"It Is, But Hadn't Ought To Be"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

Context: "Maud Muller," the well-known poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, tells the story of a farm girl and a judge. The judge rides by on his fine horse and asks for a drink of water; Maud brings it and the judge chats pleasantly with her about the haying and other everyday topics, thanks her, and rides on. Each later daydreams about the other. Maud thinks of the happiness and security she and her family could have, and all the good she might do, if the judge were her husband. The judge thinks of Maud and longs for the life of rural simplicity she represents. Each marries within his own station; the judge weds an ambitious woman who drives him up the ladder of success, and Maud marries a farmhand who gives her a large family. As the years pass, they still think wistfully of each other. Whittier concludes with his oft-quoted observation, "Of all the words of tongue or pen,/ The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" Harte, exponent of a somewhat more hard-boiled view of life than that of Whittier, parodies the original with something less ideal and perhaps more realistic. He begins by assuming that the judge returns for Maud after all; when he arrives, Maud can only stammer ungrammatically and her father requests a small loan. Her brother is drunk at the wedding, and the rest of the family is drunk afterward. In the spring Maud bears the judge a pair of twins, "And the Judge was blest, but thought it strange/ That bearing children made such a change;/For Maud grew broad and red and stout,/ And the waist that his arm once clasped about/ Was more than he now could span; and he/ Sighed as he pondered, ruefully,/ How that which in Maud was native grace/ In Mrs. Jenkins was out of place. . . ." The judge finds himself wishing, now that it is much too late, that his sons could look less like hay-hands and that his wife were better educated:

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Alas for maiden! alas for judge!
And the sentimental,–that's one-half "fudge;"
For Maud soon thought the Judge a bore,
With all his learning and all his lore;
And the Judge would have bartered Maud's fair face
For more refinement and social grace.
If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, "It might have been,"
Sadder are these, we daily see:
"It is, but hadn't ought to be."

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