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In the long struggle to abolish slavery, the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier played an important role. Whittier knew that much of the poetry he had written for the anti-slavery movement had been hastily composed and for purely political reasons, but there is in his collected poetry a core of excellent work, at the head of which stands his masterpiece, “Snow-Bound,” a lovingly imaginative re-creation of the good life in rural New England.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Discovering Journalism and Politics
Whittier’s youth was deeply rooted in the values, history, and traditions of rural Essex County, Massachusetts. Born in 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Whittier lived in a farmhouse that his great-great-grandfather had built in the seventeenth century. Whittier grew up in a poor but respectable household characterized by hard work and warm family affection. The Whittiers were also devout Quakers, a Christian religious sect devoted to simplicity in their everyday lives and their religious worship. The Essex County area was rich with folklore; tales of witches and ghosts told on winter evenings by the fire exercised the young Whittier’s imagination, but it was his discovery of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, who could speak the beauty of the commonplace circumstances ofa rural environment, that made him wish to be a poet.
In 1829, at the age of twenty-two, Whittier accepted the editorship of the American Manufacturer, a political weekly in Boston. This position had been secured for him by William Lloyd Garrison, himself a young newspaper editor who was just then beginning his long career as a reformer. Whittier entered journalism for the opportunity to write; what he learned from the experience, however, was politics.
In February 1831, while at Hartford, Whittier published a collection of tales and poems entitled Legends of New-England. Although the volume received little attention at the time, it is significant as a pioneering effort to define New England folklore. Whittier was never entirely comfortable with the melodramatic style, however, and suppressed the book in later life. On one occasion, he paid five dollars for the privilege of destroying a copy of this rare early volume.
Choosing the Path of Abolition
Toward the end of 1831, Whittier retired in ill health to Haverhill and spent the winter recuperating. He knew that he was at a crossroads in his life and wished to settle, finally, on a career. Poetry hardly paid at all, but he had come to like politics and found that his editorials had made him a popular man in Massachusetts. His friend and patron, William Lloyd Garrison, who had begun publishing his Liberator two years before, wrote to Whittier urging him to enlist in the gathering struggle against slavery. Whittier knew that to enlist in this cause, unpopular as it then was in New England, would be tantamount to giving up all hope of gaining elected office. Still, Whittier had been slowly coming to the very conclusion that Garrison now sought to force on him—that the evil of slavery had to be resisted actively.
Whittier took up the cause of abolition and was able, in 1835, to gain a seat in the state legislature from his small home district of Haverhill. There, he was an effective spokesman for his cause, winning over many to his views on the slavery question, sending petitions to the Congress, trying to get a bill through the state house granting trial by jury in cases involving the return of runaway slaves, and even organizing opposition to the death penalty. He continued all the while to express his abolitionism in poems published in Garrison’s Liberator and in the editorial columns of the Gazette, but opposition to his moral stand was mounting. He was forced out of the Gazette and was threatened with violence in September 1835 by a mob in Concord, New Hampshire. In 1838, Whittier moved to Philadelphia to edit the Pennsylvania Freeman, which he succeeded in turning into a vigorous tool of the abolitionist movement. Although politics had become the central focus of Whittier’s life, his boyhood love of poetry had not abated.
The Political Poet
In 1838, Whittier’s first authorized collection of poetry, called Poems, which was published in Philadelphia. Included in this collection is some of his most heartfelt arguments, such as ”Clerical Oppressors,” a poem attacking the hypocrisy of the Southern clergy in lending the support of Christianity to the slave system. In such poems as ”Stanzas,” Whittier noted the irony of America’s apparent commitment to slavery in light of its historic dedication to freedom.
Though he remained politically active, the publication in 1843 of Lays of My Home marked his return to the poetic treatment of regional materials. Included in this collection are ”The Merrimack,” which treats the local scenery with the touch of the pastoral landscape artist; ”The Ballad of Cassandra Southwick,” which explores New England history; and ”The Funeral Tree of the Sokokis,” which is based on Indian lore. The near relation of Whittier’s regional and abolitionist poetry is indicated, not only in the consistent advocacy of tolerance and brotherhood in the regional poems, but also in the appeal to New England pride that so often forms the basis of his anti-slavery expressions. The finest poem of this sort, ”Massachusetts to Virginia,” makes its appearance in this volume. After the overwhelming enthusiasm of the 1830s had dissipated in division and anger within the anti-slavery ranks, Whittier was able, during the next two decades, to maintain a healthier, more mature balance between his commitments to poetry and reform.
The Lyrical Abolitionist
In 1846, Whittier published his last collection of anti-slavery poems, Voices of Freedom, and in 1847, brought out a collection of prose sketches entitled The Supernaturalism of New England.
The decade of the 1850s opened with a shock. On the seventh of March 1850, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster affirmed his support of compromise with the Southern slave power. Whittier, shocked and saddened by the unexpected defection of this former reformer, responded with his powerful protest poem “Ichabod.” Whittier’s books of poetry were appearing at fairly regular intervals, but sales continued to be moderate at best. In 1850, Songs of Labor, and Other Poems appeared and included not only “Ichabod,” but also ”Calef at Boston,” ”On Receiving a Quilland the series of occupational poems that gives the volume its title. Two more volumes of poetry followed by 1856.
From the Political to the Personal
An important turn in Whittier’s career occurred in 1857. The founding of the Atlantic Monthly in that year gave him a forum where he appeared regularly with all the most prominent writers of New England. His contributions to the earliest issues were better poems than he had ever written. The poetry of this period shows Whittier’s increasing disengagement from broadly political issues. His attention was turning more and more to his own personal past, as shown in the nostalgic, quasi-autobiographical poems ”Telling the Bees” and ”My Playmate”; he was also increasingly drawn to the larger, but still personal past, of New England history, as shown in the many fine ballads that he wrote at this time, including ”Skipper Ireson’s Ride,” ”The Garrison of Cape Ann,” and ”The Swan Song of Parson Avery.” All of these poems were first collected in Home Ballads and Poems, published in 1860. One of the volume’s very few hints that a civil war was coming was the poem Whittier wrote in response to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, ”Brown of Ossawatomie.”
Whittier’s Quaker pacifism did not prevent him from being an ardent supporter of the Union cause when the American Civil War broke out. He admired Abraham Lincoln and was particularly proud of having voted for him four times, as a citizen and as an elector in 1860 and 1864. He wrote a number of patriotic poems during the war, of which ”Barbara Frietchie” is certainly the most famous. In War Time and Other Poems, published in November 1863, contained several better examples of Whittier’s public poetry, in addition to several more ”home ballads.” This volume was reissued in 1865 under the title, National Lyrics, and included ”Laus Deo,” in which Whittier joyously recorded the death-knell of slavery, the moment for which so much of his career had been a preparation.
With the war over and slavery outlawed, a part of Whittier’s public life came to a close. Whittier’s whole mood was retrospective as he set to work on ”Snow-Bound,” his masterpiece, published in February 1866. The poem recalls a winter storm at the old Whittier homestead when the poet was a child. A day and a night of driving snow had transformed everything, and the threat of isolation, of freezing or starving, is countered by the family at the wood fire on the hearth, the warmth of which is a symbol of life and family affection. The poem was Whittier’s first genuine commercial success, as well as his most complete artistic success. He earned $10,000 from the sale of the first edition and was never to want for money again.
The Tent on the Beach and Other Poems, which followed a year later, continued the success. ”The Wreck of the Rivermouth,” ”The Changeling,” and ”Abraham Davenport”—all first collected in this volume—show Whittier’s abiding fondness for legendary and historical New England material, while ”The Eternal Goodness” and ”Our Master” indicate the new importance, which the liberal religious tradition of the Quakers was coming to assume, in his later poetry.
The remainder of the poet’s long life was spent quietly and uneventfully in Amesbury and, after 1876, in a spacious home in Danvers, Massachusetts. He continued to write, almost up to the time of his death. Whittier’s last book of poems, At Sundown, was privately printed in 1890 for close friends and was reissued for the public, with additions, at about the time of the poet’s death on September 7, 1892. Whittier’s reputation was never higher than at the time of his death. For years his birthdays had virtually been public holidays and were marked by celebrations throughout New England and the West. Whittier was essentially a public poet, a poet speaking to a large segment of the American people.
Works in Literary Context
In the nineteenth century, members of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement made a considerable cultural, political, and social impact through the literature they published. Abolitionist literature spanned the forms of poetry, autobiography, literary fiction, and essay. While the literary movement achieved prominence during the nineteenth century, its roots can be traced back to the previous century during the Age of Enlightenment, the era in which human rights issues arose. The seeds of anti-slavery sentiments can be found sporadically in certain examples of English poetry and literature of the late 1700s, such as Thomas Chatter-ton’s poems, the African Eclogues (1770). The most memorable, influential, and focused examples of abolitionist literature would arise during the nineteenth century in America, as former slaves, such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth provided harrowing, but literate, first-person accounts of their own experiences as slaves. White abolitionists, such as Whittier, expressed their anti-slavery stance in poetry and prose at this time.
As the term applies to literature and poetry, a “pastoral” is a work concerned with rural subject matter, which is often romanticized to an almost fantastical degree. The pastoral poem dates back to the ancient Greek poet Theocritus, whose poems were structured as dialogues between animal herders. The folksy simplicity and celebration of farm-life present in Theocritus’s poems inspired other poets of the period to mimic his style, and a longstanding poetic genre was born. However, the first English-language pastoral would not appear until the early sixteenth century when the Scottish poet Alexander Barclay composed his Eclogues. For the next two hundred years, the pastoral was a tradition in English-language poetry. As a formal genre, the pastoral came to an end in the early eighteenth century, around the time Alexander Pope wrote his Pastorals (1709). Afterward, the pastoral persisted informally, but elements of the genre were still strongly felt in such works as Whittier’s “Snow-Bound.”
Works in Critical Context
Voices of Freedom
A collection of Whittier’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, Voices of Freedom (1846) was typically judged by its political content as much as its poetic content. William J. Long writes in his book Outlines of English and American Literature (1917) that the collection represents Whittier as ”no longer an echo but a voice, a man’s voice, shouting above a tumult,” but said of the poems contained therein that, ”it was inevitable that his reform lyrics should fall into neglect with the occasions that called them forth. They are interesting now not as poems but as sidelights on a
critical period of our history.” Regardless of this ”inevitability,” Long comments that ”[t]here is a fine swinging rhythm in these poems” and more provocatively that ”[i]f words could kill a man, these surely are the words.” He also reserves special praise for the Daniel Webster-attacking ”Ichabod,” describing it as ”the most powerful poem of its kind in our language” though also ”fearfully unjust to Webster.”
Still remembered as Whittier’s finest poem, the pastoral ”Snow-Bound” continues to stir poetry lovers. At the time of its publication, an assessment in The North American Review stated that the work was ”a very real and very refined pleasure. It is true to nature and local coloring, pure in sentiment, quietly deep in feeling, and full of those simple touches that show the poetic eye and the trained hand.” William J. Long describes the poem as a ”masterpiece” and suggests that the ”beautiful idyl placed him in the front rank of American poets.” The poem’s simplicity, grace, and sublime evocativeness have endured through the ages. In 2003, Linda Sue Grimes wrote in American Poetry, ”The charm of the poem captivates the reader and shows the beauty that Whittier was able to relate.”
- Bennet, Whitman. Whittier: Bard of Freedom. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.
- Carpenter, George Rice. John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903.
- Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Macmillan, 1902.
- Long, William Joseph. Outlines of English and American Literature. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1917.
- Mordell, Albert. Quaker Militant: John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1933.
- Pollard, John A. John Greenleaf Whittier: Friend of Man. Boston, Mass: Houghton, Mifflin, 1949.
- Grimes, Linda Sue. Snow-Bound.” American Poetry (March 31, 2003).
- Hall, Donald. ‘ ‘Whittier.” Texas Quarterly 3 (Autumn 1960): 165-174.
- Whittier’s Snow-Bound.” The North American Review (April 1866): 631-632.
- org. John Green leaf Whittier. Accessed December 5, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/ prmPID/720.
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