Themes and Meanings

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The meaning of “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” is encapsulated in the refrain, in the central figure’s transformation from “Old Floyd Ireson” in the first stanza to “Poor Floyd Ireson” in the last. During the poem, Ireson changes, or his neighbors’ perception of him changes, from a man to be hated and cursed to one to be treated with scorn yet pity. The theme of a person coming to a new understanding is as old as literature, and often this acquisition of new knowledge or insight involves a journey. The journey might be a protracted one through a long work such as Homer’s The Odyssey or Dante’s The Divine Comedy, or a brief visit from city to country or from country to city, or even a short ride out of town on a rail. The technique of echoing a psychological or moral journey by a literal journey through space is effectively employed here.

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For the characters of Whittier’s New England poems, the themes of transformation and redemption, and of error and correction, were best understood in a Christian religious context. The mob of women who have tarred and feathered Skipper Ireson act from the human emotions of grief and rage, and they seek human vengeance. Their method of punishment is to humiliate Ireson, to make him (or show him to be) less than a man. Yet they are not fully human in their own actions; with the exception of the brief mournful passage in stanza 5, they are seen only as a mob, never as individuals.

When Ireson at last cries out his confession, everything changes. Instantly, the shouting stops. With his first cry of “Hear me, neighbors” there is the possibility of seeing the characters not just as mob and victim—us and them—but as members of the same community. Ireson acknowledges his guilt and points out that his shame before his neighbors can never pain him as much as his pain before God. As the women are called to remember their own relationships with God, they too are transformed. They begin to step forward as individuals, “the wife of the skipper lost at sea” or “an old wife mourning her only son.” When they become individuals again, standing themselves before God, their own hard hearts start to soften. They do not reach perfect grace or perfect forgiveness, but with “half scorn, half pity” they release Ireson and give him a cloak. It is left to the narrator, not the women, to refer to the captain now as “Poor Floyd Ireson.”

The poem ends with Ireson alone and ashamed. There is no moral statement at the end. The narrator reveals nothing of Ireson’s motive for his betrayal of the fishermen or of what happens to him after he acknowledges his sin. Perhaps he implies that these matters are not the reader’s concern, that they should remain between Ireson and God.

Whittier based his poem on a fragment of a folk song he learned from a schoolmate, expanding on that fragment with a story of his own imagining. Years after the poem was published, he learned that Ireson actually had not been responsible for the abandoning of the ship but had been blamed for it by an unscrupulous crew.

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