The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

“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.

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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. Ireson appears as a “rained-on fowl” with “body of turkey, head of owl.” The rioting women, on the other hand, are compared with the Maenads, female followers of Bacchus, as they might appear “wild-eyed, free-limbed,” on an ancient vase.

In the fourth stanza the poet explains the reason for Ireson’s punishment: When his ship was sinking, full of his own townspeople, he sailed away and left the crew to drown. No motive is given for this action; the poem is concerned only with the punishment itself, dealt out by women who have lost their men because of Ireson’s actions. Stanza 5 mourns the wrecked ship that “shall lie forevermore” and the women who “looked for the coming that might not be.” The tone of stanzas 4 and 5 is mournful, with no traces of humor.

The sixth stanza returns to the action as the cart passes through the town, and old women and men lean out of their homes cursing. Suddenly, with the seventh stanza, the tone changes again, to a peaceful and lyrical description of the beautiful Salem road. For the first time, the poet focuses on Ireson himself, who sits numbly, unaware of the beautiful flowers beside the road or of the voices shouting at him. In stanza 8, Ireson speaks for the first and only time, crying out that he can bear this punishment from his neighbors, but he cannot bear to face God and his own guilt. The poem ends with the women deciding to leave further punishment to God. With “half scorn, half pity,” they release him and leave him “alone with his shame and sin.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“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 Skipper Ireson a place among the greats; the rustic citizens of old Marblehead are not only poor fishing folk but also representatives of the passionate emotions that define humanity.

Those passionate emotions do not exist one at a time in the human heart. Love, hate, anger, pity, and sorrow may appear in one person all at once, especially in a time of grief. As the critic John Pickard has ably demonstrated, Whittier’s sudden shifts in the poem echo the shifting emotions experienced by the surviving townspeople. Thus the focus moves abruptly in and out, backward and forward, from a wide historical overview to a direct look (but from a distance) at the feathered Ireson, from a wide-angle crowd scene to a flashback of the sinking ship, back to the crowd, then to a serene look at beautiful scenery followed by a tightly focused look at Ireson. Similarly, the background noises in the story change from “shouting and singing” with “conch-shells blowing and fish-horns’ twang” to the shouted conversation between the doomed fishermen and Ireson, to the silence of the wrecked ship with only “winds and sea-birds” for sound, to the hoarse and “treble” cursing of the older villagers, to the calm beauty of the Salem road, and finally to Ireson’s pitiable outcry and the women’s “soft relentings.” This cacophony of sound and silence, along with the shifting visual focus, keeps the reader off balance, heightening the dramatic tension.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85

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.

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