John Greenleaf Whittier: Contribution as American Poet

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      Life.—John Greenleaf Whittier says that the only unusual circumstance about the migration of his Puritan ancestor to New England in 1638 was the fact that he brought over with him a hive of bees. The descendants of this very hive probably suggested the poem, Telling the Bees, for it was an old English custom to go straightway to the hive and tell the bees whenever a member of the family died. It was believed that they would swarm and seek another home if this information was withheld. The poet has made both the bees and the snows of his northern home famous. He was born in 1807 in the same house that his first American ancestor built in East Haverhill, about thirty-two miles northwest of Boston. The Whittiers were farmers who for generations had wrung little more than a bare subsistence from the soil. The boy's frail health was early broken by the severe labor. He had to milk seven cows, plow with a yoke of oxen, and keep busy from dawn until dark.

John Greenleaf Whittier as American Poet
John Greenleaf Whittier

      Unlike the other members of the New England group of authors, Whittier never went to college. He received only the scantiest education in the schools near his home. The family was so poor that he had to work as a cobbler, making slippers at eight cents a pair, in order to attend the Haverhill academy for six months. He calculated his expenses so exactly that he had just twenty-five cents left at the end of the term.

      Two events in his youth had strong influence on his future vocation. When he was fourteen, his school-teacher read aloud to the family from the poems of Robert Burns. The boy was entranced, and, learning that Burns had been merely a plowman, felt that there was hope for himself. He borrowed the volume of poems and read them again and again. Of this experience, he says: "This was about the first poetry I had ever read (with the exception of the Bible, of which I had been a close student) and it had a lasting influence upon me. I began to make rhymes myself and to imagine stories and adventures." The second event was the appearance in print of some of his verses, which his sister had, unknown to him, sent to a Newburyport paper edited by William Lloyd Garrison. The great abolitionist thought enough of the poetry to ride out to Whittier's home and urge him to get an education. This event made an indelible impression on the lad's memory.

      Realizing that his health would not allow him to make his living on a farm, he tried teaching school, but, like Thoreau, found that occupation distasteful. Through Garrison's influence, Whittier at the age of twenty-one procured an editorial position in Boston. At various times he served as editor on more than half a dozen different papers, until his own health or his father's brought him back to the farm. Such occupation taught him how to write prose, of which he had produced enough at the time of his death to fill three good-sized volumes, but his prose did not secure the attention given to his verse. While in Hartford, editing The New England Review, he fell in love with Miss Cornelia Russ, and a few days before he finally left the city, he wrote a proposal to her in three hundred words of wandering prose. Had he expressed his feelings in one of his inimitable ballads, it is possible that he might have been accepted, for neither she nor he ever married. In the year of her death, he wrote his poem, Memories, which recounts some recollections earlier than his Hartford experiences:—

 "A beautiful and happy girl,
 With step as light as summer air,
 Eyes glad with smiles, and brow of pearl
 Shadowed by many a careless curl
 Of unconfined and flowing hair;
 A seeming child in everything,
 Save thoughtful brow and ripening charms,
 As nature wears the smile of Spring
 When sinking into Summer's arms."

      He was a Quaker and he came to Hartford in the homespun clothes of the cut of his sect. He may have been thinking of Miss Russ and wondering whether theology had anything to do with her refusal, when in after years he wrote:—

 "Thine the Genevan's sternest creed,
 While answers to my spirit's need
 The Derby dalesman's simple truth."

      As Whittier was a skillful politician, he had hopes of making a name for himself in politics as well as in literature. He was chosen to represent his district in the state legislature and there is little doubt that he would have been sent to the national congress later, had he not taken a step which for a long time shut off all avenues of preferment. In 1833 he joined the abolitionists. This step had very nearly the same effect on his fortunes as the public declaration of an adherence to the doctrines of anarchy would to-day have on a man similarly situated. "The best magazines at the North would not open their pages to him. He was even mobbed, and the office of an anti-slavery paper, which he was editing in Philadelphia, was sacked. He wrote many poems to aid the abolition cause. These were really editorials expressed in verse, which caught the attention in a way denied to prose. For more than thirty years such verse constituted the most of his poetical production. Lowell noticed that the Quaker doctrine of peace did not deter Whittier from his vigorous attack on slavery. In A Fable for Critics (1848), Lowell asks:—

 "… O leather-clad Fox?
 Can that be thy son, in the battlers mid din,
 Preaching brotherly love and then driving it in
 To the brain of the tough old Goliath of sin,
 With the smoothest of pebbles from Castaly's spring
 Impressed on his hard moral sense with a sling?"

      Whittier did, however, try to keep the spirit of brotherly love warm throughout his life. He always preferred to win his cause from an enemy peacefully. When he was charged with hating the people of the South, he wrote:—

 "I was never an enemy to the South or the holders of slaves. I inherited from my Quaker ancestry hatred of slavery, but not of slaveholders. To every call of suffering or distress in the South, I have promptly responded to the extent of my ability. I was one of the very first to recognize the rare gift of the Carolinian poet Timrod, and I was the intimate friend of the lamented Paul H. Hayne, though both wrote fiery lyrics against the North."

      With a few striking exceptions, his most popular poems were written after the close of the Civil War. His greatest poem, Snow-Bound, was published in the year after the cessation of hostilities (1866). His last thirty years were a time of comparative calm. He wrote poetry as the spirit moved him. He had grown to be loved everywhere at the North, and his birthday, like Longfellow's, was the occasion for frequent celebrations. For years before the close of the war, in fact until Snow-Bound appeared, he was very poor, but the first edition of that poem brought him in ten thousand dollars, and after that he was never again troubled by poverty. In a letter written in 1866, he says:—

 "If my health allowed me to write I could make money easily now, as my anti-slavery reputation does not injure me in the least, at the present time. For twenty years I was shut out from the favor of booksellers and magazine editors, but I was enabled by rigid economy to live in spite of them."

      His fixed home for almost all of his life was in the valley of the Merrimac River, at East Haverhill, until 1836, and then at Amesbury, only a few miles east of his birthplace. He died in 1892 and was buried in the Amesbury cemetery.

      POETRY.—Although Whittier wrote much forcible anti-slavery verse, most of this has already been forgotten, because it was directly fashioned to appeal to the interests of the time. One of the strongest of these poems is Ichabod (1850), a bitter arraignment of Daniel Webster, because Whittier thought that the great orator's Seventh of March Speech of that year advised a compromise with slavery. Webster writhed under Whittier's criticism more than under that of any other man.

 "… from those great eyes
 The soul has fled:
 When faith is lost, when honor dies
 The man is dead!"

      Thirty years later, Whittier, feeling that perhaps Webster merely intended to try to save the Union and do away with slavery without a conflict, wrote The Lost Occasion, in which he lamented the too early death of the great orator:—

 "Some die too late and some too soon,  At early morning, heat of noon,  Or the chill evening twilight. Thou,  Whom the rich heavens did so endow  With eyes of power and Jove's own brow,  * * * * *  Too soon for us, too soon for thee,  Beside thy lonely Northern sea,  Where long and low the marsh-lands spread,  Laid wearily down thy august head."

      Whittier is emphatically the poet of New England. His verses which will live the longest are those which spring directly from its soil. His poem entitled The Barefoot Boy tells how the typical New England farmer's lad acquired:—

 "Knowledge never learned of schools,  Of the wild bee's morning chase,  Of the wild flower's time and place, Flight of fowl and habitude  Of the tenants of the wood."

      His greatest poem, the one by which he will probably be chiefly known to posterity, is Snow-Bound, which describes the life of a rural New England household. At the beginning of this poem of 735 lines, the coming of the all-enveloping snowstorm, with its "ghostly finger tips of sleet" on the window-panes, is the central event, but we soon realize that this storm merely serves to focus intensely the New England life with which he was familiar. The household is shut in from the outside world by the snow, and there is nothing else to distract the attention from the picture of isolated Puritan life. There is not another poet in America who has produced such a masterpiece under such limitations. One prose writer, Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, had indeed taken even more unpromising materials and achieved one of the greatest successes in English romance, but in this special narrow field Whittier has not yet been surpassed by poets. The sense of isolation and what painters would call "the atmosphere" are conveyed in lines like these:—

 "Shut in from all the world without,  We sat the clean-winged hearth about,  Content to let the north wind roar  In baffled rage at pane and door,  While the red logs before us beat  The frost line back with tropic heat;  And ever when a louder blast  Shook beam and rafter as it passed,  The merrier up its roaring draught  The great throat of the chimney laughed."

      In such a focus he shows the life of the household; the mother, who often left her home to attend sick neighbors, now:—

 "… seeking to express  Her grateful sense of happiness  For food and shelter, warmth and health,  And love's contentment, more than wealth,"  the uncle:— "… innocent of books,  Was rich in lore of fields and brooks,  * * * * * A simple, guileless, childlike man, Strong only on his native grounds, The little world of sights and sounds Whose girdle was the parish bounds," the aunt, who:— "Found peace in love's unselfishness," the sister:— "A full rich nature, free to trust, Truthful and even sternly just, Impulsive, earnest, prompt to act, And make her generous thought a fact, Keeping with many a light disguise The secret of self-sacrifice."

      Some read Snow-Bound for its pictures of nature and some for its still more remarkable portraits of the members of that household. This poem has achieved for the New England fireside what Burns accomplished for the hearths of Scotland in The Cotter's Saturday Night.

      Whittier wrote many fine short lyrical poems, such as Ichabod, The Lost Occasion, My Playmate (which was Tennyson's favorite), In School Days, Memories, My Triumph, Telling the Bees, The Eternal Goodness, and the second part of A Sea Dream. His narrative poems and ballads are second only to Longfellow's. Maud Muller, Skipper Iresons Ride, Cassandra Southwick, Barbara Frietchie, and Mabel Martin are among the best of these.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS—Whittier and Longfellow resemble each other in simplicity. Both are the poets of the masses, of those whose lives most need the consolation of poetry. Both suffer from diffuseness, Whittier in his greatest poems less than Longfellow. Whittier was self-educated, and he never traveled far from home. His range is narrower than Longfellow's, who was college bred and broadened by European travel. But if Whittier's poetic range is narrower, if he is the poet of only the common things of life, he shows more intensity of feeling. Often his simplest verse comes from the depths of his heart. He wrote In School Days forty years after the grass had been growing on the grave of the little girl who spelled correctly the word which the boy had missed:—

 "'I'm sorry that I spelt the word: I hate to go above you, Because,'—the brown eyes lower fell,— 'Because you see, I love you!'  * * * * * "He lives to learn, in life's hard school, How few who pass above him Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her,—because they love him."

      Whittier's simplicity, genuineness, and sympathetic heart stand revealed in those lines.

      His youthful work shows traces of the influence of many poets, but he learned most from Robert Burns. Whittier himself says that it was Burns who taught him to see

 "… through all familiar things The romance underlying," and especially to note that "Through all his tuneful art, how strong  The human feeling gushes!"

      The critics have found three indictments against Whittier; first, for the unequal value of his poetry; second, for its loose rhymes; and third, for too much moralizing. He would probably plead guilty to all of these indictments. His tendency to moralize is certainly excessive, but critics have too frequently forgotten that this very moralizing draws him closer to the heart of suffering humanity. There are times when the majority of human beings feel the need of the consolation which he brings in his religious verse and in such lines as these from Snow-Bound:—

 "Alas for him who never sees  The stars shine through his cypress trees  Who, hopeless, lays his dead away,  Nor looks to see the breaking day  Across the mournful marbles play!  Who hath not learned, in hours of faith,  The truth to flesh and sense unknown,  That Life is ever lord of Death  And Love can never lose its own!"

      He strives to impress on all the duty of keeping the windows of the heart open to the day and of "finding peace in love's unselfishness."

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