Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1441
In the “Proem,” a poem chosen to introduce his collected works, Whittier scrutinized his poetic achievement and noted that he had never been able to emulate the great lyric beauty and deep philosophic insight of poets like Milton and Spenser. With characteristic honesty he analyzed his inability to echo their marvelous music:
The rigor of a frozen clime,The harshness of an untaught ear,The jarring words of one whoserhymeBeat often Labor’s hurried time,Or Duty’s rugged march through stormand strife, are here.
These sparse lines provide an outline for Whittier’s life. Reared in a nonconformist Quaker faith, he always retained the Quaker concept of the presence of the Inner Light in each individual and the belief in special brotherhood and equality. From his earliest years he experienced the “rigors” of exacting farm work, where only the strictest economy and frugality kept the Whittier farm above poverty. This was his education, for he had little formal schooling beyond two terms at a local academy. In these years Whittier was primarily a sectional romantic, a journalist poet who was nourished on the strange literary diet of the Bible, Burns, and Byron. His poetry was blatantly derivative, though his first book, LEGENDS OF NEW ENGLAND, handled native superstitions and folklore. Whittier’s second main phase, from 1833 to the 1860’s, was a period of reform activity and humanitarian interest. The intensity of his single-minded dedication to the Abolitionist cause effectively vetoed poetry and converted the aspiring young lyricist into a radical propagandist, politician, and part-time editor whose verses championed the rights of slaves and democratic principles. These years drew Whittier away from a love of poetry for its own sake, reforged his vapid sentimental lyricism into a powerful weapon for the oppressed, and strengthened his regard for moral action.
The remainder of Whittier’s life is aptly summed up in these autobiographical lines from “The Tent on the Beach”:
For while he wrought with strenuouswillThe work his hands had found todo,He heard the fitful music stillOf winds that out of dream-landblew.The common air was thick with dreams,—He told them to the toiling crowd;Such music as the woods and streamsSang in his ear he sang aloud;In still, shut bays, on windy capes,He heard the call of beckoningshapes,And, as the gray old shadows promptedhim,To homely moulds of rhyme he shapedtheir legends grim.
As his Abolitionist activities lessened, Whittier devoted more time to reworking the familiar ground of native legends and versifying the pent-up memories of his youth. By the 1850’s the poet again dominated and Whittier entered into his final years as a religious humanist, striving for moral perfection and inner spirituality rather than for social and political reform. His work as an Abolitionist nurtured his passionate concern for the principles of liberty, while through study and reading he had steeped his mind in the history and customs of New England until he understood the past as he had experienced the present.
Like most of the schoolroom poets, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and others, Whittier’s themes were few and limited: the value of domestic emotions, the innocence of childhood, the necessity of social equality, and the nobility of ethical action. However, unlike these other popular poets, Whittier drew upon his native roots for inspiration. In his best poems Whittier displayed a mastery of local color techniques, a competent use of rural imagery, and the everyday language of the Merrimack farmer. His instinctive handling of native materials conveyed his inner love for the environment that molded and his understanding of the traditions that inspired him. His technique was old-fashioned, even in his own day, while his poetry suffered from the diffusion and sentimentality inherent in the tradition of public rhetoric in which he wrote. He composed far too many poems and when imagination lagged he fell back on stock phrases, repetitive images, and imitative themes. Perhaps no other established nineteenth century American poet wrote so much poor verse, but the miracle is that by the most exacting poetical standards his best remains so good.
Aside from a few nature poems like “The Last Walk in Autumn” and an occasional Abolitionist poem like “Ichabod,” Whittier’s ballads and genre pieces represent his finest poetical achievement and contain some of the best examples of native folklore written in America. His ballads, especially, express his lifelong interest in colonial history, the Quakers, local legends, and folk superstitions. Unlike Longfellow’s conscious literary ballads which emphasized the dream world of European romance, Whittier’s ballads remain remarkably true to the graphic realism and dramatic intensity of traditional folk balladry. His earliest ballads in the 1840’s—“The Exiles,” “Cassandra Southwick,” and “Barclay of Ury”—though over long and marred by didactic passages, show Whittier handling his proper subject matter and approaching surety of presentation that the ballad “Kathleen” demonstrated. His mature ballads took incidents like a skipper who had betrayed his own townspeople, a witch who prophesied death, or the terrifying actions of specter warriors, bedrocked them with exact physical detail, and then concentrated on the dramatic moment of conflict. “Telling the Bees” skillfully handles a local superstition with childlike detail to hide the chilling reality of nature’s destruction; “The Garrison of Cape Ann,” “The Palatine,” and “The King’s Missive” rework historical incidents; “Amy Wentworth,” “The Countess,” and “The Witch of Wenham” narrate pastoral romances; while the often parodied “Barbara Frietchie” was accepted by a war-wearied nation as an expression of their personal conviction that the Union must be preserved. Whittier’s finest ballad, “Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” was based on an old Marblehead song about women tarring and feathering a fishing-boat captain. The balladopens in medias res, plunging directly into the wild tumult and chaos of mob action as the skipper is pushed through Marblehead:
Body of turkey, head of owl,Wings a-droop like a rained-on fowl,Feathered and ruffled in every part,Skipper Ireson stood in the cart.Scores of women, old and young,Strong of muscle, and glib of tongue.Pushed and pulled up the rocky lane,Shouting and singing the shrill refrain:“Here’s Flud Oirson, fur his horrdhorrt,Torr’d an futherr’d an’ corr’d in acorrtBy the women o’ Morble’ead!”
Finally Ireson cries out his remorse and with “half scorn, half pity” the women free him. The final refrain changes “Old” Floyd Ireson to “Poor” Floyd Ireson and becomes a mournful dirge forever accusing and dooming Ireson besides emphasizing the hollowness of the women’s revenge.
Similarly, Whittier’s genre poems elevated the ordinary details of Essex County life into a universal expression of boyhood innocence, agrarian simplicity, and pastoral romance that caught the pathos and beauty of a dying rural tradition. In poems like “Maud Muller,” “In School-Days,” “Among the Hills,” and “Memories,” Whittier idealized and typified the district school days, the harvest-filled autumn days, and the barefoot-boy days to capture the romantic aspirations of a responsive American public. “Cobbler Keezar’s Vision,” “Abraham Davenport,” “To My Old Schoolmaster,” and others contain some of Whittier’s best rustic anecdotes as well as realistic and humorous sketches of the Yankee character. His satire of Cotton Mather in “The Double-Headed Snake of Newbury” reaches its climax in these lines:
Cotton Mather came galloping downAll the way to Newbury town,With his eyes agog and his ears setwide,And his marvellous inkhorn at his side;Stirring the while in the shallow poolOf his brains, for the lore he learnedat school,To garnish the story, with here a streakOf Latin and there another of Greek.
Whittier’s particular skill in re-creating the past is seen most fully in the contemplative poem, “The Pennsylvannia Pilgrim.” In his genre poems Whittier captures the essence of the New England mind, while his selected use of picturesque detail and down-East humor place him in the direct line of American expression that stretches from Anne Bradstreet to Robert Frost. His one sustained triumph, “Snow-Bound,” expresses the value of family affections by the symbolic development of a fire-storm contrast and remains the minor masterpiece of nineteenth century American poetry.
Although Whittier’s poems fall far short of the poetic imagination and philosophical depth of major American poets such as Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, and Emerson, his verses exhibit more spiritual illumination and downright “grit” than the polished verses of Longfellow and the other minor poets. Despite the severe criticism of his poetry in the twentieth century, Whittier’s place in American literature seems secure. He will continue to be read and enjoyed as long as people respond to their traditions and demand honest expression of their fundamental democratic and religious feelings.