some sense of organization and control, the very thing Whittier's poems had lacked. But his prose had not lacked this quality, nor, in fact, a sense of the biting phrase; now his verse could absorb the virtues of his prose. It could learn, in addition to a sense of point, something of the poetic pungency of phrase and image, and the precision that sometimes marked the prose. He had referred to his poems as "fancies", and that is what they were, no more. Now he began to relate poetry, though blunderingly enough, to reality. The process was slow. It was ten years—1843—before Whittier was able to write a piece as good as "Massachusetts to Virginia". This was effective propaganda; it had content and was organized to make a point.
Whittier had to wait seven more years before, at the age of forty-three, he could write his first really fine poem. This piece, the famous "Ichabod", came more directly, and personally, out of his political commitment than any previous work. On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster, senator from Massachusetts, spoke on behalf of the more stringent Fugitive Slave Bill that had just been introduced by Whittier's ex-idol Henry Clay; and the poem, which appeared in March in the Washington National Era,1 a paper of the "political" wing of the Abolition movement, deals with the loss of the more recent and significant idol. "This poem," Whittier wrote years later, "was the outcome of the surprise and grief and forecast of evil consequences which I felt on reading the Seventh of March Speech by Daniel Webster. . . ."
But here the poet remembers his poem, which does dramatically exploit surprise and grief, better than he remembers the facts of its origin; he could scarcely have felt surprise at Webster's speech, for as early as 1847, in a letter to Sumner, Whittier had called Webster a "colossal coward" because of his attitude toward the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War.
Here is the poem;
So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
Which once he wore!
The glory from his gray hairs gone
Revile him not, the Tempter hath
A snare for all;
And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath,
Befit his fall!
Oh, dumb be passion's stormy rage,
When he who might
Have lighted up and led his age,
Falls back in night.
Scorn! would the angels laugh, to mark
A bright soul driven,
Fiend-goaded, down the endless dark,
From hope and heaven!
Let not the land once proud of him
Insult him now,
Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,
But let its humbled sons, instead,
From sea to lake,
A long lament, as for the dead,
In sadness make.
Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel's pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled;
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!
The effectiveness of "Ichabod", certainly one of the most telling poems of personal attack in English, is largely due to the dramatization of the situation. At the center of the dramatization lies a division of feeling on the part of the poet: the poem is not a simple piece of vituperation, but represents a tension between old trust and new disappointment, old admiration and new rejection, the past and the present. The Biblical allusion in the title sets this up: "And she named the child Ichabod, saying, the glory is departed from Israel" (I Samuel 4:21). The glory has departed, but grief rather than rage, respect for the man who was once the vessel of glory rather than contempt, pity for his frailty rather than condemnation—these are the emotions recommended as appropriate. We may note that they are appropriate not only as a generosity of attitude; they are also the emotions that are basically condescending, that put the holder of the emotions above the object of them, and that make the most destructive assault on the ego of the object. If Webster had been motivated by ambition, then pity is the one attitude unforgivable by his pride.
The Biblical allusion at the end offers a brilliant and concrete summary of the complexity of feeling in the poem. As Notley Sinclair Maddox has pointed out (Explicator, April, 1960), the last stanza is based on Genesis 9:20-25. Noah, in his old age, plants a vineyard, drinks the wine, and is found drunk and naked in his tent by his youngest son, Ham, who merely reports the fact to his brothers Shem and Japheth. Out of filial piety, they go to cover Noah's shame, but "their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness." Ham, for having looked upon Noah's nakedness, is cursed as a "servant to servants" to his "breth".
The allusion works as a complex and precise metaphor: The great Webster of the past, who, in the time of the debate with Robert Young Hayne (1830), had opposed the slave power and thus established his reputation, has now become obsessed with ambition (drunk with wine) and has exposed the nakedness of human pride and frailty. The conduct of Shem and Japheth sums up, of course, the attitude recommended by the poet. We may remember as an ironical adjunct that the Biblical episode was used from many a pulpit as a theological defense of slavery; Ham, accursed as a "servant to servants", being, presumably, the forefather of the black race.
We may look back at the first stanza to see another complex and effective metaphor, suggested rather than presented. The light is withdrawn, and the light is identified, by the appositive construction, with the "glory" of Webster's gray hair—the glory being the achievement of age and the respect due to honorable age, but also the image of a literal light, an aureole about the head coming like a glow from the literal gray hair. This image fuses with that of the "fallen angel" of line 27 and the dimness of the "dim, / Dishonored brow" in lines 19 and 20. In other words, by suggestion, one of the things that hold the poem together (as contrasted with the logical sequence of the statement) is the image of the angel Lucifer, the light-bearer, fallen by excess of pride. Then in lines 29 and 30, the light image, introduced in the first stanza with the aureole about the gray hair, appears as an inward light shed outward, the "soul" that had once shone from Webster's eyes (he had remarkably large and lustrous dark eyes). But the soul is now dead, the light "withdrawn", and we have by suggestion a death's-head with the eyes hollow and blank. How subtly the abstract ideas of "faith" and "honor" are drawn into this image, and how subtly the image itself is related to the continuing play of variations of the idea of light and dark.
From the point of view of technique this poem is, next to "Telling the Bees", Whittier's most perfectly controlled and subtle composition. This is true not only of the dramatic ordering and interplay of imagery, but also of the handling of rhythm as related to meter and stanza, and to the verbal texture. For Whittier, in those rare moments when he could shut out the inane gabble of the sweet singers like Lydia Sigourney, and of his own incorrigible meter-machine, could hear the true voice of feeling. But how rarely he heard—or trusted—the voice of feeling. He was, we may hazard, afraid of feeling. Unless, of course, a feeling had been properly disinfected.
In the "war with wrong", Whittier wrote a number of poems that were, in their moment, effectively composed, but only two (aside from "Ichabod") that survive to us as poetry. To one, "Song of Slaves in the Desert", we shall return; but the other, "Letter from a Missionary of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, in Kansas, to a Distinguished Politician", not only marks a high point in Whittier's poetic education but may enlighten us as to the relation of that education to his activity as a journalist and propagandist.
The "Letter" as the full title indicates, grew out of the struggle between the pro-slavery and the free-state forces for the control of "Bleeding Kansas". Though the poem appeared in 1854, four years after "Ichabod", it shows us more clearly than the earlier piece how the realism, wit, and irony of Whittier's prose could be absorbed into a composition that is both polemic and poetry. The polemical element is converted into poetry by the force of its dramatization—as in the case of "Ichabod": but here specifically by an ironic ventriloquism, the device of having the "Letter" come from the pen of the godly missionary:
Last week—the Lord be praised for all His mercies
To His unworthy servant!—I arrived
Safe at the Mission, via Westport; where
I tarried over night, to aid in forming
A Vigilance Committee, to send back,
In shirts of tar, and feather-doublets quilted
With forty stripes save one, all Yankee comers,
Uncircumcised and Gentile, aliens from
The Commonwealth of Israel, who despise
The prize of the high calling of the saints,
Who plant amidst this heathen wilderness
Pure gospel institutions, sanctified
By patriarchal use. The meeting opened
With prayer, as was most fitting. Half an hour,
Or thereaway, I groaned, and strove, and wrestled,
As Jacob did at Penuel, till the power
Fell on the people, and they cried "Amen!"
"Glory to God!" and stamped and clapped their hands;
And the rough river boatmen wiped their eyes;
"Go it, old hoss!" they cried, and cursed the niggers—
Fulfilling thus the word of prophecy,
"Cursed be Canaan."
By the ventriloquism the poem achieves a control of style, a fluctuating tension between the requirements of verse and those of "speech", a basis for the variations of tone that set up the sudden poetic, and ironic, effect at the end:
P.S. All's lost. Even while I write these lines,
The Yankee abolitionists are coming
Upon us like a flood—grim, stalwart men,
Each face set like a flint of Plymouth Rock
Against our institutions—staking out
Their farm lots on the wooded Wakarusa,
Or squatting by the mellow-bottomed Kansas;
The pioneers of mightier multitudes,
The small rain-patter, ere the thunder shower
Drowns the dry prairies. Hope from man is not.
Oh, for a quiet berth at Washington,
Snug naval chaplaincy, or clerkship, where
These rumors of free labor and free soil
Might never meet me more. Better to be
Door-keeper in the White House, than to dwell
Amidst these Yankee tents, that, whitening, show
On the green prairie like a fleet becalmed.
Methinks I hear a voice come up the river
From those far bayous, where the alligators
Mount guard around the camping filibusters:
"Shake off the dust of Kansas. Turn to Cuba—
(That golden orange just about to fall,
O'er-ripe, into the Democratic lap;)
Keep pace with Providence, or, as we say,
Manifest destiny. Go forth and follow
The message of our gospel, thither borne
Upon the point of Quitman's bowie-knife,
And the persuasive lips of Colt's revolvers.
There may'st thou, underneath thy vine and fig-tree,
Watch thy increase of sugar cane and negroes,
Calm as a patriarch in his eastern tent!"
Amen: So mote it be. So prays your friend.
Here quite obviously the ventriloquism is what gives the poem a "voice", and the fact instructs us as to how Whittier, less obviously, develops through dramatization a voice in "Ichabod". The voice of a poem is effective—is resonant—insofar as it bespeaks a life behind that voice, implies a dramatic issue by which that life is defined. We have spoken of the complexity of feeling behind the voice of "Ichabod", and in the present case we find such a complexity in the character of the missionary himself. At first glance, we have the simple irony of the evil man cloaking himself in the language of the good. But another irony, and deeper, is implicit in the poem: the missionary may not be evil, after all; he may even be, in a sense, "good"—that is, be speaking in perfect sincerity, a man good but misguided; and thus we have the fundamental irony of the relation of evil and good in human character, action, and history. Whittier was a polemicist, and a very astute one, as the "Letter" in its primary irony exemplifies. But he was also a devout Quaker, and by fits and starts a poet, and his creed, like his art, would necessarily give a grounding for the secondary, and deeper, irony, an irony that implies humility and forgiveness.
What we have been saying is that by repudiating poetry Whittier became a poet. His image of knocking Pegasus on the head tells a deeper truth than he knew; by getting rid of the "poetical" notion of poetry, he was able, eventually, to ground his poetry on experience. In the years of his crusade and of the Civil War, he was, bit by bit, learning this, and the process was, as we have said, slow. It was a process that seems to have been by fits and starts, trial and error, by floundering, rather than by rational understanding. Whittier was without much natural taste and almost totally devoid of critical judgment, and he seems to have had only a flickering awareness of what he was doing—though he did have a deep awareness, it would seem, of his personal situation. As a poet he was trapped in the automatism and compulsiveness that, in "Amy Wentworth", he defined as the "automatic play of pen and pencil, solace in our pain"—the process that writing seems usually to have been for him. Even after a triumph, he could fall back for another fifty poems into this dreary repetitiveness.
The mere mass of his published work in verse between 1843 and the Civil War indicates something of this. In 1843 appeared Lays of My Home, in 1848 what amounted to a collected edition, in 1850 Songs of Labor, in 1853 The Chapel of the Hermits, and Other Poems, in 1856 The Panorama, and Other Poems, in 1857 the Poetical Works, in two volumes, and in 1860, Home Ballads, Poems and Lyrics.
But in this massive and blundering production there had been a growth. In 1843 even poems like "To My Old Schoolmaster", "The Barefoot Boy", "Maud Muller", "Lines Suggested by Reading a State Paper", and "Kossuth" would have been impossible, not to mention "Skipper Ireson's Ride", which exhibits something of the élan of traditional balladry and something of the freedom of living language of "Ichabod" and the "Letter". But nothing short of miracle, and a sudden miraculous understanding of Wordsworth and the traditional ballad, accounts for a little masterpiece like "Telling the Bees". There had been the technical development, but something else was happening too, something more difficult to define; Whittier was stumbling, now and then, on the subjects that might release the inner energy necessary for real poetry.
There was, almost certainly, a deep streak of grievance and undischarged anger in Whittier, for which the Abolitionist poems (and editorials) could allow a hallowed—and disinfected—expression; simple indignation at fate could become "right-eous indignation", and the biting sarcasm was redeemed by the very savagery of the bite. But there was another subject which released, and more deeply, the inner energy—the memory of the past, more specifically the childhood past, nostalgia, shall we say, for the happy, protected time before he knew the dark inward struggle, the outer struggle with "strong-willed men" (as he was to put it in "To My Sister") to which he had to steel himself, the collapses, and the grinding headaches. Almost everyone has an Eden time to look back on, even if it never existed and he has to create it for his own delusion; but for Whittier the need to dwell on this lost Eden was more marked than is ordinary. If the simple indignation against a fate that had deprived him of the security of childhood could be transmuted into righteous indignation, both could be redeemed in a dream of Edenic innocence. This was the subject that could summon up Whittier's deepest feeling and release his fullest poetic power.
Furthermore, if we review the poems after 1850, we find a subsidiary and associated theme, sometimes in the same poem. In poems like "Maud Muller", "Kathleen", "Mary Garvin", "The Witch's Daughter", "The Truce of Piscataqua", "My Playmate", "The Countess", and "Telling the Bees", there is the theme of the lost girl, a child or a beloved, who may or may not be, in the course of a poem, recovered. Some of these poems, notably "Maud Muller" and "Kathleen", raise the question of differences of social rank, as do "The Truce of Piscataqua" if we read "blood" for social difference, and "Marguerite" and "Mary Garvin" if we read the bar of religion in the same way. This last theme, in fact, often appears; we have it in "Amy Wentworth", "The Countess", and "Among the Hills", all of which belong to the mature period of Whittier's work, when he was looking nostalgically backward. But this theme of the lost girl, especially when the loss is caused by difference in social rank or the religious bar, even though it clearly repeats a theme enacted in Whittier's personal life, never really touched the spring of poetry in him except in "Telling the Bees", where it is crossed with the theme of childhood to reduce the pang of the sexual overtones. The theme of the lost girl, taken alone, belonged too literally, perhaps, to the world of frustration. In life Whittier had worked out the problem and had survived, by finding the right kind of action for himself, a "sanctified" action, and this action could, as we have seen, contribute to some of his best poetry; but, more characteristically, his poetic powers were released by the refuge in assuagement, the flight into Eden, and this was at once his great limitation and the source of his success.
For the poems specifically of nostalgia for childhood, we have "To My Old Schoolmaster", "The Barefoot Boy", "The Playmate", "The Prelude" (to "Among the Hills"), "To My Sister, with a Copy of 'The Supernaturalism of New England'", "School-Days", "Telling the Bees", and, preeminently, Snow-Bound. It is not so much the number of poems involved that is significant, but the coherent quality of feeling and, by and large, the poetic quality in contrast to the other work. As Whittier puts it in "The Prelude", he was more and more impelled to
. . . idly turn
The leaves of memory's sketch-book,
Old summer pictures of the quiet hills,
And human life, as quiet, at their feet.
He was, as he shrewdly saw himself in "Questions of Life", an "over-wearied child", seeking in "cool and shade his peace to find", in flight
From vain philosophies, that try
The sevenfold gates of mystery,
And, baffled ever, babble still,
Word-prodigal of fate and will;
From Nature, and her mockery, Art
And book and speech of men apart,
To the still witness in my heart.
As a young man hot with passion and ambition, and later as a journalist, agitator, and propagandist, he had struggled with the world, but there had always been the yearning for the total peace which could be imaged in the Quaker meeting-house, but more deeply in childhood, as he summarized it in "To My Sister":
And, knowing how my life hath been
A weary work of tongue and pen,
A long, harsh strife with strong-willed men,
Thou wilt not chide my turning
To con, at times, an idle rhyme,
To pluck a flower from childhood's clime,
Or listen, at Life's noonday chime,
For the sweet bells of Morning!
The thing which he fled from but did not mention was, of course, inner struggle, more protracted and more bitter than the outer struggle with "strong-willed men".
"To My Old Schoolmaster", which appeared in 1851, just after Whittier's great poetic break-through with "Ichabod", is the germ of Snow-Bound, the summarizing poem of Whittier's basic impulse. It can be taken as such a germ not merely because it turns back to the early years, but because Joshua Coffin, the schoolmaster, was a person associated with certain of Whittier's rites of passage, as it were. It was Coffin who, when Whittier was a boy of fourteen, sat by the family fire and read aloud from Burns. It was Coffin who was with Whittier at the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, in 1833. Furthermore, Coffin early encouraged Whittier's historical and antiquarian interests (a fact that explains certain passages in the poem), and shared in his religious sense of the world; and in this last connection it is logical to assume that when, late in life, Coffin, a sweet-natured and devout man, fell prey to the conviction that he was not among the "elect" and would be damned, the fact would stir the aging Whittier's deepest feelings about the meaning of his own experience. Be that as it may, when Coffin died, in June, 1864, just before the death of Whittier's sister Elizabeth, which provoked Snow-Bound, Whittier felt, as he said in a letter, that he had lost "one of the old landmarks of the past". This bereavement would be absorbed into the more catastrophic one about to occur, just as the figure of Coffin would be absorbed into that of the schoolmaster in the poem that is ordinarily taken to refer, as we shall see, to a certain George Haskell.
We have remarked that "To My Old Schoolmaster", composed shortly after "Ichabod", may in one sense be taken also as contributing to Snow-Bound. But an even earlier poem, "Song of the Slaves in the Desert" (1847), indicates more clearly the relation of the poems inspired by Whittier's "war on wrong" to the poems of personal inspiration. The "Song" is, as a matter of fact, the best poem done by Whittier up to that time; and here the homesickness of the slaves gives a clear early example of the theme of nostalgia. Furthermore, since the slaves are, specifically, female, here is the first example of the theme of the lost girl:
Where are we going? where are we going,
Where are we going, Rubee?
Lord of peoples, lord of lands,
Look across these shining sands,
Through the furnace of the noon,
Through the white light of the moon.
Strong the Ghiblee wind is blowing,
Strange and large the world is growing!
Speak and tell us where we are going,
Where are we going, Rubee?
Bornou land was rich and good,
Wells of water, fields of food,
Dourra fields, and bloom of bean,
And the palm-tree cool and green:
Bornou land we see no longer,
Here we thirst and here we hunger,
Here the Moor-man smites in anger:
Where are we going, Rubee?
When we went from Bornou land,
We were like the leaves and sand,
We were many, we are few;
Life has one, and death has two:
Whitened bones our path are showing,
Thou All-seeing, thou All-knowing!
Hear us, tell us, where are we going, Where are we going, Rubee?
Moons of marches from our eyes
Bornou land behind us lies;
Stranger round us day by day
Bends the desert circle gray;
Wild the waves of sand are flowing,
Hot the winds above them blowing,—
Lord of all things! where are we going?
Where are we going, Rubee?
We are weak, but Thou art strong;
Short our lives, but Thine is long;
We are blind, but Thou hast eyes;
We are fools, but Thou art wise!
Thou, our morrow's pathway knowing
Through the strange world round us growing,
Hear us, tell us where are we going,
Where are we going, Rubee?
The relation of "Ichabod" to the theme of nostalgia is somewhat more indirect and complex, but we may remember that, as the title declares, the theme is a lament for departed glory. Literally the glory is that of Webster, who has betrayed his trust, but also involved is the "glory" of those who trusted, who had trailed their own clouds of glory, not of strength and dedication, but of innocence, simplicity, and faith. The followers are betrayed by their natural protector, for, as the Biblical reference indicates, they are the sons of the drunken Noah. In the massiveness of the image, however, the father betrays the sons not only by wine but by death, for it is a death's-head with empty eyesockets that is the most striking fact of the poem.
Here the evitable moral betrayal is equated, imagistically, with the inevitable, and morally irrelevant, fact of death. But by the same token, as a conversion of the proposition, the fact of death in the morally irrelevant course of nature is, too, a moral betrayal. The child, in other words, cannot forgive the course of nature—the fate—that leaves him defenseless.
In connection with this purely latent content of the imagery, we may remark that Whittier, in looking back on the composition of the poem, claimed that he had recognized in Webster's act the "forecast of evil consequences" and knew the "horror of such a vision". For him this was the moment of confronting the grim actuality of life. It was, as it were, a political rite of passage. Here the protector has become the betrayer—has "died". So, in this recognition of the isolation of maturity, we have the beginning of the massive cluster of poems of the nostalgia of childhood.2
Let us glance at a later poem, "The Pipes of Lucknow: An Incident of the Sepoy Mutiny", that seems, at first glance, even more unrelated to the theme of childhood than does "Ichabod". But as "Ichabod" is associated with "To My Old Schoolmaster", a more explicit poem of childhood, so "Lucknow" is associated with "Telling the Bees". If we translate "Lucknow", we have something like this: The Scots have left home (i.e., grown up) and are now beleaguered.
Day by day the Indian tiger
Louder yelled, and nearer crept;
Round and round the jungle-serpent
Nearer and nearer circles swept.
The "Indian tiger" and the "jungle-serpent" are melodramatic versions of the "strong-willed men" and other manifestations of the adult world that Whittier had steeled himself to cope with, and had turned from, as the Scots turn now, on hearing the pipes, to seek assuagement in the vision of home. As another factor in this equation, we may recall that Whittier had early identified his father's rocky acres with the Scotland of Burns, and so the mystic "pipes o' Havelock" are the pipes of Haverhill.
With one difference: the pipes of Havelock announce not merely a vision of assuagement but also a vengeful carnage to be wrought on all those evil forces and persons that had robbed the child of "home", on the "strong-willed men" and the "Indian tiger" and the "jungle-serpent". Furthermore, since in the inner darkness, where its dramas are enacted, desire knows no logic or justice beyond its own incorrigible nature, we may see distorted in the dark face of the "Indian tiger" and the "jungle-serpent" the dark faces of those poor slaves in Dixie—for it was all their fault; they were the enemy—if it had not been for them Whittier would never have been drawn forth from the daydreams and neurotic indulgences of his youth into the broad daylight of mature and objective action.3
Whittier recognized in himself an appetite for violence. "I have still strong suspicions," he would write in the essay "The Training", "that somewhat of the old Norman blood, something of the grim Berserker spirit, has been bequeathed to me." So, paradoxically, but in the deepest logic of his being, this strain of violence is provoked against these forces that would threaten the "peace" of childhood, and it is to the "air of Auld Lang Syne", rising above the "cruel roll of war-drums", that the vengeful slaughter is released and the gentle Quaker poet breaks out in warlike glee in such lines as:
And the tartan clove the tartan
As the Goomtee cleaves the plain.
"Lucknow" in fact, seems nearer to Kipling than to the saint of Amesbury, the Abolitionist, and the libertarian poet who, in this very period, was writing poems deeply concerned with the freedom of Italians ("From Perugia", 1858, and "Italy", 1860), if not with that of Sepoys. But it is no mystery that in 1858, the year of "Lucknow", Whittier should have written the gentle little masterpiece of nostalgia "Telling the Bees", for both would seem to have been conditioned by the same traumatic event: the death of Whittier's mother, which occurred in December, 1857.
On February 16, 1858, Whittier sent "Telling the Bees" to James Russell Lowell, at the Atlantic Monthly, saying, "What I call simplicity may be only silliness." It was not silliness. It was a pure and beautiful little poem informed by the flood of feeling that broke forth at the death of his mother.
Here is the place; right over the hill
Runs the path I took;
You can see the gap in the old wall still,
And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.
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.
There are the beehives ranged in the sun;
And down by the brink
Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o'errun,
Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink.
A year has gone, as the tortoise goes,
Heavy and slow;
And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows,
And the same brook sings of a year ago.
There's the same sweet clover-smell in the breeze;
And the June sun warm
Tangles his wings of fire in the trees,
Setting, as then, over Fernside farm.
I mind me how with a lover's care
From my Sunday coat
I brushed off the burrs, and smoothed my hair,
And cooled at the brookside my brow and throat.
Since we parted, a month had passed,—
To love, a year;
Down through the beeches I looked at last
On the little red gate and the well-sweep near.
I can see it all now,—the slantwise rain
Of light through the leaves,
The sundown's blaze on her window-pane,
The bloom of her roses under the eaves.
Just the same as a month before,—
The house and the trees,
The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door,—
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.
Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.
Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we all must go!
Then I said to myself, "My Mary weeps
For the dead to-day:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
The fret and the pain of his age away."
But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.
And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:—
"Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!"
The setting of the poem is a scrupulous re-creation of the farmstead where Whittier spent his youth. The poem was composed almost thirty years after Whittier had gone out into the world, and some twenty-two years after he had sold the home place and moved the family to Amesbury. Not only is the same nostalgia that informs Snow-Bound part of the motivation of this poem, but also the same literalism. But more than mere literalism seems to be involved in the strange fact that Whittier keeps his sister Mary—or at least her name—in the poem, and keeps her there to kill her off; and there is, of course, the strange fact that he cast a shadowy self—the "I" of the poem—in the rôle of the lover of Mary, again playing here with the theme of lost love, of the lost girl, but bringing the story within the family circle, curiously coalescing the youthful yearning for sexual love and the childhood yearning for love and security within the family circle. And all this at a time when Mary was very much alive.
Just as the shock of his mother's death turned Whittier's imagination back to the boyhood home and released the energy for "Telling the Bees", so the death of his sister Elizabeth lies behind Snow-Bound. The relation of Whittier to this sister, who shared his literary and other tastes, who herself wrote verses (often indistinguishable in their lack of distinction from the mass of her brother's work), who was a spirited and humorous person, and who, as a spinster, was a companion to his bachelorhood, was of a more complex and intimate kind than even that of Whittier to his mother. She was "dear Lizzie, his sole home-flower, the meek lily-blossom that cheers and beautifies his life"—as was observed in the diary of Lucy Larcom, a poetess of some small fame and one of the ladies who, along the way, was in love, to no avail, with the poet himself. When Elizabeth died, on September 3, 1864, Whittier said, "The great motive of my life seems lost."
Shortly before Elizabeth's death there had been another crisis in Whittier's life, the end of his second and final romance with Elizabeth Lloyd, whom we have already mentioned. The relation with that lady was something more than merely one among his numerous frustrated romances. He had known her for some twenty-five years, from the time when he was thirty. She was good-looking, wrote verses, painted pictures, believed ardently in Abolition, and was a Quaker to boot. What could have been more appropriate? She even fell in love with him, if we can judge from the appeals in her letters toward the end of the first connection with her: "Spirit, silent, dumb and cold! What hath possessed thee?" Or: "Do come, Greenleaf! I am almost forgetting how thee looks and seems." But Greenleaf was beating one of his strategic retreats; so she cut her losses, got to work and made a literary reputation of sorts, married a non-Quaker, and got "read out of meeting".
After her husband's death, however, Elizabeth Lloyd, now Howell, reappeared in Whittier's life. They became constant companions. Both suffered from severe headaches, but they found that if they caressed each other's hair and massaged each other's brows, the headaches would go away. Or at least Whittier's headache would, and he proposed to her. She refused him, but not definitively, and the dalliance went on. Even a quarrel about Quakerism did not end it. But it did end; or perhaps it merely petered out. In any case, in later years the lady nursed a grievance, and spoke bitterly of the old sweetheart.
So in spite of Elizabeth Howell's healing hands, Whittier again took up his solitude, and if he still clung to the explanation that his bachelorhood had been due to "the care of an aged mother, and the duty owed a sister in delicate health", the last vestige of plausibility was, ironically enough, now to be removed by the sister's sudden death. He was now truly alone, with no landmarks left from the Edenic past except those of memory.
Before the end of the month in which Elizabeth died, Whittier sent to the Atlantic a poem which he said had "beguiled some weary hours". It was "The Vanishers", based on a legend he had read in Schoolcraft's famous History, Condition, and Prospects of the American Indians about the beautiful spirits who fleetingly appear to beckon the living on to what Whittier calls "The Sunset of the Blest". To the Vanishers, Whittier likens the beloved dead:
Gentle eyes we closed below,
Tender voices heard once more,
Smile and call us, as they go
On and onward, still before.
The poem is, in its basic impulse, a first draft of Snow-Bound.
In a very special way Snow-Bound summarizes Whittier's life and work. The poem gives the definitive expression to the obsessive theme of childhood nostalgia. As early as 1830, in "The Frost Spirit", we find the key situation of the family gathered about a fire while the "evil power" of the winter storm (and of the world) goes shrieking by. Already, too, Whittier had long been fumbling toward his great question of how to find in the contemplation of the past a meaning for the future. In "My Soul and I", (1847), the soul that turns in fear from the unknown future to seek comfort in the "Known and Gone" must learn that
The past and the time to be are one,
And both are now.
The same issue reappears in "The Garrison of Cape Ann":
The great eventful present hides the past; but
through the din
Of its loud life hints and echoes from the life
behind steal in;
And the lore of home and fireside, and the
Make the task of duty lighter which the true
man owes his time.
And it appears again in "The Prophecy of Samuel Sewall" (1859).
As for the relation to the poet's personal life, Snow-Bound came after another manifestation of the old inhibition that forbade his seeking solace from Elizabeth Lloyd's healing hands (and this as he neared the age of sixty, when the repudiation of the solace must have seemed more nearly and catastrophically final). It came after the death of the sister had deprived him of the motive of his life. And it came, too, toward the end of the Civil War, when he could foresee the victory of the cause to which he had given his energies for more than thirty years and which had, in a sense, served as his justification for life, and as a substitute for other aspects of life. Now the joy of victory would, necessarily, carry with it a sense of emptiness. Furthermore, the victory itself was in terms sadly different, as Whittier recognized, from those that he had dreamed.
Snow-Bound is, then, a summarizing poem for Whittier; but it came, also, at a summarizing moment for the country. It came when the country—at least all the country that counted, the North—was poised on the threshold of a new life, the world of technology, big industry, big business, finance capitalism, and urban values. At that moment, caught up in the promises of the future, the new breed of American could afford to look back on his innocent beginnings; and the new breed could afford to pay for the indulgence of nostalgia—in fact, in the new affluence, paid quite well for it. Whittier's book appeared on February 17, 1866,' and the success was immediate. For instance, in April, J. T. Fields, the publisher, wrote to Whittier: "We can't keep the plaguey thing quiet. It goes and goes, and now, today, we are bankrupt again, not a one being in crib." The first edition earned Whittier ten thousand dollars—a sum to be multiplied many times over if translated into present values. The poor man was, overnight, modestly rich.
The scene of the poem, the "Flemish picture", as Whittier calls it, the modest genre piece, is rendered with precise and loving care, and this scene had its simple nostalgic appeal for the generation who had come to town and made it, and a somewhat different appeal, compensatory and comforting no doubt, for the generation that had stayed in the country and had not made it. But the poem is not simple, and it is likely that the appeals would have been far less strong and permanent if Whittier had not set the "idyl" in certain "perspectives" or deeper interpretations. In other words, it can be said of this poem, as of most poetry, that the effect does not depend so much on the thing looked at as on the way of the looking. True, if there is nothing to look at, there can be no looking, but the way of the looking determines the kind of feeling that fuses with the object looked at.
Before we speak of the particular "perspectives" in which the poem is set, we may say that there is a preliminary and general one. This general perspective, specified in Whittier's dedicatory note to his "Winter Idyl",5 denies that the poem is a mere "poem". The poem, that is, is offered as autobiography with all the validation of fact. In other words, the impulse that had appeared in "The Vanishers" as fanciful is here given a grounding in the real world, and in presenting that world the poem explores a complex idea—how different from the vague emotion of "The Vanishers"—concerning the human relation to Time.
The literalness of that world is most obviously certified by the lovingly and precisely observed details: the faces sharpened by cold, the "clashing horn on horn" of the restless cattle in the barn, the "grizzled squirrel" dropping his shell, the "board nails snapping in the frost" at night. The general base of the style is low, depending on precision of rendering rather than on the shock and brilliance of language or image; but from this base certain positive poetic effects emerge as accents and point of focus. For instance:
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east; we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore,
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.
Associated with this background realism of the style of the poem we find a firm realism in the drawing of character. Three of the portraits are sharp and memorable, accented against the other members of the group and at the same time bearing thematic relations to them: the spinster aunt, the schoolmaster, and Harriet Livermore.
The aunt, who had had a tragic love affair but who, as the poem states, had found reconciliation with life, bears a thematic relation to both Elizabeth Whittier and Whittier himself. The schoolmaster, whose name Whittier could not remember until near the end of his life, was a George Haskell, who later became a doctor, practiced in New Jersey and Illinois, and died in 1876 without even knowing, presumably, of his rôle in the poem; but as we have pointed out, there are echoes here, too, of Joshua Coffin. As for Harriet Livermore, Whittier's note identifies her. The fact that the "warm, dark languish of her eyes" might change to rage is amply documented by the fact that at one time, before the scene of Snow-Bound, she had been converted to Quakerism, but during an argument with another Quaker on a point of doctrine she asserted her theological view by laying out with a length of stove wood the man who was her antagonist. This action, of course, got her out of the sect. In her restless search for a satisfying religion, she represents one strain of thought in nineteenth-century America, and has specific resemblances to the characters Nathan and Nehemiah in Melville's Clarel. As a "woman tropical, intense", and at the same time concerned with ideas and beliefs, she is of the type of Margaret Fuller, the model for Zenobia in the Blithedale Romance of Hawthorne.
To return to the structure of the poem, there are three particular "perspectives"—ways in which the material is to be viewed—that can be localized in the body of the work. These perspectives operate as inserts that indicate the stages of the dialectic of this poem. The first appears in lines 175 to 211, the second in lines 400 to 437, and the third in lines 715 to the end.
The first section of the poem (up to the first perspective) presents a generalized setting: the coming of the storm, the first night, the first day, and the second night. Here the outside world is given full value in contrast to the interior, especially in the following passage, which is set between two close-ups of the hearthside, that Edenic spot surrounded by the dark world:
The moon above the eastern wood
Shone at its full; the hill-range stood
Transfigured in the silver flood,
Its blown snows flashing cold and keen,
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the sombre green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black
Against the whiteness at their back.
For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where'er it fell
To make the coldness visible.
The setting, as we have said, is generalized; the individual characters have not yet emerged, the father having appeared in only one line of description and as a voice ordering the boys (John and his only brother, Matthew) to dig a path, with the group at the fireside only an undifferentiated "we". This section ends with the very sharp focus on the mug of cider simmering between the feet of the andirons and the apples sputtering—the literal fire, the literal comfort against the threat of literal darkness and cold outside.
Now the first perspective is introduced:
What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire's ruddy glow.
But immediately, even as he affirms the inviolability of the fireside world, the poet cries out:
Time and Change!—with hair as gray
As was my sire's that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!
From this remembered scene by the fireside only two of the participants survive, the poet and his brother, who are now as gray as the father at that snowfall of long ago; for all are caught in Time, in this less beneficent snowfall that whitens every head, as the implied image seems to say. Given this process of the repetition of the pattern of Time and Change, what, the poet asks, can survive? The answer is that "love can never lose its own."
After the first perspective has thus grafted a new meaning on the scene of simple nostalgia by the fire, the poem becomes a gallery of individual portraits, the father, the mother, the uncle, the aunt, the elder sister (Mary), and the younger (Elizabeth), the schoolmaster, and Harriet Livermore. That is, each individual brings into the poem a specific dramatization of the problem of Time. In the simplest dimension, they offer continuity and repetition: they, the old, were once young, and now, sitting by the fire with the young, tell of youth remembered against the background of age. More specifically, each of the old has had to try to come to terms with Time, and their portraits concern this past.
When the family portraits have been completed, the second perspective is introduced; this is concerned primarily with the recent bereavement, with the absent Elizabeth, and with the poet's personal future as he walks toward the night and sees (as an echo from "The Vanishers") Elizabeth's beckoning hand. Thus out from the theme of Time and Change emerges the theme of the Future, which is to be developed in the portraits of Haskell and Harriet Livermore.
The first will make his peace in Time, by identifying himself with progressive social good (which, as a matter of fact, George Haskell had done by 1866). Harriet Livermore, though seeking, by her theological questing, a peace out of Time, has found no peace in Time, presumably because she cannot seek in the right spirit; with the "love within her mute", she cannot identify herself with the real needs of the world about her (as Aunt Mercy can and George Haskell will); she is caught in the "tangled skein of will and fate", and can only hope for a peace in divine forgiveness, out of Time. After the portrait of Harriet Livermore, we find the contrast in the mother's attitude at the goodnight scene: unlike Harriet she finds peace in the here-and-now, "food and shelter, warmth and health" and love, with no "vain prayers" but with a willingness to act practically in the world—an idea that echoes the theme of "My Soul and I", which we have already mentioned. And this is followed with the peace of night and the "reconciled" dream of summer in the middle of the winter.
With dawn, the present—not the past, not the future—appears, with its obligations, joys, and promises. Here there is a lag in the structure of the poem. When the snow-bound ones awake to the sound of "merry voices high and clear", the poem should, logically, move toward its fulfilment. But instead, after the gay and active intrusion of the world and the present, we have the section beginning "So days went on", and then the dead "filler" for some twenty lines. Whittier's literalism, his fidelity to irrelevant fact rather than to relevant meaning and appropriate structure of the whole, here almost destroys both the emotional and the thematic thrust, and it is due only to the power of the last movement that the poem is not irretrievably damaged.
The third "perspective" (lines 715-759), which ends the poem, is introduced by the eloquence of these lines:
Clasp, Angel of the backward look
And folded wings of ashen gray
And voice of echoes far away,
The brazen covers of thy book . . .
Then follow certain new considerations. What is the relation between the dream of the past and the obligations and actions of the future? The answer is, of course, in the sense of continuity of human experience, found when one stretches the "hands of memory" to the "wood-fire's blaze" of the past; it is thus that one may discover the meaningfulness of obligation and action in Time, even as he discovers in the specific memories of the past an image for the values out of Time. The "idyl" is more than a "Flemish picture"; it is an image, and a dialectic, of one of life's most fundamental questions that is summed up in the haunting simplicity of the end:
Sit with me by the homestead hearth,
And stretch the hands of memory forth
To warm them at the wood-fire's blaze!
And thanks untraced to lips unknown
Shall greet me like the odors blown
From unseen meadows newly mown,
Or lilies floating in some pond,
Wood-fringed, the wayside gaze beyond;
The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.
As a corollary to the third "perspective" generally considered, Whittier has, however, ventured a specific application. He refers not merely to the action in the future, in general, in relation to the past, but also, quite clearly, to the Civil War and the new order with its "larger hopes and graver fears"—the new order of "throngful city ways" as contrasted with the old agrarian way of life and thought. He invites the "worldling"—the man who, irreligiously, would see no meaning in the shared experience of human history, which to Whittier would have been a form of revelation—to seek in the past not only a sense of personal renewal and continuity, but also a sense of the continuity of the new order with the American past. This idea is clearly related to Whittier's conviction, which we have already mentioned, that the course of development for America should be the fulfilling of the "implied intent" of the Constitution in particular, of the American revelation in general, and of God's will. And we may add that Whittier, by this, also gives another "perspective" in which his poem is to be read.
If we leave Snow-Bound, the poem, and go back again to its springs in Whittier's personal story, we may find that it recapitulates in a new form an old issue. The story of his youth is one of entrapments—and of his failure to break out into the world of mature action. In love, politics, and poetry, he was constantly being involved in a deep, inner struggle, with the self-pity, the outrage, the headaches, the breakdowns. He was, to no avail, trying to break out of the "past" of childhood into the "future" of manhood—to achieve, in other words, a self.
The mad ambition that drove him to try to break out of the entrapments, became in itself, paradoxically, another entrapment—another dead hand of the past laid on him. He cried out, "Now, now!"—not even knowing what he cried out for, from what need, for what reality. But nothing worked out, not love, nor politics, nor even poetry, that common substitute for success of a more immediate order. In poetry, in fact, he could only pile up words as a mason piles up bricks; he could only repeat, compulsively, the dreary clichés; his meter-making machine ground on, and nothing that came out was, he knew, real: his poems were only "fancies", as he called them, only an echo of the past, not his own present. And if he set out with the declared intention of being the poet of New England, his sense of its history was mere antiquarianism, mere quaintness—no sense of an abiding human reality. Again he was trapped in the past. All his passions strove, as he put it, "in chains". He found release from what he called "the pain of disappointment and the temptation to envy" only in repudiating the self, and all the self stood for, in order to save the self. He could find a cause that, because it had absorbed (shall we hazard?) all the inner forces of the "past" that thwarted his desires, could free him into some "future" of action.
So much for the story of the young Whittier.
But what of the old?
He had, in the end, fallen into another entrapment of the past. All action—and the possibility of action and continuing life—had been withdrawn: the solacing hands of Elizabeth Lloyd, the "great motive of . . . life" that the other Elizabeth represented, old friends such as Joshua Coffin, even the "cause" to which he had given his life and which had given his life meaning. Only memory—the past—was left. To live—to have a future—he had to re-fight the old battle of his youth on a new and more difficult terrain. He had to find a new way to make the past nourish the future.
It could not be the old way. The old way had been, in a sense, merely a surrender. By it, Whittier had indeed found a future, a life of action. But the victory had been incomplete, and the cost great; for we must remember that the grinding headaches continued and that the solacing hands of Elizabeth Lloyd had been, in the end, impossible for him.
The new way was more radical. That is, Whittier undertook to see the problem of the past and future as generalized rather than personal, as an issue confronting America, not only himself: furthermore, to see it sub specie aeternitatis, as an aspect of man's fate. And he came to see—how late!—that man's fate is that he must learn to accept and use his past completely, knowingly, rather than to permit himself to be used, ignorantly, by it.
Having struggled for years with the deep difficulties of his own life, Whittier at last found a way fruitfully to regard them, and Snow-Bound is the monument of this personal victory. No, it may be the dynamic image of the very process by which the victory itself was achieved. But there is another way in which we may regard it. It sets Whittier into relation to an obsessive and continuing theme in our literature, a theme that most powerfully appears in Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Faulkner: what does the past mean to an American?
The underlying question is, of course, why a sense of the past should be necessary at all. Why in a country that was new—was all "future"—should the question have arisen at all? Cooper dealt with it in various dramatizations, most obviously in the figures of Hurry Harry and the old pirate in Deerslayer and of the squatter in The Prairie, who are looters, exploiters, and spoilers of man and nature: none of these men has a sense of the pride and humility that history may inculcate. How close are these figures to those of Faulkner's world who have no past, or who would repudiate the past, who are outside history—for example, the Snopeses (descendants of bushwhackers who had no "side" in the Civil War), Popeye of Sanctuary, Jason and the girl Quentin of The Sound and the Fury (who repudiate the family and the past), and of course poor Joe Christmas of Light in August, whose story is the pathetic struggle of a man who, literally, has no past, who does not know who he is or his own reality. Whittier, too, understood the fate of the man who has no past—or who repudiates his past. This is his "worldling" of Snow-Bound (whom we may also take as an image of what the past might have been had the vainglorious dreams of his youth been realized), whom he calls to spread his hands before the warmth of the past in order to understand his own humanity, to catch the sweetness coming "he knows not where", and the "benediction of the air".
But, on the other side of this question, Whittier understood all too well the danger of misinterpreting the past—in his own case the danger of using the past as a refuge from reality. Faulkner, too, fully understood this particular danger and dramatized it early in Sartoris and later in "The Odor of Verbena". But the theme appears more strikingly and deeply philosophized in characters like Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury, and Hightower in Light in August. But Faulkner understood other kinds of dangers of misinterpretation. Sutpen, with his "design" and no comprehension of the inwardness of the past, suggests, in spite of all differences, a parallel with Cooper's squatter in The Prairie, whose only link with the past is some tattered pages from the Old Testament that serve, in the end, to justify his killing of the brother-in-law (the pages having no word of the peace and brotherhood of the New Testament). But Faulkner's most complex instance of the misinterpretation of the past occurs with Ike McCaslin, who, horrified by the family crime of slavery and incest, thinks he can buy out simply by refusing his patrimony: he does not realize that a true understanding of the past involves both an acceptance and a transcendence of the acceptance.
If we turn to Melville, we find in Pierre, or The Ambiguities the story of a man trapped, as Whittier was, in the past and desperately trying to free himself for adult action, just as we find in Battle-Pieces, in more general terms, the overarching ironical idea of the vanity of human action set against man's need to validate his life in action. And, for a variation, in Clarel we find the hero (who has no "past"—who is father-less and has lost his God, and who does not know mother or sister) seeking in history a meaning of life, this quest occurring in the Holy Land, the birthplace of the spiritual history of the Western World; and it is significant that Clarel finds his only answer in the realization that men are "cross-bearers all"—that is, by identifying himself with the human community, in its fate of expiatory suffering—an answer very similar to, though in a different tonality from, that of Snow-Bound.
With Hawthorne the same basic question is somewhat differently framed. We do not find figures with rôles like those of Hurry Harry, the squatter, Joe Christmas, Hightower, or Clarel, but we find, rather, a general approach to the meaning of the past embodied in Hawthorne's treatment of the history of New England. Nothing could be further than his impulse from the antiquarian and sentimental attitude of Whittier in his historical pieces or from that of Longfellow. What Hawthorne found in the past was not the quaint charm of distance but the living issues of moral and psychological definition. What the fact of the past meant to him was a perspective on the present which gives an archetypal clarity and a mythic force. The sentimental flight into an assuagement possible in the past was the last thing he sought. He could praise the ancestors, but at the same time thank God for every year that had come to give distance from them. In his great novel and the tales the underlying theme concerns "legend" as contrasted with "action", the "past" as contrasted with the "future", as in the works of Cooper, Melville, and Faulkner; and sometimes, most obviously in "My Kinsman, Major Molyneux", with this theme is intertwined the psychological struggle to achieve maturity, with the struggle seen as a "fate".
Whittier, though without the scale and power of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Faulkner, and though he was singularly lacking in their sense of historical and philosophic irony, yet shared their deep intuition of what it meant to be an American. Further, he shared their intuitive capacity to see personal fate as an image for a general cultural and philosophic situation. His star belongs in their constellation. If it is less commanding than any of theirs, it yet shines with a clear and authentic light.
1In which Whittier's only novel—or near-novel—Margaret Smith's Journal, had appeared the previous year, and in which Uncle Tom's Cabin was to appear.
2 "Ichabod" has thematic parallels with Hawthorne's great story "My Kinsman, Major Molyneux". Both concern the degrading of a "father", Noah-as-Webster in his drunkenness and the Major at the hands of the mob. Both concern the son's involvement in the degrading: Whittier repudiates Webster even as Robin joins the mob in repudiating Molyneux. Both works concern a betrayal by the father: Webster of his political trust, and Molyneux, less precisely, in being an agent of the King and not of the colonists (i.e., children). Both concern what Hawthorne calls a "majesty in ruins", and in this connection involve deep ambivalences of the son toward the father. And in both the son is thrown back upon his own resources, Whittier as is implied in his comment on the poem, and Robin quite specifically when he is offered the chance of going home or staying in Boston to "rise" by his own "efforts."
There is probably one great difference between the two works. It is hard not to believe that Hawthorne was conscious of what is at stake in his work, and it is hard to believe that Whittier was not unconscious of certain implications in "Ichabod".
3 The poem may be taken as a kind of racist nightmare, like that of Isaac McCaslin in Faulkner's story "Delta Autumn", when he lies shaking with horror at his vision of the wilderness ruined to make room for a world of "usury and mortgage and bankruptcy and measureless wealth, where a breed of Chinese and African and Aryan and Jew all breed and spawn together until no man has time to say which one is which nor cares". Needless to say, Whittier's nightmare, like Ike's, was conquered.
4 Melville's book of poems on the Civil War, Battle-Pieces, appeared almost simultaneously, and was a crashing failure. As Snow-Bound seemed to dwell merely on the simplicity of the past, Battle-Pieces analyzed some of the painful complexities of the War and the present, and recognized some of the painful paradoxes in the glowing promises of the future: not what the public wanted to hear.
5 Here is the beginning of the prefatory note: "The inmates of the family at the Whittier homestead who are referred to in the poem were my father, mother, my brother and two sisters, and my uncle and aunt, both unmarried. In addition, there was the district schoolmaster, who boarded with us. The 'not unfeared, half-welcome guest' was Harriet Livermore, daughter of Judge Livermore, of New Hampshire, a young woman of fine natural ability, enthusiastic, eccentric, with slight control over her violent temper, which sometimes made her religious profession doubtful. She was equally ready to exhort in school-house prayer-meetings and dance in a Washington ball-room, while her father was a member of Congress. She early embraced the doctrine of the Second Advent, and felt it her duty to proclaim the Lord's speedy coming. With this message she crossed the Atlantic and spent the greater part of a long life in traveling over Europe and Asia. She lived some time with Lady Hester Stanhope, a woman as fantastic and mentally strained as herself, on the slope of Mt. Lebanon, but finally quarrelled with her in regard to two white horses with red marks on their backs which suggested the idea of saddles, on which her titled hostess expected to ride into Jerusalem with the Lord. A friend of mine found her, when quite an old woman, wandering in Syria with a tribe of Arabs, who, with the Oriental notion that madness is inspiration, accepted her as their prophetess and leader. At the time referred to in Snow-Bound she was boarding at the Rocks Village, about two miles from us."
Elsewhere, in a prefatory note to another poem. "The Countess", Whittier identifies the "wise old doctor" of Snow-Bound as Dr. Elias Weld of Haverhill, "the one cultivated man in the neighborhood", who had given the boy the use of his library.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4037
SOURCE: "The Artistry of Whittier's Margaret Smith's Journal," in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. CVIII, No. 3, July, 1972, pp. 235-43.
[In the following essay, Ringe contends that Whittier's major prose work, Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1678-79, achieves artistic unity though the author's development of his narrator as a strong central consciousness in the work.]
The major prose work of John Greenleaf Whittier, Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1678-79, has evoked a critical response that has ranged from the lukewarm to the enthusiastic. Although most of the critics praise the accurate picture of colonial New England life that the book presents,1 opinions about its artistic success have varied between Whitman Bennett's view that it is only "a pleasing little effort" that should not be considered "a truly notable achievement"2 to Edward Wagenknecht's opinion that it is "one of the inexplicably neglected classics of American literature, . . . next to Snow-Bound, Whittier's unquestionable masterpiece."3 Those critics who have discussed the work in detail tend to support the latter view. Lewis Leary thinks the novel a charming one and compares it briefly with Huckleberry Finn in the way the material is presented to the reader;4 and John P. Pickard, in what is by far the best analysis of the work, points out the skill with which Whittier turned the journal form into a useful instrument for the presentation of his material, and praises the book for the fusion of form and theme that yielded Whittier "his one prose success."5
Yet for all the favorable criticism that the book has received, critics have yet to demonstrate that it is unequivocally a work of art. Some who praise it highly seem as much concerned with the content as with its mode of expression,6 and few have approached the work in strictly literary terms. Even Pickard, who comes closest to demonstrating its artistic value, finds serious flaws in the novel. He objects to the sketchily treated "love plot centering on the disastrous romance of Rebecca Rawson and Thomas Hale and the happy marriage of Leonard Smith to Margaret Brewster," and he faults the book as well for the number of "unrelated tales," which, in his view, "expose the thinness of the plot."7 These are serious charges to make if Margaret Smith's Journal is indeed the success that Pickard claims it to be, for they seem to assume that Whittier intended to write a sustained love plot which he somehow failed to realize. I wish to suggest, rather, that Whittier did not intend such a plot at all, but relied on the narrative voice to supply the focus of attention for his novel. None of the critics have treated the point of view as seriously as they should. As a result, they have failed to see that Margaret Smith is the central consciousness of the work and the means through which the various elements of the book are successfully unified.
To treat the character in any other way, as some of the critics have done,8 is to violate the artistic integrity of the novel. Margaret Smith is the first person narrator in a work of historical fiction. As such, she provides our sole means of access to the materials through which the theme is expressed. Everything we see or hear in the book is filtered through Margaret's consciousness. She depicts the world as she sees it and reports what interests her most. To understand the book, therefore, we must understand the narrator, a unique individual whose personality and background provide the artistic control so necessary in a work that does not include a strong plot line. As an English traveler in America, she is in effect an innocent stranger, one who stands somewhat apart from the environment in which she finds herself, but who, as the niece of an important man in the colony, takes a personal interest in all that goes on about her, and who records her experience for the cousin in England for whom she is writing the journal. As a woman of twenty,9 she is old enough to take part in serious discussions as they arise, and her sex gives her the freedom not only to associate with men in the normal course of society, but also to draw close to other women in the colony—women she could not relate to in the same way if she were a man.
Whittier never allows us to forget that Margaret is a stranger in New England, for throughout the first part of the novel, she compares what she finds in America with what she has experienced in her native land. A May morning near Agawam seems to her as "warm and soft as our summer days at home,"10 but the American summer is hotter and drier than what she has been used to, and she thinks of the "summer season of old England" with its cool sea breezes, pleasant showers, and green fields (pp. 47-48). The colors of autumn amaze her "as unlike anything I had ever seen in old England" (p. 61), and the woods themselves are very different. The American forest, "tangled with vines" and fallen boughs, is carpeted with a "thick matting of dead leaves," whereas the English woods "are kept clear of bushes and undergrowth, and the sward beneath [the trees] is shaven clean and close" (p. 82). Through allusions like these, Whittier keeps before the reader an awareness of Margaret Smith as an intelligent visitor who looks with fresh eyes on what she sees in the colonies.
Some of what she experiences is strange and unpleasant. On her trip to Rhode Island, for example, to visit her brother and his wife, the party is forced to stop overnight at an abandoned hut, where Margaret's companions make themselves at home and soon fall asleep. The strangeness of her situation, however, keeps Margaret "a long time awake." She lies on a bed of hemlock sprigs watching the stars through a hole in the roof and the moonlight that shines in the hut "through the seams of the logs." She listens to the sound of wind and waves and "the cry of wild animals in the depth of the woods" until she at last nods off (p. 170). She cannot stomach the dried meat and the "cakes of pounded corn" on which her companions breakfast the next morning, but she buys instead two cakes of maple sugar to eat (p. 171). Most of her experience in America, of course, is not so unfamiliar to her as this, but after nearly a year away from her native land, she begins to grow homesick for her friends in England (pp. 144, 167). Though she leaves America with some regrets, she is happy when the time comes for her to go home (p. 189). To the very end of the book, Whittier is consistent in maintaining the point of view. Margaret Smith remains an observant stranger who never becomes completely a part of what she sees.
Other aspects of Margaret's individuality are more subtly presented. From the very first entry in the journal, we learn some significant facts about her. She is not a member of the church (p. 11) and thus is free to view the Puritans in a much more objective fashion than if she were one of them.11 She dresses more gaily than an aged magistrate approves of, and she seems to be somewhat less of a religious enthusiast than her brother. As they enter Boston harbor on the day of their arrival, he lifts up both hands and cries out with a verse of Scripture, whereas she merely says that she wept "for joy and thankfulness of heart, that God had brought us safely to so fair a haven" (p. 10). When she thinks that a wrong has been done, however, Margaret speaks out in no uncertain terms, as the following incident well illustrates. The aged magistrate's wife, she writes, "a quiet, sickly-looking woman, . . . seems not a little in awe of her husband," who "hath a very impatient, forbidding way with him, and . . . seemed to carry himself harshly at times towards her." When her Uncle Rawson says in his defense that "he has had much to try his temper" in the affairs of the colony, Margaret replies: "I told him it was no doubt true; but that I thought it a bad use of the Lord's chastenings to abuse one's best friends for the wrongs done by enemies; and, that to be made to atone for what went ill in Church or State, was a kind of vicarious suffering that, if I was in Madam's place, I should not bear with half her patience and sweetness" (pp. 11-12).
Because Margaret Smith is a strong and independent young woman with a mind of her own, she is able to observe intelligently the whole range of American life that presents itself to her senses and to learn from her experience. She arrives in America, for example, with certain fears and apprehensions, for thoughts of "the terrors of the wilderness" troubled her night and day. Yet when she awakens the first morning at her Uncle Rawson's plantation at Newbury, she asks herself: "Where be the gloomy shades, and desolate mountains, and the wild beasts, with their dismal howlings and rages! Here all looked peaceful, and bespoke comfort and contentedness" (pp. 19-20). A similar change in her views occurs when she meets the Indians, a change which shows her basically charitable nature. The first encounter startles her, and even to the end of her stay she can still be frightened by them. Yet Margaret needs only to meet the Indians on human terms to feel a sympathy for them as fellow creatures and to draw the appropriate conclusion. "These poor heathen people," she writes after a brief association with an Indian family, "seem not so exceeding bad as they have been reported; they be like unto ourselves, only lacking our knowledge and opportunities, which, indeed, are not our own to boast of, but gifts of God, calling for humble thankfulness, and daily prayer and watchfulness, that they be rightly improved" (p. 16).
Margaret goes through a similar experience in her other encounters with people. Her initial reaction to a Quaker girl named Margaret Brewster is to side with the Puritans against her (p. 26), but she quickly changes her mind. The gentleness of the girl and her kindness in performing acts of charity win Margaret over and probably help to influence her view of Quakers in general. To be sure, Margaret Smith is aware that some who call themselves Quakers are merely ranters (pp. 59, 180-181), and she knows that they have rudely interrupted the Puritan meetings. She does not like their "gravity and . . . staidness of deportment" (p. 172), and the "painful and melancholy look and . . . canting tone of discourse" that some of them affect (p. 179). But she notes that Rhode Island Quakers—"worthy and pious people"—were loving and kind to her when she spent some time among them (p. 172), and she cannot help but admire the "warmth and goodness of . . . heart" of Margaret Brewster (p. 179), nor does she regret that her brother married her. As she does with the Indians, Margaret Smith judges the Quakers not in terms of her own preconceptions, but rather on her own experience with them as human beings. To her mind, the goodness of Margaret Brewster and the acts of charity she has performed for others outweigh the sectarian beliefs that the Quaker girl holds.
The witchcraft excitement is the third important matter that comes to Margaret Smith's attention, and here her feelings are even more ambivalent than they are toward the Quakers. Although she believes that Caleb Powell, a suspected wizard, is only "a vain, talking man," and that a girl, supposed to be possessed, is "a vicious and spoiled child, delighting in mischief" (pp. 83-84), she does not dismiss the question of witchcraft out of hand. Though some may doubt the evidence that is presented against the accused witches, Margaret herself, as one would expect of a seventeenth-century girl, is so disturbed by what she has seen and heard at the bewitched house that she can hardly sleep (p. 101). But if Whittier maintains historical credibility by allowing Margaret Smith to be deeply troubled by the thought of witchcraft, he maintains the consistency of her charitable character by allowing her to sympathize with a condemned witch. When Goody Morse is reprieved by the governor and magistrates, Margaret writes: "For mine own part, I do truly rejoice that mercy hath been shown to the poor creature; for even if she is guilty, it affordeth her a season for repentance; and if she be innocent, it saveth the land from a great sin" (p. 187).
Margaret does not, of course, rely solely on her personal experience for the information she receives and records in her journal. She also hears the opinions of others, some of which confirm, and some contradict, the charitable attitude she usually shows toward others. These reports serve an important function in the book. The conflicting attitudes she records—and contradictory views are frequently juxtaposed in the journal—help lend an air of reality to the book and assure that the theme is presented in the most artistic fashion. Both sides of an issue are clearly presented—but presented in such a way as to confirm the views that Margaret Smith maintains. Thus, the charitable attitude of Elnathan Stone toward the Indians is strongly contrasted with his mother's bitterness toward them. He is dying as the result of wounds received in the Indian war and his suffering during captivity, yet he understands that the Indians have sometimes been provoked to warfare by the treatment they have received, and he even feels pity for them. His mother, however, "a poor widow, who had seen her young daughter tomahawked by the Indians" and is now watching her only son die, considers them simply children of the devil (pp. 28-29). Her attitude is, of course, perfectly understandable, but her son's is clearly the better one.
Other examples of the technique are found throughout the book. Margaret herself sees Deacon Dole's Indian "with blood running down his face, and much bruised and swollen" after he was punished by his master for being drunk and disorderly, yet the deacon himself says that "his servant Tom had behaved badly, for which he did moderately correct him" (pp. 49-50). When Margaret Brewster is fined for disturbing a Puritan meeting and then sentenced to the stocks for refusing to pay, some men step forward and pay the fine themselves, "so that she was set at liberty, whereat the boys and rude women were not a little disappointed, as they had thought to make sport of her in the stocks" (p. 42). There are even those who gain the reprieve for Goody Morse, the accused witch who is sentenced to death. Yet "many people, both men and women, coming in from the towns about to see the hanging, be sore disappointed, and do vehemently condemn the conduct of the Governor therein," and Goody Matson, "with half a score more of her sort," scolds and rails "about the reprieve of the witch, and [prophesies] dreadful judgments upon all concerned in it" (p. 187).
The most important example of the device, however, occurs near the middle of the book in a pair of contrasted sermons that clearly establish the theme. Mr. Richardson, a minister at Newbury, preaches against those "who have made a covenant with hell," and prays that they "may be speedily discovered in their wickedness, and cut off from the congregation" (p. 86). Dr. Russ, on the other hand, delivers a sermon on charity that urges the people to love one another. Margaret reports the second sermon at length "forasmuch as it hath given offence to some who did listen to it," and she mentions the harsh and vindictive people who find fault with it (pp. 96-97). Though Margaret herself makes no explicit comparison of the two sermons, it is clear to the reader that Whittier intended the sermon by Dr. Russ to be an important thematic statement. The great detail in which it is given provides a thematic weight that the other does not possess, and it states a view which, as we have seen, is strongly underscored elsewhere in the novel. Based on Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, it preaches the need for Christian charity in one's dealings with his fellows and so provides the fundamental principle by which Margaret Smith, Margaret Brewster, Elnathan Stone, and others live and act.
The theme of Christian charity developed in this sermon, moreover, unifies the major elements that are included in the novel, especially the "love plot" and related incidents that Pickard objects to. Consider the most important one, the betrothal of Rebecca Rawson and Sir Thomas Hale. The particular verse on which Dr. Russ preaches states explicitly that charity is not selfish.12 Yet the marriage is arranged for reasons of ambition and pride. Rebecca herself would seem to prefer the unpretentious Robert Pike, but her father in his pride has told this worthy young man "that he did design an alliance of his daughter with a gentleman of estate and family" (p. 39). Margaret believes at one point that "apart from the wealth and family of Sir Thomas, [her cousin] rather inclineth to her old friend and neighbor" (p. 23), but once Rebecca has made her decision, she determines to go through with the wedding no matter what misgivings she may have. Only after she has been deserted in England by the impostor and bigamist that Sir Thomas turns out to be13 does she finally admit that she allowed herself in "her pride and vanity . . . to discard worthy men for one of great show and pretensions, who had no solid merit to boast of (p. 193). Rebecca's experience, then, is a variation on the main theme of the book. Her tragedy results when charity is forgotten and she bases her action on vanity, ambition, and pride.
The other romances in the book provide additional variations on the theme. When Margaret is in Maine, she meets a young Mr. Jordan, who is courting her cousin Polly. Margaret learns that he is about to give up a promising career as a Church of England minister to become a simple farmer, and she twits him on what he might be doing to the social prospects of his bride. "I told him," she writes, "that perhaps he might have become a great prelate in the Church, and dwelt in a palace, and made a great lady of our cousin; whereas now I did see no better prospect for him than to raise corn for his wife to make pudding of, and chop wood to boil her kettle" (pp. 76-77). But instead of following the path of ambition like Rebecca Rawson, Jordan and Polly dismiss such prospects, prospects which, they admit, might never be realized, and turn instead to the simple life they have chosen. Margaret, of course, who always had misgivings about Rebecca's course of action, is "exceedingly pleased" with her cousin Polly's choice and anticipates a happy life for her and her husband (p. 79).
Additional variations may be found in other romances that Margaret reports in her journal. She is much taken with the story of Sir Christopher Gardiner, who was separated from his betrothed at the instigation of her parents and who swore a vow to forsake marriage, only to encounter his beloved again in New England, where she had followed him. Margaret is deeply moved by their story, and although she never learns its outcome, she sympathizes with their plight. Whatever "their sins and their follies," she writes, "my prayer is, that they may be forgiven, for they loved much" (p. 76). In a similar fashion, she accepts the marriage of her brother Leonard to Margaret Brewster, though she would at one time have been very upset by his marrying a Quaker. She respects her brother's choice because she sees in Margaret Brewster a charitable attitude toward others that she cannot help but approve, and which she always tries to practice herself. When she learns, for example, of the sad plight of Rebecca Rawson after their voyage to England, Margaret Smith takes the unfortunate girl into her home and treats her with tender care. Each of these brief romances, therefore, develops an aspect of the theme of charity—or the unfortunate consequences that ensue when some other principle of action is followed.
Read in these terms, Margaret Smith's Journal is indeed a unified work of art, all major parts of which contribute to its central theme. Firmly grounded in the consciousness of Margaret Smith, who, as a consistently developed character, provides the major point of focus, the novel plays a series of important variations on the theme of charity. Margaret herself embodies a major part of this theme, for her actions and opinions well illustrate the operation of this principle in her own life. What she observes and reports, moreover, provides either confirmation of or a contrast to her view, and the interplay among the various incidents provides the major source of tension in the work. The sermon of Dr. Russ, of course, presents the Scriptural basis for the theme, and the several love affairs that Whittier includes exemplify further the need for Christian love as a basis for human action. So skillful, indeed, is Whittier in ringing his series of variations, that he can stand completely apart from his novel and let it speak for itself. His artistic control, solidly based in the central character, is firmly and consistently maintained to make his brief novel what Edward Wagenknecht takes it to be—a classic of American literature that deserves to be better known.
1 That the work is indeed historically accurate has been amply demonstrated by Cecil B. Williams, Whittier's Use of Historical Material in Margaret Smith's Journal (Chicago, 1936).
2Whittier: Bard of Freedom (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1941), p. 216. See also George R. Carpenter, who thought the book "too slight in substance, too sober in style" to be widely read. John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston, 1903), p. 246.
3John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox (New York, 1967), p. 7. See also Albert Mordell, who writes that "the book is a thing of beauty, a work of art." Quaker Militant: John Greenleaf Whittier (1933; rpt.: Port Washington, N.Y., 1969), p. 185.
4John Greenleaf Whittier (New York, 1961), pp. 127-129.
5John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Inter-pretation (New York, 1961), pp. 119-129.
6 See especially Mordell, Quaker Militant, p. 185.
7Whittier, Introduction and Interpretation, p. 124. See also Lewis Leary, who, in "A Note on Whittier's Margaret Smith," Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 50, part 2, 75 (I Quarter 1968), considers the narrative threads too slender.
8 Cecil B. Williams, for example, does not accept her as the central character in the work and considers the book disunified. Whittier's Use of Historical Material, p. 29. Mordell, on the other hand, transforms her into a mouthpiece for the author. Quaker Militant, p. 183.
9 Though Margaret's exact age is not mentioned in the book, she writes in her first entry that she is "just about" her cousin Rebecca's age, and we know from one of Whittier's letters that Rebecca, a historical character, was "about twenty-one" at the time of her marriage, over a year after the narrative begins. See Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston, 1894), p. 340.
10The Prose Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston, 1892), I, 13. Citations in my text are to page numbers in this volume.
11 There is even evidence that Margaret Smith may have High Church leanings, for in the epilogue to the story, her grandson, a curate in England in 1747, points out that Rebecca "was not .. . a member of the church, having some scruples in respect to the rituals, as was natural from her education in New England, among Puritan schismatics" (pp. 194-195). The implication is strong that Margaret and Rebecca belong to different churches at least after they arrive in England.
12 1 Cor. xiii:5. The critic would do well to read the whole context of this verse, for it is very pertinent to both the sermon and the novel.
13 Although Rebecca's story reads like a bit of sentimental fiction, it is nonetheless a true one. See Williams, Whittier's Use of Historical Material, p. 31.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7302
SOURCE: "Whittier's Snow-Bound: The Circle of Our Hearth and the Discourse on Domesticity," in Studies in the American Renaissance 1993, edited by Joel Myerson, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 339-53.
[In the following excerpt, Rocks relates Whittier's poem Snow-Bound to nineteenth-century debates on home and family.]
When John Greenleaf Whittier's younger sister Elizabeth, the companion of his mature years, died on 3 September 1864, he suffered a loss no less severe than if a wife of many years had died. More sociable than her shy brother, Elizabeth had been at the center of his life, the person whose support had helped nurture a public career of considerable success and fame and a private domestic life of exceptional warmth and security. Writing to his wide circle of friends, particularly to Gail Hamilton, Grace Greenwood, and Lydia Maria Child, he expressed the profound depression that her death had induced, but also his acceptance of the will of God that had determined the course of his sister's illness and death. To Annie Fields, his publisher's wife and among his closest women friends, he wrote: "I find it difficult even now to understand and realize all I have lost. But I sorrow without repining, and with a feeling of calm submission to the Will which I am sure is best."1
While acceptance of the divine ways distinguishes Whittier's letters to his consoling friends, Elizabeth's death brought about a major transition in his life. One consequence of this change was a temporary failure with language; the glib pen that had composed dozens of poems on national, political, and social topics was unable to express this personal loss. To Theodore Tilton, a New York journalist who supported abolition and women's rights, Whittier expressed his speechlessness in a terse, poetic line: "I cannot now write anything worthy of her memory."2 Responding to his friends' condolences was painful but necessary; expressing the meaning of his sister's life as his companion and the domestic order and tranquility which she, like their parents before her, had sustained for him was far more difficult. Within a year the Civil War concluded, and one of his last, and best, anti-slavery poems "Laus Deo" put some finality on a lifetime of combatting slavery. And by October 1865 he finished the work that was "worthy of her memory." Published in February 1866, Snow-Bound became Whittier's most popular and famous—and his best—work, one of the important autobiographical writings of the nineteenth century. It was, as Robert Penn Warren has aptly called it, a "summarizing poem,"3 because in it Whittier discovered the power of language again—the very weapon against the destructive, frightening natural world that his solitary family employs in the charmed circle around the hearth—and because the poem articulated the domestic and gender ideology of Whittier's time to an audience ready to be healed after the schism of the Civil War and responsive to a philosophy that linked home, hearth, and heaven into one vision of a unified past and future.
Readings of Snow-Bound have generally not placed the poem in the context of Whittier's whole life—why the poem came to be at a critical time in his personal life, his public career, and the post-Civil War period of anticipated reconciliation and the reuniting of the "house divided." Studies have recognized the complexity of his personality and the interrelationship of his work and his times and, more recently, his advocacy of women in the literary marketplace, but they have not examined sufficiently the domestic and gender ideological issues that give the poem its considerable relevance as a coalescence of the discourses on domestic economy during the first half of the nineteenth century. Snow-Bound deserves to be reread for the wealth of its connections to the important discussions of the time on family and home. Whittier's definition of the masculine and the feminine in the poem reveals his long-held beliefs about his own gender identity, at a time when male writers often felt insecure about their masculinity in a commercial world, and discloses his traditional values regarding the family and women's role, which was defined in the writings of, among others, Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, as that of the dominant moral authority of society. While his portrayal of women in Snow-Bound does partake of the sentimental tradition of the time, his views in that poem, as well as in his letters, transcend the purely patriarchal and reflect his strong Quaker principle of human rights.
In an essay on the Scottish poet William Burleigh in the 9 September 1847 issue of the National Era, the anti-slavery paper of which he was for fifteen years a contributing editor and in which most of his literary works appeared until the founding of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Whittier described a poetic country very like the one he would create in Snow-Bound. The charm of the poetry of Scotland, he wrote, was "its simplicity, and genuine, affected sympathy with the common joys and sorrows of daily life. It is a home-taught, household melody." He also lamented that the poetry of home, nature, and the affections was lacking in America; there were no songs of American domestic life, "no Yankee pastorals."4 By the time Whittier accomplished in Snow-Bound his call for a native form of the antique genre, there were already major examples of the pastoral, but by the mid-1860s the genre was rather played out (except of course for Whitman), and much of the appeal of Snow-Bound was its backward glance to a simpler world, to a time prior to the social and political upheaval of the 1830s to 1860s. Whittier's readers had always valued him for what James Russell Lowell, in the North American Review of January 1864, called his "intense home-feeling." Later, in a review of Snow-Bound, Lowell expressed the effect of the poem's nostalgia on a sentimental audience: "It describes scenes and manners which the rapid changes of our national habits will soon have made as remote from us as if they were foreign or ancient."5 Lowell was correct in his assessment of the poem's appeal, but his future verb tense was mistaken; by the time of the publication of Whittier's major poem, those rapid social changes had already made the scenes and manners of the world of Whittier's boyhood farm remote and quaint for many of his readers.6
In Snow-Bound Whittier returned to his youthful past for two immediate, compelling, yet contradictory reasons. He wanted his niece Lizzie to know the family portrait, and he needed the money that a longer poem about the rural past could earn. But there were also other reasons, perhaps not so easily identified, that inspired his "winter idyl." Creating this poem would bring further healing to the recovery from his loss of Elizabeth and, unaware as he might have been of another consequence, it would contribute in a small way to the public appeals for national reconciliation after the Civil War. And most importantly Snow-Bound would characterize a domestic ideology of home and hearth that dated as it might have seemed to some readers in Whittier's time, was, however, a representation of the principal values that had defined the American family in the nineteenth century. Whittier's desire to recreate his home life served both his own practical and emotional needs and those of a nation seeking order once again; for Whittier the time could not have been more favorable.
On the flyleaf of a first edition of Snow-Bound, Whittier wrote some lines in 1888 expressing the faith and peace of his old age (he would die within two years). Thinking of the time when he composed his pastoral, he wrote about his sorrow then: "Lone and weary life seemed when / First these pictures of the pen / Grew upon my page."7 The general dispiritendness and lack of confidence in his poetic ability, exacerbated by and contributing to his chronic ill health, are reflected in the letters he wrote, primarily to James T. Fields, during the several months (August to October 1865) while he was composing and revising the poem. Because Whittier tended to be self-effacing in his correspondence—and particularly so to other writers and his publisher—he refers to his manuscript only as "tolerably good" or "pretty good."8 To Lucy Larcom, a close friend of Elizabeth and one of his "pupils" among the women authors he knew, Whittier wrote in a postscript to a letter in January 1866, a month before the poem's publication: "I'm not without my misgivings about it."9 On the other hand, reading proofs of it in December 1865, he wrote Fields that he agreed with him and his wife Annie that the poem was "good"; furthermore, he took a particular interest in its physical make-up, engravings, and date of publication (a December distribution would make it a timely gift-book, he suggested), and fussed over some last-minute revisions. His anxieties were groundless: within two months of the February publication, Snow-Bound had sold 10,000 copies and by mid-summer 20,000 copies. Ultimately Whittier earned $10,000 from this one volume; its success provided him economic security and reaffirmed his poetic reputation.10
Whittier's uncertainty about the worth of his poem was typical of his general insecurity as a writer throughout his career; later, despite the critical and financial success of Snow-Bound, he would say that subsequent poems, however less inspired, were better. Scholars of Whittier's writings have always noted his lack of a keen critical insight, into both his own and others' writings, although he was an unpatronizing advocate and support of the many women authors who wrote and visited him with accounts of their craft. This uncertainty about his own vocation—at once liking and not liking his compositions—is an example of the pattern of oppositions and contradictions that critics have found in his own life and in the imagery and themes of Snow-Bound. Whittier was torn between the quiet study and the fretful political scene, and his life can best be defined as an oscillation between the public and the private—a pattern of outside and inside that dominates the theme of Snow-Bound, as John B. Pickard and other critics have demonstrated, and reveals its autobiographical dimensions. Because Whittier identified an old teacher from his Haverhill past as the source of the character of the schoolmaster, scholars have not recognized an important autobiographical connection between the schoolmaster and an idealized young Whittier. The schoolmaster can be read as an artistic representation of the adolescent Whittier, because the schoolmaster depicts the youthful artistthinker, comfortable near the hearth but anxious to go outside into the world where he can make a reputation if not achieve fame. Manliness, for Whittier, as it was for many male writers during this period, could be experienced in the making of strong poetic verse, crafted in the cause of social and political change. The anxiety of manhood was overcome in the world outside the home, which was defined and controlled by women as a place of refuge from the active world of material gain and political turmoil.
Writing in 1882, Whittier looked back on his shy youth as a time of "vague dreams and ambitions and fancies interweaving with [his] common-place surroundings."11 In an early poem, written in his teens, Whittier stated that he needed to seek out an education because he did not want to grow up a "fool."12 Whittier's own statements—both early and late in his writings—confirm his commitment to a life that alternates action with repose, the life of the scholar in rhythm with that of the man of political and social involvement. Whenever he returned to the farm in the early decades of his life, he did so out of the necessity of family responsibility, money, or the too-intense activity of his political, journalistic, and abolitionist work. And when he came to write Snow-Bound, his poem of reconciliation with the past and future, he put himself into it not only as the first-person narrator but also as the schoolmaster, who was the man Whittier had hoped to become and the man who would guide the country into a new era of peace and renewal. Whittier's young schoolmaster characterizes the ideal blend of the artistic and the scholarly with masculine athleticism; like Whittier himself he was nurtured in the domestic setting and yet, through books and experience, went out to meet the future. The schoolmaster's father, exactly like Whittier's, was a yeoman who worked the land for a meager but adequate livelihood: "By patient toil subsistence scant, / Not competence and yet not want."13 In the tradition of schoolmasters in American literature, Whittier's is a jovial, sociable type, attracted like Whittier to vivacious and charming women; also he is independent and self-reliant, one who combines the practical and abstract in clear-sighted balance: he "[c]ould doff at ease his scholar's gown / To peddle wares from town to town" (454-55). As a storyteller he could domesticate the antique and the exotic, bringing to the realm of the commonplace the great scenes of the historical past and interpreting for his audience those moments in terms it could easily associate with the homely and everyday: "dread Olympus at his will / Became a huckleberry hill" (478-79).
A major reason for the popularity of Snow-Bound, and one which critics have not adequately emphasized, is the poem's rhetoric of reconciliation and consolation for a future in which all wrongs will be righted and freedom will replace slavery. The schoolmaster is just such a man for that task, and in a major section of the poem (480-510) Whittier envisions the new America, a land that will be led by young apostles like the schoolmaster, who will eliminate pride, ignorance, prejudice, and treason, and restore wisdom, learning, equality, and peace. These powerful lines reveal Whittier's hope for the restoration of the American promise, and they look back to his own past when he envisioned his career committed to the abolition of slavery: "Large-brained, clear-eyed, of such as he / Shall Freedom's young apostles be" (485-86). The schoolmaster is the leader of a future America, reconciling the opposites of Yankee and Southerner, working inside and outside the family and uniting rural and urban. In the character of the schoolmaster Whittier defined some important traits of masculinity in the self-reliant scholar-poet, values of male gender ideology among writers of his time that he attempted to demonstrate in his own behavior and writing.14
Snow-Bound is as deeply connected to the period after the Civil War as it is to the time of Whittier's boyhood, because it offers consolation not only for the poet, who had lost a close relative, but also for the nation at large, which had lost many family members. The deaths of one million soldiers during the war required this need for reconciliation, which was reflected in the popular works of the time, among them, for example, The Gates Ajar (1868) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, another close friend among the many women writes Whittier mentored.15 The sense of having survived so much loss after the war is pondered in a major passage of the poem as Whittier reflects on the change that comes with the passage of time. With everyone in his family dead except his brother, he thinks of how strange it seems "with so much gone / Of life and love, to still live on!" (181-82). Even though his sentiment refers to the changes in his own family, it opens out to include the whole American nation, which had suffered such a collective loss but still continued to live and needed to find through memory and faith the connections to a meaningful past and a hopeful future. Just as during the war, in popular songs and poems, the image of the home as a haven of comfort and escape was kept alive for the homeless soldiers, so after the war the idea of home as a place of order and permanence—and as a setting for the remembrance of deceased family members and friends—took on for Americans an even more potent meaning. In the connections between the Civil War and domestic ideology, Snow-Bound reunites the "house divided" and sanctifies the "holy hearth" (Whittier's description in the poem "To My Sister") as an anticipation of heaven.16
In the prominent passage on time and change Whittier states that the once living family members have left the familiar premises: "No step is on the conscious floor!" (199). The home, especially the farm, as a setting of familial love, connectedness, and identity is central to the ideology and imagery of the whole poem and especially to that important, if traditional, consolation section. To Whittier's readers during the first half of the nineteenth century, engaged as they were by the rhetoric of domesticity, the definition of home was a foremost cultural and social issue. The discourse on domesticity engaged a wide and important number of commentators, among them some of the women authors whom Whittier counted as his best friends and correspondents—Lydia Sigourney is a major example—not to mention a considerable group of both men and women authors whose works he did not necessarily know first hand (we have no evidence in his essays or letters, for instance) but whose ideology was so pervasive in the thinking of the time that it had at least an indirect influence on his own conceptualization of domestic values. As he was deeply involved in the anti-slavery discourse of the time, with its accompanying feminist commentaries on women's political rights, he was quite aware of the discussions on domestic ideology that characterized much of the writing of his peers. Snow-Bound brings together, and helps us to understand, the varied discourses on domesticity and gender during the first half of the century.
Whittier's Quaker upbringing and the life-long practice of his family faith engendered his fervent abolitionism, and they also explain the profound belief in domestic values that runs through his writings. The famous Quaker family scene in Chapter XIII of Uncle Tom's Cabin works an important intertextuality with Snow-Bound because in it Stowe characterizes the domestic economy that slavery destroyed; for Stowe black women needed and deserved the same domestic authority that white women could achieve.17 Whittier was deeply moved by Stowe's novel, published in the National Era from June 1851 to April 1852, while he was a corresponding editor of the paper. In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison he called the novel "glorious" and twice after it was published he wrote his praises to Stowe in equally religious terms, rhetoric that is rare in Whittier's often laudatory expressions of literary judgment or political commentary: "Ten thousand thanks for thy immortal book!"; "I bless God for it, as I look with awe and wonder upon its world moving mission."18 The power of Stowe's novel resided in, among other ideas and images, the ideal domestic order in which each family member contributed to the general economic good, with no one segment of the human family subservient to another and denied the domestic circle.
Although the Quaker settlement depicted by Stowe is more sentimentalized than Whittier's boyhood home in Snow-Bound, it represents the domestic ideal of the time expounded in the popular handbooks on house design and on the nurturing ministrations of the capable wife, all of which were familiar to Whittier's audience. The opening paragraph of Chapter XIII describes the perfect kitchen design, neat, orderly, and comfortable, and features the "motherly," "persuasive," and "honest" rocking chair where Eliza sits, which like the Quaker mother Rachel's old rocker is the central symbol of this domestic paradise. Such possessions of the material culture, like the tea kettle, "a sort of censer of hospitality and good cheer," or the knives and forks, which "had a social clatter as they went on to the table," define and unite the home and the homemaker and are given human attributes; they make music to accompany Rachel's "loving words, and gentle moralities, and motherly loving kindness."19 Rachel is the ideal Quaker mother, quite like Whittier's own mother and her representation in Snow-Bound; she is beautiful in her maturity and adept at all domestic and culinary tasks, both a healer of ills and a bringer of harmony and good fellowship. Most important, she is the maker of a home, a concept that George Harris, as a deracinated slave, has never been able to comprehend. Stowe's portrait of the home in this chapter emphasizes the Christian definition that prevailed during these antebellum decades; her language shares the rhetoric of Whittier's tributes to Stowe in his letters and reflects Whittier's own description of the family circle in Snow-Bound.
To combat slavery, alcoholism, and women's disenfranchisement, reform movements in the early nineteenth century sought support from the institution of the family, which was often defined in terms of the domestic economy represented in Stowe's famous novel and by the architecture and decoration of the houses wherein the family resided. Clifford E. Clark, Jr., summarizes this social phenomenon: "[The] influence of the temperance and anti-slavery movements together with the new outlook of Protestantism, the reaction against the pace of social change, the need for new housing, the expansion of the cities, and the vogue of romanticism all served to give the advocates of domestic housing reform an unprecedented influence on the American public."20 The number of handbooks that recommended house design and argued for the rural home as a place of seclusion from the activities of a material economy demonstrates the significance of appropriate housing as a key component in the discussions on domestic economy. Sara Josepha Hale, in Godey's Lady's Book, for example, wrote often about the ideal home, as did Andrew Jackson Downing, in The Architecture of Country Houses, and Catharine Beecher, in Treatise on Domestic Economy, two works that provide an important background to understanding the timely success of Whittier's pastoral poem on domestic and gender ideology.
Downing's essay on rural architecture first appeared in 1850 and went through nine printings and sold 16,000 copies by the end of the Civil War. Among the many such treatises and handbooks that were widely read in the period of the 1840s to the 1860s, Downing's popularized the current ideology of the house as a civilizing, moral force for the betterment of the genius and character of the family. For Downing, as for most of these writers, the rural cottage and farm house, closely connected to the soil, of an ample, solid design and built of enduring material, were the best environments for nurturing family values. The farmer's dwelling, he wrote, "ought to suggest simplicity, honesty of purpose, frankness, a hearty, genuine spirit of good-will, and a homely and modest, though manly and independent, bearing in his outward deportment."21 Although Whittier was not familiar, so far as we can determine, with Downing's popular book, these sentiments on the farmhouse might well have been his own, phrased in language he would have used, especially the notion of the manliness of the house and its resident farmer.
Snow-Bound celebrates Downing's sturdy rural cottage, in a setting of pastoral harmony, that conforms to the landscape and unites the inner world of the hearth with the outer world of the barns, lands, and farm animals. In the essay cited earlier on the Scottish poet William Burleigh, Whittier commented on the numerous "great, unshapely, shingle structures, glaring with windows, which deform our landscape."22 He recognized the need for an attractive, yet functional house, such as Downing and other commentators described, wherein the family could live harmoniously and communicate openly. Although Whittier's childhood home at Haverhill was built in the late seventeenth century, it possessed the qualities which later theorists on house design would advocate, in part to recapture the nostalgia of an earlier pioneer time, when the family unit was even stronger. Many of the writers on farmhouse architecture emphasized the need for sight lines from house to barn so that the farmer and his wife could keep watch over the activities of the whole farm. In those sections of Snow-Bound in which Whittier describes the barn activities during the snowstorm (19-30, 81-92)—passages which Robert Penn Warren mistakenly calls "dead filler"23—Whittier is connecting the inner and outer worlds in a rhythm that defines his own personal ideology of retreat from and action in society. His farm setting epitomizes the ideal rural home as fashioned and advocated by Downing and other popular writers on the architectural design of the time.24
Whittier was acquainted with probably the most popular of these writers on family values, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her sister, Catharine Beecher, was the author of several works on female hegemony and the culture of the home, one of them co-authored with Stowe, The American Woman's Home (1869). Treatise on Domestic Economy, which first appeared in 1841 and was reprinted almost every year from 1841 to 1856, gained Beecher the reputation, as her biographer Kathryn Kish Sklar states, "as a national authority on the psychological state and the physical well-being of the American home."25 Like Uncle Tom's Cabin Beecher's writing contextualizes Whittier's poem, because it expounds the female ideal portrayed in Snow-Bound: the wife who acquires her status and identity by creating the home setting that nurtures children and draws a circle of repose for the enterprising husband. In order to fulfill herself, argued Beecher, a woman must put the needs of others before her own desires; as Sklar writes, "Self-sacrifice, more than any other concept, informed both the triumph and tensions of nineteenth-century womanhood, and Catharine Beecher was its major theoretician."26 She believed that the general good of society required women to be the moral foundation of a democratic society and the healer of social conflict, and in this role women could gain authority. Never could she be on an equal footing politically with men but her role as domestic ideologue would give her identity in a society dominated by men and commerce. "A woman, who is habitually gentle, sympathizing, forbearing, and cheerful," Beecher wrote, "carries an atmosphere about her, which imparts a soothing and sustaining influence, and renders it easier for all to do right, under her administration, than in any other situation."27 Beecher attributed to women the responsibility for Christian nurture in the home, thus serving, ultimately, the welfare of the state by integrating domestic values with a reformed social and political morality.
Catharine Beecher's doctrine of female influence did not admit of true equality between the sexes but defended women's superior role as mistress of the household, wherein the family could attain Christian faith and moral rectitude. Because of his Quaker background, Whittier believed that women as well as men possessed the capacity for inner light, and throughout his career he appreciated and supported the intellectual and artistic talents of many women friends. On the other hand, however, Whittier never actively supported women's right to enfranchisement and political equality, and accepted the belief of Beecher and other writers that women's domestic tasks were her first and principal duties, although he demonstrated repeatedly in his letters that women could strive for literary recognition and economic prosperity. Furthermore, Whittier tended to accept the conventional notion that men's and women's responsibilities were distinctly separate.28 In Stowe's Quaker family Rachel and Simeon Halliday respect one another as equals in a Christian family, but Stowe's chapter clearly portrays them as master and mistress of separate spheres, she of the kitchen and he of the political world outside. What gives her ultimate authority, as Beecher and Whittier would have it, is her capacity to inculcate Christian morality into her children so that they may make the right judgments in the complex moral dilemmas they will face in the political world outside the protection of the home.
Catharine Beecher's treatise and Stowe's Rachel define the model woman by what was then understood and has come to be known as the angel of the house, a metaphor that appropriates the religious rhetoric permeating all these domestic discourses during the nineteenth century. Of central interest to a reading of Snow-Bound is Whittier's treatment of the female gender ideology of the period in his portraits of the women of his childhood home; more than the men, even the schoolmaster with his future-oriented vision, they represent the central morality of a poem that drew a sizable audience because of its ideological resonances. Although the descriptions of the women of his family comprise only about twenty percent of the lines of the poem, the importance of these portraits is considerably greater than the proportion of lines assigned to them. These women define the benign piety and ministering goodness of the angel, particularly in the character of Whittier's mother, Abigail Whittier, from her first appearance in the poem turning her spinning wheel to one of the last references to her as an aid to and healer of the sick, the "Christian pearl of charity" (673), desiring that no one during those dark nights of "mindless wind" (102) and "[d]ead white" snow (147) will lack warmth and security. Whittier's mother universalizes the meaning of home in her story-telling; as a maker of words while spinning her thread, she casts a poet's spell of fact and fantasy to conquer nature's "spell" of fearsome weather. She defines a "simple life and country ways" (265) and unifies the home of the past with the homes of the present, her own and those of the readers' real and imagined homes: "She made us welcome to her home; / Old hearths grew wide to give us room" (267-68).29 Abigail Whittier is the angel of light described in Cornelius Agrippa's occult writings, a passage of which serves as one epigraph to the poem; these angels come alive in the presence of the wood fire of the hearth, the earthly counterpart to the celestial fire of heaven, and transform the temporal home into a holy place.
Whittier's unmarried aunt, his mother's sister, Mercy Evans Hussey, is described as "homeless" (354) because, as Whittier expresses it, a "Fate / Perverse" (352-53) had denied her a husband. While she never had her own home, she, like so many unmarried women of her time, found a place of security and identity in her family's home. "[W]elcome wheresoe'er she went" (356), she epitomizes Beecher's code of female selflessness and represents an untarnished innocence and virginity which Whittier praises even though her spinsterhood is out of the natural scheme of things, as he defines a woman's life. Like all of the women in the poem, except of course Harriet Livermore, his aunt is the angel whose "presence seemed the sweet income / And womanly atmosphere of home" (358-59). Domestic economy, represented in the play on the word "income," derives not only from the farmer in the field but from the woman at the hearth. Whittier admonishes the reader strongly not to judge ill of her innocence, as if to defend the single person, like himself, who can keep the ideal in an imperfect, changing world. Self-sacrifice as an attribute of feminine behavior is reflected even more fully in Mary Whittier, the oldest child, who had been an active support of her brother's poetic career but whose own domestic career failed for want of a happy marriage. A truthful, just, trusting, and impulsive woman, she "let her heart / Against the household bosom lean" (393-94). Whittier sees in her death the only consolation possible for a life of bitter regret; in this conventional response he acknowledges society's judgment of the irrevocable effects of a bad marriage on a woman's life and concedes only one option for his elder sister, a return to the first home and duty to the original family hearth.
Whittier's final portrait of the women in his youthful household is of Elizabeth, whom he remembers as an adult, not as a childhood contemporary. The poetic theme of the permanence of memory is represented in Elizabeth, whose death brought a "loss in all familiar things" (420) but a gain in the richness of a remembered past. He recognizes his own mortality more acutely and anticipates a reunion with her in paradise. The angel of their house has become an "Angel of the backward look" (715), or the spirit of memory, lately transformed into an angel of heaven. She is a guide, with her large eyes as beacons, leading the elder Whittier, known all his life for his own intense and penetrating eyes, from his earthly home to his divine home. The summer vision beginning with line 407 to the end of that section (437) articulates Whittier's religious philosophy, in a passage of traditional, yet intensely felt, Christian rhetoric of the hoped-for afterlife.
Although each of the women in Whittier's family—Elizabeth most fully—exemplifies the type of the nineteenth-century angel, Harriet Livermore contrasts dramatically with that ideal and sits outside the family circle. She may be characterized as the spirit of darkness in Cornelius Agrippa's polarity of light and darkness; isolated in the farmhouse because of the weather, her "darkness" is not lightened by the wood fire of the family circle. She combines an uneasy mix of light and dark, her light described paradoxically as "dangerous" (527) and "sharp" (528). The portrait of Livermore is one of the longest in the poem and is separated from the portraits of the other family members by the highly autobiographical description of the schoolmaster, to whom she is more akin. Her delineation works a notable opposition to the values of the domestic ideology in the poem and complicates Whittier's depiction of the world outside, which the men must enter for their self-definition. Although clearly womanly in her appearance—one thinks of Hawthorne's Zenobia, who is at once more beguiling and less daunting—Livermore possesses traits that the ideology of the time would define as masculine. Whittier describes her passionate, bold, self-centered, wilful temperament combined with her womanly shape: "Her tapering hand and rounded wrist / Had facile power to form a fist" (538-39). Her personality and appearance define her contradictory nature, and because she can never join a conventional domestic circle, she succumbs to eccentric religious beliefs and fitful rambling. Whittier acknowledges his compassion for her solitary wanderings, her unrequited love, and her "outward wayward life" (565), which contrasts with the inward domestic life he celebrates. The "tumultuous privacy of storm" which rages outside in Emerson's "The Snow-Storm" (the second epigraph) describes the emotional turbulence of her unorthodox, anti-social behavior and her "unbent will's majestic pride" (518). The character of Harriet Livermore adds depth and complexity to Snow-Bound and compares with that of the schoolmaster, likewise an "outward" person. In Whittier's conceptualization of gender identities the schoolmaster has the privilege (indeed the necessity) to venture outside, but his quintessential self has been formed within the domestic circle and as a man he has the right to seek his individuality. Livermore's religious eccentricities are cause and effect of her drawing a circle around herself and excluding all others from those bounds. Because she possesses traits that are distinctly masculine according to the gender ideology of the time, she fails to live up to the eternal feminine and suffers accordingly.30
Whittier's interest in Harriet Livermore reveals a curious fascination with an unconventional woman who sacrifices her domestic role and becomes, by circumstance and choice, a homeless wanderer, the dreaded result of rejecting the charmed circle. Whittier's other women, who fulfill the responsibilities allotted to them by the ideology of the time, are never homeless; in fact, they define the place of their existence and sanctify it. Through the ministrations of women, the home, as the paradigm of a democratic society, fosters traditional values in children and tempers commercial and political assertiveness in men, thereby moving American society toward a higher realm of virtue. In Snow-Bound Whittier affirms the domestic economy of his time and the personal values and family, history of his Quaker heritage and defines the redeemed American family, lately broken apart by the Civil War but now ready for consolation and renewal. In the poem he recreates his younger self in the schoolmaster, a healer no less than Whittier's mother Abigail, who is the maternal ideal for the schoolmaster as she was for her own son. The merit of Snow-Bound resides in its fusion of public philosophy and private creed; written at a timely moment both for the poet and his society, the poem unites the many discourses of its age into an intricate pattern of theme and metaphor.
1The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, ed. John B. Pickard, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 3:78.
2Letters, 3:71. Tilton became famous for his disastrous suit against Henry Ward Beecher for allegedly committing adultery with Tilton's wife. Whittier found it difficult not to support Beecher.
3John Greenleaf Whittier: An Appraisal and a Selection (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), p. 47.
4Whittier on Writers and Writing, ed. Edwin Cady and Harry Hayden Clark (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1950), p. 121.
5Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier, ed. Jayne Kribbs (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), pp. 40, 42.
6 Roland Woodwell, Whittier's most recent biographer, explains the effect on the reader in 1866 of Whittier's reminiscence of a moribund culture: "Deep in the American mind was a real or imagined love for the farm, often strongest in those who had never lived on a farm nor had their ancestors since the settlement of North America. Sitting in their warm homes, in the new luxury of a hot-air furnace and flaring gas chandeliers, they let their imagination give them a nostalgic delight in a life they had never known" (John Greenleaf Whittier [Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead, 1985], p. 338). V. L. Parrington speaks of Snow-Bound's "homely economy long since buried under the snows of forgotten winters." Whittier's economics, he says, have no relationship with "a scrambling free-soilism or a rapacious capitalism" (from his Main Currents in American Thought [1927-30], reprinted in Critical Essays on Whittier, p. 105). This is precisely the economic reality that domestic ideology in the nineteenth century was attempting to isolate; the home provided a haven from the marketplace. Whittier himself seemed to realize that he was dealing with a distant past when he wrote to Fields in August 1865 that he was creating a "homely picture of old New England times" (Letters, 3:99).
7The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895), p. 525.
8Letters, 3:99, 102.
9Letters, 3:117. Whittier's long and complex half-century friendship with Lucy Larcom is chronicled in Shirley Marchalonis, "A Model for Mentors?: Lucy Larcom and John Greenleaf Whittier," in Patrons and Protégées: Gender, Friendship and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Marchalonis (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), pp. 94-121.
10Letters, 3:113, and Woodwell, John Greenleaf Whittier, p. 337.
12John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry, p. 4. Warren emphasizes Whittier's "almost pathological ambition" to find his position in the new American society of the nineteenth century. In one of his later poems, "My Namesake," Whittier speaks of the dichotomy of past and future that defines his career: "He reconciled as best he could / Old faith and fancies new" (Complete Poetical Works, p. 393).
13 Lines 450-51; further line numbers will appear in the text; the 1895 Complete Poetical Works is the source.
14 Whittier's portrait of Uncle Moses reveals an interesting treatment of male gender ideology; like Thoreau, his uncle was a student of nature and woodcraft, who lived only within his own parish. "Content to live where life began" (325), he was the opposite type of Whittier and the schoolmaster, and possessed characteristics that are more like feminine gender values than the male behavior Whittier characterizes in his father and the schoolmaster.
15 Ann Douglas, "Heaven Our Home: Consolation Literature in the Northern United States, 1830-1880," in Death in America, ed. David E. Stannard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p. 50.
16 In "To My Sister," Whittier speaks of their childhood home as a sanctified place, an image that implies an anticipation of the final home in heaven. Frances Armstrong, in Dickens and the Concept of Home (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1990), writes of the connection between the past and future home; the childhood home is "the place to which one can return to die, sure of an acceptance and forgiveness which will act as an encouraging preliminary to or even substitute for entry to heaven" (p. 2).
17 Gillian Brown, in Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), discusses the idea that in slavery the economic and personal status are never differentiated. She writes, concerning Uncle Tom's Cabin: "The call to the mothers of America for the abolition of slavery is a summons to fortify the home, to rescue domesticity from shiftlessness and slavery" (p. 16).
18Letters, 2:191, 201, 213.
19Uncle Tom's Cabin, in Harriet Beecher Stowe: Three Novels, sel. Kathryn Kish Sklar (New York: Library of America, 1982), pp. 162, 163, 165, 170.
20 "Domestic Architecture as an Index to Social History: The Romantic Revival and the Culture of Domesticity in America, 1840-1870," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 7 (Summer 1976): 47.
21The Architecture of Country Houses (New York: Dover, 1969 ), p. 139.
22Whittier on Writers and Writing, ed. Cady and Clark, p. 121. In a letter several years before his death, Whittier commented that in the life of the farmer the best gains could be made in the creation of pleasant homes (Letters, 3:563).
23 Warren, John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry, p. 53.
24 The extensive writing on the flourishing discourse on domestic architecture during the nineteenth century includes the following excellent essays and books: Clifford Edward Clark, Jr., The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); Oscar P. Handlin, The American Home: Architecture and Society, 1815-1915 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979); Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981); Sally McMurray, Families and Farmhouses in Nineteenth-Century America: Vernacular Design and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Maxine Van de Wetering, "The Popular Concept of 'Home' in Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of American Studies, 18 (April 1984): 5-28; and Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (New York: Pantheon, 1981). Wright states: "To the majority of citizens in the early republic, the ideal American home was an independent homestead, attractive enough to encourage family pride yet unpretentious and economical" (p. 73). Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (trans. Maria Jolas [New York: Orion, 1964]) offers valuable commentary on the felicitous space of old houses, where dreams and the imagination invigorate memories of the past, particularly during a winter storm. Bachelard's discussion on the dialectic of outside and inside the house has significance to a reading of Snow-Bound.
25Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 151.
26Catharine Beecher, p. xiv.
27Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (New York: Harpers, 1848), pp. 148-49.
28 Gail Hamilton (the pen name of Mary Abigail Dodge) was one of his most ardent, humorous, and lively correspondents, frequently playing the coy role almost of a beloved. In a letter to him in October 1865, she writes about his "household idyls, in which I know there will be serving and women doing daintily all manner of pretty feminine doings" (Letters, 3:103).
29 Thomas Wentworth Higginson confirmed Whittier' s characterization of his mother as Beecher's ideal woman: "Mrs. Whittier was placid, strong, sensible, an exquisite housekeeper and 'provider'; it seems to me that I have since seen no whiteness to be compared to the snow of her table cloths and napkins" (quoted in Samuel T. Pickard, Whittier-Land: A Handbook of North Essex [Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1956 (1904)], p. 78). Mrs. Whittier's housekeeping talents are comparable to Rachel Halliday's in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Eliza looks in on supper preparations and sees the table with its "snowy cloth" (p. 168); all these references to white connect with the dreamy state of Eliza's post-sleep languor to suggest the power of domesticity, defined curiously in language with racial overtones.
30 In a letter in 1879, Whittier recounted the subsequent history of Harriet Livermore and his later contacts with her; he states he did not exaggerate her personality in his poem and in this letter he describes her in more positive terms as "a brilliant darkeyed woman—striking in her personal appearance, and gifted in conversation." He does indicate, in a typical stereotyping of the time, that her peculiar behavior and fanaticism were the result of a failed love affair" (Letters, 3:412-13).