The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” a ballad in nine eleven-line stanzas, is a story told through a third-person narrator who reports on the words and actions of the poem’s characters but does not take part in them. Typically, a ballad presents one dramatic or exciting episode, not a fully developed story. As the title suggests, “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” focuses on one brief moment in the man’s life: his ride out of the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

The poem opens by harkening back to strange rides from legends and fables that would have been familiar to Whittier’s nineteenth century educated audience: Apuleius on a golden ass, the Tartar king Calendar’s ride on a brass horse, and Muhammad’s winged mule. The tone is at the same time grand and ridiculous. Soon Ireson takes his place among this strange company, for it is revealed that Skipper Ireson’s ride is not on a swift horse or chariot, as might be expected. Instead, the refrain (repeated with slight variation at the end of each stanza) introduces

Old Floyd Ireson, for his hard heart,Tarred and Feathered and carried in a cart By the women of Marblehead!

The next two stanzas take up the action in medias res, as the women struggle with the cart and hurl insults at Ireson. Whittier uses exaggerated comparisons to heighten the grim humor....

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Skipper Ireson’s Ride” has often been considered the greatest American ballad of the nineteenth century. Part of its strength lies in Whittier’s skillful juxtaposition of specific local elements—a common element in his most successful ballads—with references to the ancient world of classical poetry. The most obvious example of this juxtaposition occurs in the refrain. When the refrain is spoken by the narrator, it is in formal, educated language, but when the village women cry out the refrain, the poet presents their distinctive Marblehead dialect, and “Tarred and feathered and carried in a cart” becomes “Torr’d an’ futherr’d an’ corr’d in a corrt.” No comment is made about the shift; the poet simply wants to reader to hear the poem told in two distinct voices.

Specific references to local geography, including the names of Marblehead, Chaleur Bay, and the Salem road, place the action of the poem firmly in the real world. At the same time, comparisons of Ireson to Apuleius or Muhammad, and of the women to conch-blowing followers of Bacchus, elevate the story to the realm of the fantastic. The women are both real-life residents of a real fishing village, surrounded by its fog and rain, hearing winds and seabirds, smelling apple blossoms and lilacs, and also mythical creatures, the stuff of story and song. Again, the narrator does not call attention to the contrasts. This matter-of-fact juxtaposition claims for the story of...

(The entire section is 482 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Kribbs, Jayne K. Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Leary, Lewis, and Sylvia Bowman. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

Pickard, Samuel T. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

Wagenknecht, Edward C. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Woodwell, Roland H. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography. Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the Whittier Homestead, 1985.